Editor’s Note: This is the cover story in the October 2020 issue of RISMedia’s Real Estate magazine. Subscribe today.
When a crisis hits, you’re forced to react quickly. That’s when what you’re made of really shows. And that’s why Homes.com found itself more prepared than most for a situation no one anticipated.
Guided by its number 1 core value, “Humanity,” and its commitment to trust at all levels, Homes.com knew to put people first when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. full force in March. Instead of an all-out pivot, Homes.com was able to lean into a belief system and company culture that was already well established.
Humanity Starts at Home
While many companies establish core values, not all live and breathe them. At Homes.com, however, core values are paramount to everything the company does. It’s no surprise then that Homes.com’s internal response to the pandemic aligned with its commitment to prioritize humanity.
“When COVID began, it became clear to us that our workplace model needed to shift—40 percent of our workforce needed equipment in order to be productive from home,” says Homes.com President David Mele. “We accomplished that within 10 days.”
Once employees were operationally prepared to work from home, Homes.com launched the #WorkFromHomes initiative, a program that features daily email or video updates, informational posts on internal Facebook groups, and an ongoing series of virtual training—covering everything from effectively working from home, to managing teams virtually, to juggling kids while working, to health and well-being sessions.
“We knew with our focus on culture and humanity, that if we could invest in a program to keep the lines of communication open and our employees informed, we would come out of this and into the new normal with a workforce that was super engaged, really cared for, fired up and ready to be more productive than ever,” says Homes.com Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales Erin Ruane.
“The end result,” says Mele, “is that our team is thriving and more productive than ever. It starts with the philosophy of always putting people first. You have to live your values.”
“We put our employees first,” agrees Ruane. “We gave them confidence and instilled trust, which allowed them to better focus on our clients. They felt very motivated to bend over backwards to serve customers. We’ve seen that service level pay off in our higher online review scores. We even won a Stevie Award for ‘Great Employers’ for our COVID response.”
Homes.com has also demonstrated its commitment to putting humanity first through its response to the escalating social unrest of 2020.
“With our first core value being Humanity, we knew we had to do something to make a difference,” says Mele. “As a leadership team, we listened to our employees, the industry and consumers. We worked hard to be there for our team members and support them in whatever way they needed. We also launched a Community Action Day—a paid day off for employees to volunteer in their communities to make a difference.”
But Mele knew Homes.com needed to take the conversation even further. “We wanted to do more in the industry to create a dialog around racial discrimination and fair housing,” he explains. The company launched an internal fair housing workgroup with the goal of increasing consumer resources, such as educational content, and awareness and advocacy across the real estate industry.
To that end, Homes.com leveraged its Secrets of Top-Selling Agents webinar series (see sidebar) to start conversations on racial issues across the industry. In early August, top agents and real estate leaders participated in the webinar, “Racism in Real Estate—How You Can Make a Difference.” According to Mele, “Attendance and engagement were fantastic.”
An Industry-First Approach
Homes.com has worked hard to establish itself as a “friend to the real estate industry,” and this role took on new significance in the face of the coronavirus.
“When the pandemic hit, we knew the industry needed a partner it could trust, a partner without ulterior motives,” says Mele. “We’ve always been about connecting highly qualified consumers with real estate professionals, so we quickly went to work on doing that in a safe and secure environment.”
Around March 15, as an increasing swath of the country moved into lockdown, Homes.com went into action, explains Ruane. “We asked ourselves, ‘What will real estate professionals need from us during this time? How can we provide education and comfort, and increase the level of trust real estate professionals already have in us?’ We quickly pivoted and leaned into our core values even more.”
With the mission in place, Homes.com’s product and development teams rapidly launched new virtual features allowing real estate professionals to safely and effectively connect with consumers.
“We knew that an in-person experience between homebuyers and sellers and real estate professionals wasn’t going to happen for a while,” says Mele. “So we partnered with more than 600 MLSs and national franchise networks, and top virtual tour providers, to provide virtual tours on more than 600,000 listings. We made the virtual tour the main image on each listing—all you have to do is click on it.”
Homes.com also added a “Request a Video Tour”—otherwise known as a “virtual showing”—to all listing detail pages, as well as an ability to live stream virtual open houses.
“There was an amazingly quick effort to get RESO involved with developing standards to manage the entry of open houses and manage the distribution of that data downstream,” says Homes.com Senior Vice President of Industry Development Andy Woolley. “Within four weeks, all the major MLSs were publishing virtual open house data and started delivering that data to us.”
“In partnership with over 100 MLSs, ‘Live Stream Virtual Open Houses’ now automatically feed directly to Homes.com, or can be manually posted on all listings via the Homes.com dashboard,” explains Mele. “One of the silver linings of this crisis is that homebuyers and sellers and agents are seeing how efficient virtual options can be. I think these strategies are here to stay.”
In addition to equipping real estate professionals with the right tools to navigate the crisis, Homes.com also made sure they were sent the right message. “We knew real estate professionals were challenged from a sales perspective, so we shifted our message from a sales approach to value creation,” says Ruane. “We put together videos with a diverse group of employees saying, ‘We get it, times are tough; we’re here for you whether you need us now or later. We’re here to help when and if you’re ready.’ This showcased our employees and our humanity to let the industry know we’re in this together.”
Focused on Connecting Consumers
Driving Homes.com’s efforts to put forth innovative virtual options is its commitment to build technology that forges connections between real estate professionals and consumers. Two years ago, the “reimagined” Homes.com website was launched, offering consumers a smarter way to search for homes, including by street name, neighborhood and school zones. This year, Homes.com has taken that mission even further… before ever knowing a pandemic would send online real estate search skyrocketing.
“Over the past year, we made some significant upgrades to Homes.com, particularly as it relates to putting agents front and center,” says Mele.
For example, an overhaul to the Homes.com Agent Profile page now prominently advertises an agent on all of their listings, along with their brokerage logo, biography and links to their website and social media accounts. The enhancement also includes a free lead and contact management system to help agents convert leads into active customers. And, for Homes.com’s MLS partner members, a free monthly consumer newsletter and an email marketing system are also available.
Also released in September was a new “Find Agent” search, allowing consumers to access the most active agents in their area. The search-by-name functionality gives priority sorting for agents with active, updated profiles. As Mele says, “We’ve made it easier for consumers to find highly engaged agents. And, as always, listing agents on Homes.com get their leads without having to advertise on Homes.com. Your listing, your lead.”
To help agents maximize leads in a virtual environment as the market continues to ramp up, Homes.com’s marketing products, such as Local Connect and Lead Concierge, have taken on new significance. Once again, connection is the goal.
“It’s all about putting the right real estate professional in front of the consumer at the moment the consumer is ready with a question or ready to see a property,” Ruane explains. “That’s always been an important value proposition, but even more so now that the consumer is relying heavily on online technology and expects a rapid response.”
Trusted Partnerships Throughout the Industry
Homes.com is able to take a leadership position on such critical issues thanks to the trusted industry partnerships it has forged.
Woolley, for example, sits on the Council of Multiple Listing Services (CMLS) Board of Directors as a business partner director, an esteemed honor. And Homes.com boasts some of the most prominent MLS operators in the industry among its enterprise partners, including CRMLS, Arizona Regional MLS, MyFlorida Regional, REcolorado, Georgia MLS, UtahRealEstate.com and Bright MLS.
As it has for all industry verticals, the pandemic also presented challenges in the MLS arena. Not surprisingly, Homes.com quickly showed its strength as a partner.
“Internally at Homes.com, we’re heavily focused on partner development, and a lot of that is done through conferences, events and travel,” explains Woolley. “So we had to change our approach. We picked up the phone and focused on helping everyone in our partner network with whatever they needed.”
To that end, Homes.com developed webinars and podcasts that were promoted by MLS partners. “There were weeks when we did 15 – 20 webinars,” says Woolley. “We retooled the training and covered topics like how to deal with clients when you can’t meet them in person and offered tactics to work with them digitally. Normally, working with our MLS partners is about getting members’ data onto Homes.com. With the pandemic, it was just about being a good citizen and helping people through this.”
It is this level of industry partnership that helps ensure that the Homes.com engine runs on quality data—information consumers can trust. With over 3 million active listings displayed on Homes.com, and almost 80 percent of those sourced directly from MLSs and national franchise partners, Homes.com is able to deliver reliable and accurate listing data. Thanks to Direct Listing Feeds for enterprise partners, an MLS can establish a direct feed to Homes.com, giving brokers more control over their listings, which increases data quality and delivers leads faster and with greater accuracy.
And with a persistent inventory shortage, accurate data is more important than ever.
“Some markets around the country have inventory down 20 percent year-over-year,” says Woolley. “Consumers seem to be less inclined to sit on the sidelines and have become more active, searching daily, hourly. Because of that, timely updates on data are more critical than ever.”
People Will Guide the Path Forward
As Homes.com joins the industry in moving forward in an uncharted future, the team will continue to put its focus on people first.
For example, to help real estate professionals address the rapidly changing needs of consumers, Homes.com recently conducted a consumer survey. The encouraging findings include:
• 80 percent of survey respondents reported that their home-buying budgets had either remained the same or increased since the start of the pandemic
• 44 percent plan to purchase before the end of the year
• Over half of respondents planning to purchase a home before the end of the year have used virtual tours in their search
“Our consumer surveys helped us glean valuable insights that we were able to share with real estate professionals,” says Ruane. “This is what consumers are saying, this is how they want to be serviced, these are their expectations from you.”
People will also be the guiding principle as Homes.com makes decisions about its operation path forward. “We have learned a lot, and we are exceeding our expectations,” says Mele of his team’s journey through the coronavirus crisis. “Our throughput for development projects is even better than before. We’re even more efficient with our work-from-home model, so we’re going to continue to look for ways to make this a primary model where we can.”
As for the future state of the real estate business, Mele feels the outlook is strong. “We have some external factors that are keeping buyer demand high,” he says. “Low interest rates are fueling demand, not to mention the migration that’s been created because you can now work from anywhere. Traffic at Homes.com is up year-over-year in the 30 percent range. I don’t think this is short-term…I think it’s long-term and that this will play out over several years.
“This is good news for agents and brokers, and our role is to continue to be that trusted partner to make the connection.”