Real Estate

‘Fundamental Shift’ to Digital in Real Estate Is Not Going Away

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The coronavirus pandemic has in many ways transformed how real estate deals get done, and successful agents will be those who get on board with an increasingly digital transaction, according to panelists at Inman Connect on Wednesday.

In a session called “The Future of Broker and Agent Data,” Errol Samuelson, chief industry development officer at Zillow, and Chris Heller, chief real estate officer at OJO Labs, spoke with moderator Sam DeBord, CEO of the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) about what agents should be prioritizing in their thinking going forward.

Heller advised attendees to focus on the tools they choose to use and those that will help them make new relationships.

“The key point is focusing,” Heller said. “There are so many different options we have as agents and brokers. So many different platforms, so many different technologies, so many choices of marketing platform, of CRM, of brokerage, of a model, all those things. Agents need to put the blinders on as best they can and focus. We want to make sure that we are daily doing things to come in contact and make new relationships,” like building up a database and personal relationships.

Companies like Zillow and OJO can help introduce agents to new customers to build relationships, but agents should also endeavor to deepen relationships with consumers, according to Heller.

“[Consumers] are being presented with more and more offers of ways of being able to buy, sell, search, do everything they want in real estate,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon the agent to make sure that they have a very deep relationship with that consumer so they’re part of that decision process, so they’re part of the future plans of those consumers.”

He added, “Regardless of which shiny object you’re going to use and implement in your business, you want to make sure that you are, on a daily basis, either aligning yourself with a company, a platform or a product that’s going to help you meet more consumers, and then having the tools — and most of them are tech-driven — to be able to deepen those relationships that you have with those consumers.”

Samuelson said he thought most successful agents already have core tech tools that they use, such as a CRM, but he emphasized two themes for agents to focus on.

“The first is this notion that post-pandemic things are not going to snap back to the way they were,” Samuelson said. “Consumers want to have things happen virtually and remotely.”

For instance, he said remote online notarization (RON) and consumers wanting a 3D tour of a home is not going away. Pre-pandemic, fewer than half of consumers said that they thought that 3D home tours gave them a better feel for a home than regular listing photos, but now two-thirds of consumers say they want a 3D tour, he said.

Our 3D tours actually changed the way the market works,” Samuelson said. “We found that, on average, homes with 3D tours sell 10 percent faster than homes that just have photos.”

Agents should think really hard about what they can digitize, according to Samuelson.

“There is, I think, a fundamental shift in the way that consumers interact with real estate and that’s not going away,” he said.

“The second thing I would do is think about how to remove friction,” he continued. “There’s still a lot of friction in the real estate industry. Anything I can do to reduce the number of decisions a consumer has to make, reduce the number of steps they have to take, is going to be a key to success.”

In that same vein, he said the industry needs to do a better job around data standardization. Zillow recently shifted its website so that its listing sources are Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feeds from MLSs the company has joined as a broker member.

“Any large broker knows this: If you go and join 15 MLSs or 200, the fact is that every single MLS has different IDX rules, has slightly different data standards. It creates a huge barrier to innovation,” Samuelson said. “If you’re a small vendor, trying to offer an innovative product to agents, and every single MLS has slightly different data standards, it’s a mess.”

“It’s long overdue for this industry to get our act together when it comes to data standards,” he added.

RESO’s DeBord said he appreciated the comment and was looking forward to collaborating with the brokerage and tech vendor communities on standardization.

“Agents and brokers are the net beneficiaries of that work, so at the end of the day, we’re looking for efficiency, and for the focus for the agents,” said DeBord, adding that RESO’s goal is similar to the tech companies in that they want to make the transaction process simpler, so agents can focus on relationships.

Ben Rubenstein | Photo credit:

In a separate, sponsored session on Wednesday called “Digital Closings for Local Real Estate,” Ben Rubenstein, chief revenue officer of, noted that before the pandemic there had been movement toward digital closings, but that social distancing and people not feeling comfortable going to title companies had accelerated that movement significantly.

“COVID let the genie out of the bottle on this one,” Rubenstein said. “It’s not going back. People aren’t going to say, ‘Well, back in COVID I used to close digitally, but now I’m going to go do it the old-fashioned way.’”

Because more digital transactions are happening, that’s changing consumer expectations “meaningfully,” according to Nate Baker, CEO of digital closing company Qualia. Qualia and have recently teamed up.

Nate Baker

“It’s a completely different mindset that the consumer comes to the transaction with,” Baker said. “They’re expecting the Amazon checkout experience. They’re expecting it to be nice and simple and easy. This kind of move toward all-in-one, end-to-end, really easy consumer experiences is delivering that and is certainly here to stay.

“We’re seeing more adoption on the seller side in terms of people who are fully digital and really want that immediately. I think before the end of the year, there will be extremely high adoption levels, and it’s going to be interesting to watch how the lender community moves forward with all this, but I think it’s coming very quickly.”

Agents today can set themselves apart from the competition by doing what other agents don’t: a fully digital closing, remote notarization, and a tech-driven seamless experience, according to Rubenstein.

“I think that’s today,” he said. “The future is that you’re not gonna have a choice as an agent. It’s gonna be table stakes. It’s kind of like when Amazon started two-day delivery. That was this really big thing. Now my expectations are my packages should come in two days, and other people are gonna have to hurry up and get their shipping in order to be able to do that.

“Early adopters have been doing this for some time,” Rubenstein added. “But I think it’s going to be how the entire industry closes in the future.”

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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