“The New Normal” is a multistory Inman series exploring what’s returning to normal after the pandemic fades and what will never be the same. Check back tomorrow for a new installment and join us June 15-17 when we take the conversation live at Inman Connect.
When Suzanne DesMarais started her real estate career a couple of decades ago, listings were pretty minimal.
“It would be like a horrible photo of the front,” DesMarais, a Compass agent in Washington, D.C. said with a laugh. “Literally they’d send some guy around with a digital camera and he’d take one shot of the front of the property.”
But fast forward to today, and everything has changed.
“I print nothing out,” DesMarais told Inman. “There’s a lot of social media. It’s very visual.”
Agents who have been in real estate for a decade or two can probably relate. Though modern real estate listings in general have existed for over a century now, the last couple of decades have seen them evolve at a dizzying rate.
To understand what exactly has happened, and what a listing even is now, Inman reached out to agents and industry leaders. And the takeaway from those conversations is twofold: First, and most obviously, listings are now vastly more expansive than ever before. There is more imagery, more interactivity, more data — more everything.
But, second and more significantly, the new normal isn’t necessarily a particular feature. Instead, it’s the ever-accelerating pace of evolution. The new normal, in other words, is change itself.
Listings as blurbs in print
The real estate industry as we know it today began coalescing in the early 20th century. The first event resembling a modern open house appears to have taken place in 1910, the term “Realtor” dates back to 1916, and real estate licensing regulations entered the scene in 1919.
Listings existed during the years and decades that followed, but a National Association of Realtors spokesperson told Inman that most people would have accessed those listings either through their agent or via a newspaper ad.
Those conditions continued for decades. An image NAR provided to Inman, for example, shows a listing from the 1960s. It includes a single black and white photo and a description with three sentence fragments.
Many agents working today remember when this was still more or less the way listings worked. DesMarais is one of them, and said that even in the early 2000s she couldn’t email her listings to anyone and in order to spread the word she had to pay for print ads.
“I would have to spend hundreds of dollars each weekend if I had a lot of listings,” she recalled.
Andrea Geller, a Chicago-based agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, started her career in 1999 and remembers something similar.
“Newspaper ads were everything,” she recently told Inman. “At that time I was with Coldwell Banker and it was similar to the other major brokerages in the market, where they would all have a page, maybe two.”
The point here is not to rehash the entire history of the real estate industry, but rather to point out that there was an “old normal” that existed for a very, very long time. And that old normal continued until relatively recently.
The age of evolution
So when and why did listings begin evolving so quickly?
Eric Stegemann, CEO of real estate technology company Tribus, told Inman the change seems to have started in the mid 2000s.
“It started with IDX, when IDX was first implemented brokers would share listings,” he explained, adding that IDX came about in the years after the turn of the millennium and was followed by advancements in things like Google Maps — which also ended up becoming part of listings. “That pushed brokers and franchises to show more on their own sites.”
Stegemann also pointed to Zillow, which was founded in 2004, as a pivotal moment. The key, he explained, was that Zillow had the resources to “pay for these giant data sets that nobody could afford before that.” And having the resources to bring together all sorts of property data — on things like schools and neighborhoods and tax histories — pushed the frontier on what actually constituted a listing.
Redfin emerged in this same period. The company was also founded in 2004, and like Zillow, is today best known among consumers for its portal. But Bridget Frey, Redfin’s chief technology officer, told Inman that in the early days the company managed to be the first to take MLS data and put it online for consumers.
As data subsequently became more affordable, the revolution that began with Zillow and Redfin and IDX spread, making features that were novel 10 or 15 years ago standard today.
DesMarais watched this evolution in real time.
“Post recession,” DesMarais said when asked when she started to see a major shift in the way agents handled listings. “That’s when I think professional photography very much became the norm.”
DesMarais also provided Inman with two listings: Her first one, from 2001, and a current listing in the same neighborhood. The 2001 listing includes a single, low-resolution photo and essentially no description beyond the MLS’s basic information fields. On the on other hand, the current listings includes 94 professional photos and a description that sells a lifestyle as much as a house.
“It is the perfect spot to host your 4th of July fireworks watch party, or to unwind on a regular weekday evening enjoying the breathtaking sunset views,” the listing states. “The owner’s suite is a serene retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
Today’s table stakes
DesMarais’ two properties highlight the most obvious way that listings have changed over the last two decades: Media has become much more sophisticated. Stegemann, for example, described things like an abundance of professional images as “table stakes,” saying that they’re a basic and absolute must for listings today — even if they were something of an afterthought decades ago.
“Showing any media that you possibly can, it’s the absolute must,” he argued.
The trend toward more and better media has been well on its way for years, but also picked up steam during the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to social distancing mandates, many consumers were no longer able to tour homes in person, which made features like 3D tours de rigueur in many markets.
“What we’ve been doing over the last couple of years,” Frey said of Redfin’s efforts, “is trying to virtualize the home. And that’s something that really accelerated during the pandemic.”
Anyone who has been watching real estate lately is probably aware of the rising standards for digital real estate media, but it’s worth noting that today’s “table stakes” don’t stop there. For example, Frey explained how Redfin has also added interactivity to the company’s site; not only can consumers “like” and save properties, they can also reach out to request a tour of a home with the click of a button — a feature that has proven exceedingly popular for the company.
“That instantaneous ability to confirm a tour is really magical,” she said.
Not every real estate website functions the same way as Redfin, but interactivity has effectively become standard, with options to save and share listings, as well as to communicate with agents, popping up on real estate websites both large and small.
An array of new data sets are also standard inclusions. In 2014, for instance, Redfin acquired Walk Score, which ranks properties according to how close they are to amenities. Today, every property that appears on Redfin also includes a “neighborhood info” subsection that displays Walk Scores, as well as information on nearby transit and biking options. And in a testament to how appealing this kind of data is, Redfin rival Zillow also includes Walk Scores on its listings.
Other standard features in today’s listings include tax history data, maps that allows users to see Google Street View, and automated valuation models (AVMs) such as the Zestimente or Redfin Estimate that attempt to show a home’s worth. In truth, there are more features than can be realistically documented here, because the list is constantly being updated.
The big portals obviously played a major role in pioneering these shifts, but the changes are ubiquitous now. Case in point: When DesMarais sent Inman her current listing, she sent a link to an MLS page. But the page includes a mortgage calculator, contact options for lenders, an interactive map and many other features.
How the evolution happens
While all the features that listings now include have been a boon to consumers, the more important point is how all these features make their way onto a webpage. And that process includes a vast amount of research.
For example, Frey said that a couple of years ago, Redfin began including data on homes’ energy usage in listings. But if you go to Redfin today, that information isn’t there.
“We didn’t find that people engaged with that feature,” Frey said. “So that might be something that comes back in the future.”
The episode highlights the state of flux listings exist in today; it’s not that they do or do not have energy data, but rather that such data comes and goes depending on the way consumers respond to it.
Another example: Over at Tribus, the technology team has conducted thousands of consumer tests to see what people gravitate to on a listing page. Katie Ragusa, the company’s vice president of product, told Inman the research includes A-B testing and heat maps of Tribus’ own site, as well as video recorded examinations of how consumers use real estate apps.
The testing has revealed an array of insights. For instance, Ragusa said consumers love being able to share listings via tools such as iMessenger, but hate when they’re forced to log in to a particular site.
The Tribus team also learned consumers gravitate to mortgage calculators — it was the third-best performing feature, after photos and the property description.
“That was a big surprise,” Ragusa said. “It performed better than anything that was a lead capture. It wasn’t just the number of interactions that were high, it was that the time on page would significantly increase because there was something for them to do on that form.”
The takeaway from all of this is the curious insight that mortgage calculators are one of the specific features defining the new normal for listings. But on a deeper level, the bigger point is that the evolution of listings is the result of deep, data-driven research.
What the future holds
One thing was clear after talking to agents and company leaders for this story: Listings over the last two decades have entered a unique period of evolution that stands in contrast to the almost century-long period that came before. And that this period of evolution is continuing.
So what does the future hold?
Broadly speaking, it probably means listings that come with more data points.
For instance, Stegemann said some companies have already experimented with including noise levels in listings, so potential buyers understand the aural landscape they might one day live in. The technology to do this kind of thing already exists, but it isn’t yet a standard piece of data in most listings today. That could change in the future.
Stegemann also thinks 3D tours will “be pretty necessary for pretty much everything” within three to five years, while floor plans will become more common as well.
“I think it’ll be vital going forward,” he said.
Digital image recognition and tagging may also become standard.
Frey, said that in the future, tools that sift through photos and identify new appliances or high-end fixtures may be widespread, which would add a new dimension to listings. Suddenly consumers would have vastly more information about a property — the tech might be able to tell if it was newly remodeled, for example, or how pleasant the surrounding area is — even as agents have to physically input less data.
The technology to do these kinds of things is already in development, and in some cases has already been rolled out in a limited capacity. The question now is what sticks with consumers, and what ultimately goes bust.
Whatever the future holds, though, the one constant at this point is change.
“I think it’s constantly evolving,” Frey conclude, “and that’s a good thing.”