The digital transformation of the real estate industry has already reshaped how agents and brokers do business. But REALTORS across the country have been especially slow to react to these changes, primarily because keeping up with new technology is a big challenge for a lot of agencies, large and small. According to Austin Board of REALTORS President Romeo Manzanilla, “The industry is adapting on a daily basis,” but there’s still some way to go.

For many clients, the first steps of the home buying process is fairly easy. “As far as doing everything virtually, every buyer has that ability as long as there‘s enough information for them to be able to digest and take in,” says Manzanilla. There’s an abundance of data showing that when buyers have access to photos, virtual tours and all of the proper disclosures a lot of the early footwork can and does occur digitally, especially for investors. But Manzanilla adds, “Any buyer who wants to can make a buying decision if they are already familiar with the neighborhood.” 

We all know about virtual tours. As far as marketing and operations are concerned, they’re one of the most successful digital tools agents have. But it’s not just the way REALTORS show properties that has been disrupted over the past decade. A large percentage of what occurs throughout the entire real estate transaction — from researching properties to closing — can be completed using a wide range of online applications and tools.

According to the National Association of REALTORS 2020 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report, “Among all generations of home buyers, the first step taken in the home search process was to look online for properties.” Further, according to the report, 84% of buyers searched for homes on the internet. 

So before clients ever reach out to a single agent, they have already browsed listings, virtually toured home and narrowed their search to certain neighborhoods or even a specific property.  With all of the information that‘s out there, buyers across generations are doing the majority of their search on their own and can get pretty far into the process, but there are some exceptions. “First-time home buyers find the process a little more challenging,” says Manzanilla. 

When Keller Davis and John Baxa decided to buy a home, they did what most millennials do. They went online to browse “well over 100 listings” and favorited dozens of properties in neighborhoods they liked. Then they reached out to Karen Derr REALTORS. At that point, their agent had a pretty good idea what to show the first-time buyers. “I would say only about 30 percent of the process was in person with our real estate team,” said Davis, owner of Createscape Coworking in East Austin. “And that was mostly just checking out houses.” 

The fact that many buyers are more independent now than ever doesn’t mean REALTORS are less relevant, though not for lack of trying by the tech industry. But many agents are stepping up and meeting real estate clients where they are. Bryan Hutchinson, CEO of Williamson County Board of REALTORS said, “We have been working on our ability to be agile in relation to professional development. I am proud of the way Debby Moran, our education director, and Julie Jones, our professional development committee chair, responded to the changing environment…and how they assist our brokers, team leaders and agents in adopting and thriving in the digital world we now live in.”

A survey conducted by Meredith Corporation found that more than any other generation, millennials use social media throughout the homebuying process. And according to NAR, agents and brokers said that social media was the best tool they have for generating high-quality leads. So that’s obviously a platform agents should invest in, especially since the newest wave of clients are young millennials, which are soon to be followed by Gen Z, who are just now coming into their 20s. Both of these generations are accustomed to completing most tasks online from paying bills to making purchases. They expect the same service and convenience when purchasing a home.

But last year, only 23 percent of real estate agents used social networking sites to market a home, according to NAR. It’s not nearly enough. Facebook has one of the largest and most diverse user bases of all the platforms. It also has tools agents can use to target neighborhoods and demographics. Instagram is the best platform for posting images and video content. And for professional purposes, REALTORS use LinkedIn for networking, posting business content and establishing their brand. 

Firms should also see how platforms like Zillow, Trulia and Nextdoor can help generate leads and increase engagement. In fact, Zillow was one of the platforms Davis and Baxa used to find properties prior to meeting in person with their REALTOR. But their early online search gave their agent, Jonathan Ryan, an idea of what the couple was looking for, then found even more properties in the MLS that Davis and Baxa missed online, including the Dove Springs ranch the couple closed on and moved into at the end of March.

Some of the most difficult steps in the home buying process for up to one in five buyers, according to NAR, are understanding the transaction and navigating paperwork. But ever since the mortgage and title industries have brought the application and closing processes into the digital age, transaction participants have more options and flexibility. These changes really demonstrate how, across the real estate industry, experts are meeting customers needs more and more. Specifically, by enabling clients to sign documents digitally, accepting and securing payments via mobile app and offering remote online notarization (RON).

Feeling like you’re falling behind? No problem. According to Manzanilla, ABoR has doubled down on its online education. “We offer training on how to work virtually, including the do’s and don‘ts for marketing your property.” The organization also compiles resources that agents can access on how to create virtual tours and how to design presentations. “We are in constant communication with our brokers, finding out from them what sort of resources they need that ABoR can provide.” Manzanilla adds, “Agents just have to get out of their comfort zone and look to see what are the emerging technologies, tools and resources that would best serve their clients in this digital age.”

There are other sources out there for agents who are looking to put one or both feet more firmly into the digital world and get continuing education credits at that same time. Real estate schools offer courses on social media marketing, live streaming, cloud storage, document sharing, electronic signatures, online risk management and transaction management technologies.

“Many agents in Central Texas are eager to take advantage of these opportunities,” says Hutchinson. “I am experiencing firsthand the resilient nature of our members. They have adapted platforms such as Facebook Live, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and turned them into high-performance marketing tools. Agents are sharing information through virtual tours on Facebook Live, for example, and have written full price offers on listings. The ability to bring clients, along with generations of their families, into Zoom-based showings is giving clients the ability to get the experience of the family and REALTOR, all in one platform.”

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