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This article was published on: 04/01/2002

FEATURE

10 Web sites that pay

How to achieve maximum profits with minimum fuss

BY MARIWYN EVANS AND CHRISTINA HOFFMANN SPIRA

You’ve seen them. Those WOW real estate sites with animation, Flash movies, and seemingly infinite amounts of customer information. How do they do it, you wonder, and how will I ever compete?

You don’t have to. Just like a designer suit or a luxury car, a showy Web site may get your foot in the door, but it won’t make the sale. Truly successful real estate Web sites balance design and content with cost effectiveness and us
ability in a way that actually reduces the workload of the practitioners who created them.

New listing information remains the strongest draw on every site. “My traffic is directly proportional to the number of listings I post,” says Dave Petruncio, Realty Executives, Hinsdale, Ill. But it’s the functional extras that turn visitors into clients and customers. If closed transactions are what matter to you, read on for lessons from 10 Web sites that produce results.

www.nvahomes.com

Glen Baird Infinity Realty International Inc., Fairfax, Va.; gbaird@nvahomes.com
Site’s ROI: 20 percent of Baird’s business and 40 percent of his new business
Best feature: Web pages for each listing
Initial design cost: $190*
Annual operating costs: $120
Updating time (monthly): 20 hours
Current version debut: 1997**
2001 transaction sides closed: 56
Designer: Baird and his wife
*For domain registration and publishing software
**With constant evolutions

“My average home price is $270,000. But now, thanks to my Web site, I’m listing homes worth $600,000 to $700,000,” says Glen Baird.

That leap is due in part to the individual pages Baird creates for each of his listings. He uses Microsoft Front Page software to develop the pages. “I hadn’t planned to design my own site,” he says, “but the template sites were too repetitive and custom designers were too expensive.”

Now that Baird knows the software, he can create an individual listing page in about two hours, including the hour it takes him to create a virtual tour with his Nikon 995 digital camera and iPix software. He then adds the page to his own site and creates a link to it from the property’s listing on REALTOR.com. “That link and the virtual tours have doubled my business,” he says.

Another big attraction for users is Baird’s extensive set of real estate forms, such as the lead-based paint disclosure, available in PDF format. “Owners who are considering selling their homes themselves find the forms on my site through a search engine,” says Baird. “I’ve had potential FSBOs who were so intimidated by the complexity of the forms that they decided to list with me.”

The latest high-tech farming tool in Baird’s arsenal is a community Web site for Century Oaks
(www.centuryoaks.org), a 500-home subdivision near Fairfax. “Before I launched the site, I had listed maybe one or two homes in the development. In the last year, I’ve listed 60 percent of all the homes sold there.”

www.uniquehomesofmiami.com

Jo-Ann Forster Wimbish Riteway, Miami; joannforster@uniquehomesofmiami.com
Site’s ROI: 65 percent of Forster’s business
Best feature: Open house schedule
Initial design cost: $50,000
Annual operating costs: $12,000
Updating time (monthly): 60 hours*
Current version debut: October 2000
2001 transaction sides closed: 125
Designer: Rechannel.com (formerly Gables Technology Group)
*Includes assistants’ time

Jo-Ann Forster calls her site the “working foundation” of her business. “I consider it my No. 1 business magnet,” she says.

Case in point: Forster’s online open house schedule, the site’s most popular feature. Each month 2,500 visitors access the schedule, which pops up in a small second window when you launch her URL. Her open house guest register shows that most visitors—buyers, sellers, and other salespeople—learned of the open house through her site. She averages 12 open houses a week, and says 30 percent of her sales come from opens.

Forster burned her Web site to CD-ROMs, which team members run on a continuous loop at open houses or distribute as a marketing piece. “Even my hair salon keeps a stack of the CDs,” Forster says.

In a high-end area of Miami where Forster works, the average listing is $800,000. Realizing that a Web site would be her edge in the competitive market, she shelled out $50,000 in initial costs. But one sale paid for her entire outlay. In January 2001, she took a $1.95 million listing from a friend in an area where she doesn’t normally work. A buyer saw the listing online and bought the property. She received a big financial boost and expanded her market area.

Forster and her seven-person team update the site daily, adding listings and changing prices. They also follow through on and capture each site visitor. If buyers make an offer, or sellers accept one, they’re added to the client extranet, where they can privately access closing documents and track the transaction’s progress.

Forster believes that “a Web site is no longer a luxury–it’s a necessity.” And you needn’t spend $50,000. Her designer, she says, creates sites for as little as $2,500. “If you’re not willing to invest in yourself and your business,” Forster says, “why should anyone invest in you?”

www.bradkorn.com

Brad Korn, ABR®, GRI, The Korn Team, RE/MAX Professionals, Blue Springs, Mo.; bradkorn@realtor.com
Site’s ROI: 14 percent of Korn’s business
Best feature: Buyer Home Search at REALTOR.COM
Initial design cost: $1,393
Annual operating costs: $918*
Updating time (monthly): 5 hours
Current version debut: 1997
2001 transaction sides closed: 113
Designer: Self and REALTOR.COM
*Korn gets a special break on his iLead package, because he won a Homestore.com contest last year.

Brad Korn is a firm believer in maintaining a business-generating Web presence, provided it takes as
little of his precious time—and money—as possible. That’s the beauty, he says, of using property listing portal REALTOR.COM as the backbone of his site.

“I don’t believe in doing everything twice,” Korn says. “REALTOR.COM downloads all my local listings from the MLS. So sections of my site related to listings simply link to my REALTOR.COM site. I can’t believe salespeople pay thousands of dollars to set up their own home searches and tours.” He built his namesake site, bradkorn.com, with Microsoft Front Page software, updates evergreen information there occasionally, and relies on his REALTOR.COM iLead package to do the rest.

Depending on the REALTOR.COM site or iLead package you purchase, you’ll pay from $429 to $1,099 a year. For Korn, the moneymaker is the Buyers Home Search tab. Through it, prospects send him an e-mail letting him know they’re interested in properties that meet certain criteria. Korn says most of his 305 Internet leads in 2001 came to him through this tab.

Korn promotes his on all his marketing materials, including the 14-foot moving truck he lends to buyers who want to move some of their own belongings.

His site brought him 15 closed sales in 2001, he says. With a $4,000 average commission, he usually recoups his annual Web costs in the first sale of the year.

www.las-vegas-agent.com

Ronni Land Liberty Realty, Las Vegas, Nev.; ronni@ronniland.com (Since publication of the print magazine her address has changed. This e-mail address is correct.)
Site’s ROI: 40 percent of Land’s business
Best feature: Database
Initial design cost: $4,000
Annual operating costs: $2,000
Updating time (monthly): Almost none*
Current version debut: April 2001
2001 transaction sides closed: 40 plus**
Designer: Best Image Marketing, www.BestImage.com
*Updates are done by a Web designer
** New homes and subdivisions

“If it weren’t for my Web site, I’d be in a bread line,” says Ronni Land.

In 1996, after 18 years of building a referral-based business in Beverly Hills, Land moved to Las Vegas, where she had “no contacts and no business.” Today she earns a six-figure annual income, which she credits largely to her site.

Land worked with Web designers to customize everything from the color and shape of the buttons—green with beveled edges—to the high-touch marketing copy. The result is, like Las Vegas itself, both friendly and slightly glamorous. Land carefully tracks which pages draw the most attention. One such page is devoted to the local Del Webb senior community, Summerlin. Another big draw is her new-home link, a searchable database of every new housing development in Las Vegas.

To market her site, Land relies on search engines and banner ads placed by the Number1Expert.com referral network. Land builds relationships with visitors using e-mail, phone calls, and her personalized e-newsletter from Realty Times.

Land answers all her own e-mail and says her hands-on approach makes it important to distinguish buyers from lookers, especially in the anonymous world of the Internet. “I don’t supply buyers with a lot of information until I’ve qualified them and they’ve signed an exclusive buyer’s representation agreement. The Internet has to be a two-way street.”

www.roblevy.com

Rob Levy, CRS®, GRI, Prudential Northwest Properties, Portland, Ore.; rob@roblevy.com
Site’s ROI: 20 percent of Levy’s business
Best feature: Free reports
Initial design cost: $500
Annual operating costs: $360
Updating time (monthly): 6 to 8 hours
Current version debut: January 2001*
2001 transaction sides closed: 85
Designer: Advanced Access, www.advancedaccess.com; custom splash pages by InsideLane.com
*His sixth version

“People think I spend a lot of money on my site, but they’re wrong,” says Rob Levy. An early Web site adopter, Levy first tried the custom route. But now he uses a savvy hybrid site that combines custom features with an underlying template to provide visitors with extensive data using much less time and effort.

One custom feature is Levy’s splash page. The introductory page features a Flash slide show of his team and the Portland area, as well as Levy’s picture, marketing statement, and contact information. Levy also has built in a client update center, a password-protected area that allows clients to log in 24 hours a day and check on the status of their home’s sale. “I work in a high-tech marketplace. Most people prefer e-mail and the Web site to contact me,” he says.

The password-protected pages are a subtle way to interact with clients. “If I hear from a couple of salespeople that a house is overpriced and put those comments on the site, the next thing you know, I’ll have an e-mail from the seller suggesting we lower the price.” His average home price last year was $208,000.

Levy also distiguishes his site with a monthly e-mail newsletter, which he writes himself in one or two hours a month. The template was created for him by a high school kid, he says, “in two hours for $20 plus a day pass for snowboarding on Mt. Hood.”

The newsletter is a cornerstone of Levy’s electronic marketing efforts. He subscribes to the philosophy that Internet buyers shouldn’t be called until they ask to hear from you. “But you can’t just sit back and wait for the leads either,” says Levy.

He enters all prospects’ addresses into Top Producer and then uses a “drip” system from iPro Center to send pre-written e-mails automatically every few days. He also sends electronic postcards that he creates using Microsoft Publisher.

Levy has found that “the bond you create with Internet buyers can actually be much stronger than the one you can establish in person. When I finally meet some of these buyers, they hug me as if I’m an old friend.”

www.klewis.com

Kevin Lewis RE/MAX DFW Associates, Dallas; Kevin@rmdfw.com
Site’s ROI: 20 percent of Lewis’s business
Best feature: Video testimonials of satisfied customers
Initial design cost: $4,500
Annual operating costs: $1,200
Updating time (monthly): Almost none*
Current version debut: August 2001
2001 transaction sides closed: 30
Designer: z57, www.z57.com
*Updates by Web designer and outside vendors

“I wanted features that set me apart. But at the same time, I didn’t want to spend too much,” says Kevin Lewis. To help offset the design cost of his custom site, Lewis “sold” advertising banners on his site to his three alliance partners: a local mortgage broker, title insurance company, and insurance agency. That covered roughly half of the initial costs. (If you’re thinking of using a similar strategy, consult with an attorney first to be sure your arrangement complies with the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.)

To minimize updating time, Lewis uses outside service and content providers. He creates his own virtual tours, but his listings and tours are posted by Comstock (www.comstock.com) at a cost of $25 each. His popular reports on buying and selling are from Gooder Group (www.gooder.com) and cost him $30 a month. A frame with Lewis’s photo and phone number keep the identity of his site clear when visitors access outside data sources.

Another cost-effective custom feature is the use of video testimonials. Lewis films the two-minute testimonials with
a Sony digital camcorder and uses video editing software to create MPEG files, which he posts on his site. “It’s so much more convincing if visitors can see and hear actual customers saying good things about you,” he says. He includes a low-resolution version and text quote for visitors using a 56k modem.

Visitors to the site must register before they can see virtual tours. Lewis’s assistant uses the daily e-mail registrations to send an electronic thank-you note and detailed listing sheets on the properties viewed. “The quick response improves the chances that they’ll work with us,” he says.

Lewis, whose average sales price in 2001 was $220,000, says his Internet buyers close transactions about 20 percent faster than conventional buyers. That, he says, has helped him up his total closed transactions by 50 percent in the past year.

davepetruncio.com

Dave Petruncio CRS®, CRB, Realty Executives, Hinsdale, Ill.; dave@davepetruncio.com
Site’s ROI: 25 percent of Petruncio’s business
Best feature: Custom home search
Initial design cost: $1,300
Annual operating costs: $1,200
Updating time (monthly): 2 to 3 hours*
Current version debut: November 2001
2001 transaction sides closed: 28
Designer: Homeseekers, Homeseekers.com
*Plus one or two weeks at year end

“People want efficiency, ease of use, and good listings from a real estate Web site,” says Dave Petruncio, a selling broker-owner in a western suburb of Chicago where the average home sales price is $270,000. To get the most content bang for his buck, Petruncio relies on a combination of automated content from Homeseekers.com and links geared to his service area. “The Internet can be a black hole with an infinite amount of information,” he says. “I want davepetruncio.com to be a resource center, where Hinsdale residents can find all the information and links they need 24 hours a day. To that end, he offers links to popular content sites, such as USA Today and Quote.com, as well as local information, such as updates on school closings during winter.

Petruncio sees his links as a form of institutional advertising to build brand awareness for his own sales and his company. “Sometimes I run a newspaper ad that just promotes the content area of the site,” he says.

Petruncio spends only two or three hours a month on his site, spot-checking listings that are loaded by the MLS and fixing faulty links to outside content sites. He spends the slow time around the holidays updating his site with new links and presetting seasonal greetings and photos on his home page. “Then it’s ready for the whole year, and unless there’s a technical problem, I can concentrate on selling real estate,” he says.

Automation is also key to garnering leads at minimal cost. With home-search software from Soar-MLS (www.soarsolutions.net), Petruncio can automatically send registered prospects an e-mail when a home comes on the market that meets their criteria. The payoff isn’t always quick, but because the service is automatic, the investment is minimal. “I had one client who registered in December 2000 and had been receiving regular e-mail updates for a year. I’d never even contacted her,” he says “Suddenly, in November 2001, I received a phone call, and 30 days later she bought a house.”

www.westonflorida.com

Douglas Preston e-PRO® Arvida Realty Services, Weston, Fla.; dpreston@westonflorida.com
Site’s ROI: 64 percent of Preston’s business
Best feature: MLS search
Initial design cost: $0*
Annual operating costs: About $800**
Updating time (monthly): 15 hours
Current version debut: May 2001
2001 transaction sides closed: 25
Designer: Net Web Technology Inc., netwebtechnology.com
*Developed by his own technology company
** For search engine submissions, domain registrations, URL redirects, and e-mail boxes

“Last year was my fourth full year in the business, and it was my best,” says Douglas Preston of Weston, Fla. “I did 30 percent more business than in 2000 and worked fewer hours.” Preston accomplished this feat without direct mailings, magazine ads, or door knocking. In fact, his site has been his only source of business, other than referrals, since the latest version debuted in spring 2001.

Because he’s not a native of Weston, Preston needed a site that would give him a competitive edge. The area’s established salespeople had good reputations and expensive marketing materials. Since he isn’t the door-knocking type, he took two strategic steps: He opted to work with buyers, because that’s a niche top salespeople didn’t want, and he created a site that could compete “in look, feel, and functionality with any other salesperson site in the country.” There’s a clean design, sophisticated home search, shopping cart, and even a free e-mail domain for clients. That is, users can obtain an e-mail address—theirname@westonfl.com—which further brands Weston and his site.

As for return on investment, Preston closed $3.5 million in gross transaction volume last year on the basis of his online sales. That would easily recoup his initial site outlay and annual costs—if there were any in the typical sense. Preston owns the IT company that developed and hosts his site. He and several techie friends founded the company to build network infrastructures for commercial buildings, because he felt that the existing companies weren’t doing the job.

Now Preston is aiming to own his market. That’s why he named his URL after his city and programmed his site with metatags—the keywords that search engines look for—such as “Weston, Florida” and “western Florida.”

Some people have offered to buy his domain. But he’s not selling.

www.richardsilver.com

Richard Silver Bosley Real Estate, Toronto, Ontario; mail@richardsilver.com
Site’s ROI: 25 percent of his business
Best features: Listings and pages describing his services
Initial design cost: $2,500 Canadian*
Annual operating costs: $1,800
Updating time (monthly): About 10 hours
Current version debut: 1999
2001 transaction sides closed: 47
Designer: RebelTrail.com
*Silver says it would cost about the same in U.S. dollars

The buyer had visited Richard Silver’s site anonymously for a year. When she saw the house she wanted to buy, she contacted him. Since e-mail from his site goes directly to his Blackberry pager, he was able to respond immediately. Presto, the deal was his.

“Those are the kinds of clients you find through the Internet,” says Silver, a Canadian Real Estate Association member who sells in downtown Toronto at an average sales price of $750,000. “They’ve already done the research about the process and market. The speed of Internet sales is amazing.”

The time savings has freed Silver to diversify into other interests—writing columns, speaking, and teaching Web courses for the Toronto board.

The key to Silver’s steady stream of business, 10 to 40 online leads a week, is aggressive marketing of his site. Silver’s weekly newspaper ads promote his URL and services rather than featuring photos of homes. And Silver touts his URL everywhere—For Sale signs, mailings, just-listed and sold announcements, and in every phone conversation. He maintains a REALTOR.COM iLead package, which gives him a Web presence at the highly trafficked site and links those visitors back to richardsilver.com.

His philosophy is to focus all business to the Internet: “It’s a way of prequalifying consumers,” he says. “I drive prospects on my Web site rather than in my car.”

www.visitmyhomes.com

Bart Zimmer Coldwell Banker Dan Blough & Associates, Santa Maria, Calif.; visitmyhomes@NUMBER1EXPERT.com
Site’s ROI: 35 percent
Best features: Featured homes and information about Zimmer
Initial design cost: $1,250
Annual operating costs: $2,150
Updating time (monthly): 10 hours
Current version debut: January 2001
2001 transaction sides closed: 73
Designer: Best Image Marketing Inc., www.bestimage.com

Bart Zimmer is patient, and his patience has rewarded him with a lucrative online niche. “It takes six to nine months for an Internet lead to close,” he says of his market. “Most practitioners can’t deal with that fact. But I’m willing to wait. Some people may not be able to make a jump now, but eventually they will. So I want to establish a base with them.”

The waiting is made easier by a bit of data that Zimmer gleaned from past transactions. In his market, the average price of a home purchased by an Internet buyer is $233,000. That’s $49,000 more than the price of homes purchased by traditional buyers.

Zimmer nets about 1,000 online leads a month. Of those leads, 75 request real estate information. Zimmer contacts them to see if they want a package of information on his services—essentially a customized version of the local chamber of commerce visitors’ guide. About 40 contacts request the package. Zimmer follows up within 10 days after they receive it. Based on their responses to questions, such as when they are moving, he classifies them as hot, warm, or cold.

Depending on the lead’s “temperature,” Zimmer sends out listing updates or follow-up letters at regularly scheduled intervals. “I work all these leads, warm to cold. Until cold leads tell me they aren’t coming to Santa Maria, they’re a lead,” he says.

One sale in particular sold him on the medium’s value. In October 2001 another salesperson contacted Zimmer after finding him on the Internet. He wanted a good salesperson for his listing referral. “The sales price was $635,000, and I double-ended it,” Zimmer says. “The people to whom I sold the home found it on the Internet, too. That was the highest sales price reported in the area in five years.”



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