When Erin and Patrick Jones of Centerville set out to buy their first home in November they didn't know what to expect. Neither had much experience with realtors. Erin Jones also remembered the ordeal of trying to rent a house through a real estate agent with a friend several years ago.
"It was a miserable experience," she said. "There was never time. He had to cancel appointments, reschedule appointments. I was scared it was going to be like that."
When the Jones' discovered Corus Home Realty, a 10 month-old real estate company that uses technology to help its clients, they immediately felt comfortable, Erin Jones said.
"There was always someone available," she said. "The technology they were using was amazing."
CORUS HOME REALTY, based in McLean, lets its clients tour neighborhoods on their own with a borrowed laptop computer equipped with a GPS tracking device. Software on the computer lets clients see where the nearest available houses are from their location and gives them information about the property. They can learn the price, the address, the lot size, the number of bedrooms, the number of bathrooms, school information, an agent's contact information and whether or not a contract has recently been written for the house. There are also photos of the house.
Although much of that information is available on real estate Web sites, the software gives clients more autonomy during the search, making it possible for them to look for a home without a realtor, said Dan Hartz, a service specialist with the company.
"Some of our clients like to be more independent and want more control of the process," he said. "It's a low pressure approach without having that stranger with you."
"It makes the client more self-sufficient," agreed Jones. "It's a lot easier to have all that information at your fingertips."
When clients identify houses they would like to tour, they can call the Corus office and ask that an agent be sent out to show them the property. According to Michael Gorman, Corus CEO, agents usually are able to meet their clients within a matter of minutes.
"This is definitely meant to be used in conjunction with a realtor" he said. "
The company also uses what it calls a "team-based approach" to real estate. Rather than having one broker responsible for a client, all of the company's 10 employees work with all the clients, allowing staff to specialize in a particular area.
"It definitely was helpful that every single one of them knew who we were," said Jones.
GORMAN LIKENS the real estate company to companies in the information technology industry.
"We've definitely modeled ourselves after the tech companies a little bit," he said.
Gorman, a 34 year-old graduate of Harvard Business School spent several years working as a vice president of America Online, where he gained the technology background he put to use with Corus. Market strategies used by AOL have been replicated at Corus. Rather than networking in a community like traditional real estate brokers, he said, Corus employees will conduct market research or send out direct mailings.
According to Gorman, this kind of real estate technology could bring about considerable change in the industry. With the new technology, he said, "our employees are much more productive than traditional real estate companies." Employees are also paid a salary, rather than receiving commissions, which helps keep the stress level down, he added.
"One of the challenges traditional brokerages will have is changing their structure which many will find hard to do," he said.
He added that the response from clients and the industry has been encouraging. Other real estate companies do not feel particularly threatened, he said, because the industry is so big and fragmented.
"The GPS thing was really cool," Jones said. "It had pictures of little houses. No way to get lost with that, for sure."
BUT JOHN FITZGERALD, a 30 year veteran of the real estate business working with Better Homes Realty in McLean, said that new technology is not a substitute for an experienced realtor.
"A lot of that stuff is just a gimmick," he said, likening the Corus software to "talking houses," houses that have concealed speakers that play recorded messages giving clients information about the house.
"You need somebody who knows about the house, who knows enough about the market. That's what really counts," he said. "If I had no experience in real estate and I was going to make the biggest investment of my life, I'd want a real estate agent to go around with me."
Sending clients out on their own is actually doing them a disservice, he said. "The whole point of hiring a real estate agent is to help you buy something. You're really tapping into that agent's experience and expertise," he said.
The only time when technology like that would make sense, he added, is if a realtor were "a terminally hopeless map reader."
Like all gimmicks, Fitzgerald said, this one will not revolutionize the real estate industry. "I think it's basically a blip on the radar screen," he said.
"It's nice. It can't hurt anything. Is it going to change the world? I don't think so."