February 28, 2002

Virtual Office Web Sites Go Beyond Internet Data Exchange

By Bridget McCrea
Inman News Features

While many of the nation?s real estate brokers are working to enable their company Web sites for Internet Data Exchange (IDX), a handful of others believe they?ve grasped an even better way to display MLS listings online and beef up their customer databases at the same time.

The latest technology, known as a "virtual office Web site" or VOW, allows individual brokers to display all the listings within an MLS and include the complete information from those listings in an online format for potential home buyers and sellers.

The catch is that those prospects first must be "prequalified" through a registration process that aims to ensure they are legitimate prospects, not merely lookie Lous.

Home buyers who hand over their e-mail address, telephone number, home address and other personal information are issued a username and password that allows them to search the area's entire MLS system.

Leo Berard, co-owner of Barnstable, Mass.-based Buyer Brokers of Cape Cod, likens VOWs to the paper-based MLS books on which real estate agents relied before the Internet.

"This is a capability that Realtors have had for a long time," said Berard. "IDX has just brought it to the forefront."

Berard, whose eight agents work from four offices, hired a third-party vendor set up and host his VOW about five months ago.

He said he already is seeing results. "I looked at VOWs as a good way to increase our client numbers," he said. "It?s already doing that in our short time using it."

Bernard said the biggest advantage of a VOW is that the broker can display an MLS? entire database with all fields included while IDX has guidelines concerning what data can be shown.

But Bernard sees VOWs working in tandem with IDX systems because while the VOW is open only to those who have obtained a password, IDX allows anyone to browse freely without divulging personal information.

"Brokers may want IDX to get the public doing searches on their sites," he said. "But they?ll also want a VOW for those customers who can be enticed to register."

The capture of personal information is invaluable to brokers like Berard, who can use it to cultivate long-term relationships by sending out e-mail newsletters and new listings data and otherwise maintaining contact with those prospects.

A number of other real estate brokerages are realizing the value of VOWs. Two of the larger ones are online real estate companies zipRealty and eRealty.

Houston-based eRealty designed its entire business model and operating method around the VOW concept, according to CEO Russell Capper. The company has used a VOW since 1999.

To design it, Capper said he simply followed NAR?s recommended rules and regulations, which allow Realtors to distribute a reasonable number of MLS properties to bona fide buyers and sellers.

"You can?t just open it up to the public, but if you have essential proof that the buyer or seller is bona fide, you can distribute listings to them," said Capper.

The National Association of Realtors? August 2001 IDX implementation guide defines a VOW as a Web site that includes active listings of other MLS brokers--who may or may not participate in IDX--displays listings to qualified buyers and prevents unqualified general access to the information through a password barrier.

NAR says the VOW system works this way: The prospective home buyer or seller visits the broker?s Web site and provides required information about themselves. The brokerage and the buyer or seller execute the formalities necessary to create a client or customer relationship, then the Web site provides an identification name and password that give the buyer or seller access to the part of the Web site where the listings are displayed. The Web site responds to the buyer?s or seller?s search criteria and displays homes meeting those criteria.

"This model is fundamentally analogous to the one relied on by MLS participants for many years," according to NAR?s guide. "When a consumer physically visits an MLS participant?s office, the consumer is shown listings of other MLS participants. The difference is the medium: the participant?s virtual office Web site rather than printed copies of listings handed (or faxed or mailed) to potential purchasers."

Copyright: Inman News Service

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