Your real estate agent wants to be your friend. Not your bowling or bridge partner, or a confidante to phone after a particularly tough day, but your social media buddy, a person who will keep you up-to-speed with newsy updates and insider information on the topsy-turvy world of real estate.
Gregg Slapak, a real estate broker with Exit Realty Redefined in Wheaton, has close to 5,000 Facebook friends — the maximum for the social networking site. On his recent birthday, more than 1,100 well-wishers from all over the world sent him greetings.
"I used to see social media as frivolous," Slapak said, "as people reporting whether they had gone to the gym or Starbucks on that particular day."
No longer. The real estate slump has left Slapak and others in the business searching for new ways to connect with clients. He now closely monitors his presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Gay Real Estate and other online hubs, estimating that 70 percent of his clients today find him using their computers.
Slapak and others are tuning their pitch to a new generation of homebuyers and sellers who prefer to do things electronically and expect communication to be instantaneous. It's a marked change for a business where world-of-mouth referrals and personal contact traditionally have reigned supreme.
"Clients used to just come in the door," said Slapak, who remembers the days when agents pulled listing information from printed booklets that were updated every few weeks, not every few minutes. "Times have changed and you have to meet that change."
While data from the National Association of Realtors shows that personal recommendations are still tops when it comes to finding a Realtor, online sources were the third most common way for buyers to find an agent, and a segment that is growing by all accounts. In its most recent national profile of home buyers and sellers, some 9 percent of homebuyers reported finding their agent online, while some 41 percent relied on a recommendation from a friend or neighbor.
When Tom McNicholas, 25, began searching for a one-bedroom condo in the city, his first step was to boot up his computer. While browsing listings on Yahoo! Real Estate, he found Dympna Fay-Hart, a real estate professional whose name was already familiar through a family connection. He decided to enlist her help with his search, which ended in the recent purchase of a property in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood.
Throughout the homebuying process, which McNicholas said included a few stumbling blocks and challenges, he sent text messages back and forth to Fay-Hart to keep updated on the latest news about the status of his offer and financing approval. "She knew when I was at work I couldn't just pick up the phone," McNicholas said, "but I could look at a text and keep up to speed."
McNicholas' final step was to beam pictures of the Jefferson Park property to his dad in Arizona, who gave a thumbs-up to the purchase.
Communicating via text is not unusual for Fay-Hart, of Century 21 McMullen Real Estate, whose high-tech tools for connecting with clients include social media postings, Twitter updates, a YouTube channel and hail storms of high-speed texts. She once texted her way through an entire home purchase transaction, meeting with the client, an ultra-busy entrepreneur, just once in person. At the end of the successful purchase, she sent him a text that read "Congratulations! You have a house."
She prefers, though, to connect personally with clients if they are up for it.
"I have a diverse group of clients," Fay-Hart said. "I serve senior citizens who don't have computers and never will. I use mostly email to communicate with Generation X. But Generation Y wants texting."
The turning point for Fay-Hart came about five years ago. A second-generation real estate broker who has been in the business herself for more than 20 years, "I realized that the online world was moving forward without me," she said. "Buyers want an instantaneous response," she said."If you don't get back to someone within 15 minutes via text, email or cell phone, they will move on to the next person."
Terri McAuley, a broker with Koenig & Strey Real Living in Chicago, estimates that 75 percent of her new clients have never met her in person. Instead, they rely on Yelp reviews or Google searches to find her. This fast-moving group "isn't as interested in sitting down and having a cup of coffee and talking," she said, but texting and email exchanges don't always work in a detailed real estate transaction. While she honors client preferences, she said verbal communication just works better sometimes: "You can find out where someone is in the process that way."
For real estate brokers with a strong presence on social media sites, deciding what to post and what to keep private often requires some thought.
Speaker and real estate consultant Marki Lemons' social media followers soon learn that she's married with two children, likes to knit and crochet and is always looking for something to cook for dinner.
Posts should remain professional, she said, while providing facts that are relevant to or help potential clients relate to the broker. The fact that someone tried a new wine is OK to post, but the fact that they "went out drinking" would not be OK.
Lemons appeals to Facebook friends with interesting real estate information, but shies away from posting specific properties.
Fay-Hart's Twitter updates often revolve around food — a new sushi restaurant she's tried or a favorite wine. On Facebook, she's shared that she recently became engaged, posted pictures of a home she purchased, and given links to interesting real estate articles. The hope is that her revelations will strengthen bonds with existing clients and forge new ones with prospects.
"Sharing personal information has been the biggest transition for me," she said. "To let people into my personal life was a welcome change for me. People thought I was more serious than I am."
Slapak remains respectful in his postings, but doesn't shy away from offering thoughts on politics or the economy. "I'm as open on my page as I am in person," he said.