Indian Real Estate, Property Portals and the 21st Century Real Estate Agent

Real estate agents? Hasn’t the internet gotten rid of them yet?

I hear this question all the time. Most people assume that property portals in India are working towards eliminating agents and facilitating direct interaction between seller and buyer. Though this is partially correct, real estate agents are the biggest customers of these portals and the portals are doing their bit to facilitate their growth. We interact with agents every day and we see most of them are doing good business. I want to take some time and explain the dynamics behind Indian real estate, the role agents’ play and how the role of agents’ is going to change in the future.

Note – Throughout this article, I’ve focused only on the rental and resale market and not gone into sale of new property by builders as the dynamics of that market are radically different. Also, the scope of this article is limited to Indian Real Estate.

“MakeMyTrip has eliminated travel agents. So why hasn’t the same happened to real estate agents?”

One needs to understand that ticketing is now a point-and-click industry – travel agents have been replaced by computers. The process of getting information about the journey AND purchasing the tickets can be done on the internet. Real estate is fundamentally an offline process. Though information aggregation is an important part of it, site visits, negotiations and paperwork all need to be done offline. Even from an owner/sellers perspective, renting out/selling a home isn’t as simple as listing it online – the process can stretch for months. This is where real estate agents step in – in guiding customers through the offline part of the transaction, bringing both parties to agree to the terms and finishing off the paper work.

Why aren’t property portals trying to eliminate agents and become virtual middlemen?

A property portal provides a platform for a seller and a buyer to interact (A seller can be an owner, builder or an agent). If we eliminate agents from this equation, portals are left with a C2C platform with property owners being the only source of inventory. Though many prefer a scenario like this, we need to figure out how the platform provider is going to monetize from this setup. They have the following options -

Listing fees – They can collect a fee from the owner/seller to list their property. There are few owners who’re willing to pay for premium listings (last time I checked, about 5% of owners listing online were willing to pay) but this is simply not enough to sustain the business. Indian consumers are ready to use a service which is free (free listings) OR pay for a service once it’s rendered (brokerage) but are not OK with anything in between.

Charge property seekers to get owner information – Another option would be to charge property seekers a fee to give them information about the owner who’s listed. This also isn’t a sustainable option because owners who list online tend to list on multiple portals and you can always finds a portal which gives you the owners information for free.

Brokerage fee when the deal is closed – This would be a great monetization scheme that everyone would be willing to pay for, but is very hard to implement. To do this, portals need to keep track of every deal that closes offline and that would be next to impossible.

There might be more options, but I don’t really see them becoming huge ‘revenue making machines’. Running a real estate portal is a VERY expensive affair and portals would need a solid revenue stream to offset that cost.

This is where Real Estate Agents step in: Agents are willing to spend good money to market their properties on a platform which would give them good leads. Property portals see this as a steady, sustainable revenue stream. This, seemingly, is a match made in heaven.

So, you’re saying property portals have made no dent in the brokerage industry?

Undoubtedly, they have. In a BIG way! With many owners listing their properties online, agents are starting to feel the heat. Coupled with the fact that the number of real estate agents has almost tripled in the last few years, you’ll see that the average real estate agent earned a LOT less in 2014 that he did in 2011. Agents are beginning to realize that there’s a paradigm shift and it’s time to mend their ways, before the game gets taken out of their hands. There needs to be a shift in their mentality and it needs to happen NOW.

Role of the 21st century real estate agent

10 years back, agents pretty much charged money for information arbitrage – “I have the contact information of the owner/tenant and you need to pay me money to get this contact” was the mantra and it has worked. A disproportionate amount of money was charged for this seemingly simple service and the world went on without a qualm primarily because there was no alternative. But now there is. Increased owner listings on portals, multifold increase in number of real estate agents, internal portals in corporate companies which help employees find accommodation, Facebook groups, etc. have all impacted the brokerage industry and there needs to be an overhaul.

“What’s dangerous is to not evolve, not invent and not continuously improve customer experience” – Every Realtor in the country needs to latch these words said by Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon. Information arbitrage can no longer be the game real estate agents play – We’re moving towards a world where access to information is getting easier and this cannot remain the USP of why a property seeker goes to a real estate agent. I believe agents need to adopt the following practices -

Save time for your customers – In today’s world, nobody has time to do things (even if they do have time, people don’t want to spend their time house hunting). Saving time for your customers is probably the best value-add an agent can provide. Be up-to-date on the latest inventory that is available in the locality. If you’re not confident if the customer will like your property, just tell them so! Don’t drag them to a dingy apartment they’ll never never be interested in – they’ll lose trust in your sense of judgment and never come back to you again. Learn to truly understand what your customer wants, be equipped to find the most relevant inventory, accompany them during site visits and close the deal. A really good agent should be able to close a rental requirement in 7 days and a resale requirement in 1 month, tops.

Give as much information as possible – Instead of hoarding information, agents need to freely part with it. Tell your customers exactly which apartment society the property is in, tell them exactly how far from the bus-stop it is and tell them if the owner/tenant is not comfortable with someone from their demographic. In the longer run, this helps build a better rapport with customers. Sure, other agents (or your customers themselves) might get to the owner/seller without you, but in the longer run, this is what will work.

Adopt technology, don’t fight it – Apart from Whatsapp, agents don’t use their smart phones for any business related activities. Why is this so? For starters, there’re many CRM applications on the app store which they can use. This alone will improve their productivity 100 times over! Other applications for maintaining inventory, marketing, etc. are available but are not being consumed by agents.

Develop skills a computer/technology can’t do – A computer can never negotiate a good deal for the client – that’s a job that requires a human touch. A computer can never get a feel of what the customer truly wants – Agents can do that given you’re always with the customer. This is a relationship driven industry, make sure you always remember that.

Use social media as a marketing platform – When owners are using Facebook as a platform for marketing, why shouldn’t agents? Creating a Facebook group to marketing their listings is a great way to reach new customers. There are some agents who do this already and are getting good response from the same.

Be professional – Cliche as it may sound, going back to the basics is something every agent needs to do. Being punctual, dressing in formals and talking politely to customers are some key skills that agents need to practice. Again, there are agents who’re well mannered, but the number seems to be shrinking.

The list can keep extending, but I can summarize it this way – If you’re a real estate agent, think of what you were doing for your business 5 years back and compare that to what you’re doing today. If nothing much has changed, understand that you’ll become redundant within the next few years. The world is changing and only those who change with it will live to fight another day. Portals have evolved, house hunting has changed for end customers and it’s about time the role of the real estate agent changes as well.

How are we positioned in this complicated market?

Our vision has always been to build A Technology Powered Real Estate agency that works towards helping our customers find a home they truly love. We do that by mixing cutting edge technology and expertise brokerage. We’re adding great real estate agents to our team, giving them next-gen mobile applications/desktop products to better run their business, helping them understand the market as it is today, providing training sessions and learning material and eventually, helping them serve customers better. Given the amazing response we’ve received from customers and agents so far, we’re confident of the road ahead.

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