Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever for potential renters and buyers to search for and secure properties without the help of real estate brokerages. Websites like RentHop and StreetEasy provide lists of broker-free listings, allowing them to skip the fees needed to work with an agent. And as this ability becomes more prevalent and popular, it’s easy to see why real estate professionals may be concerned about whether they will always be necessary, or if their job security is under threat.
To find out more about the challenges facing real estate brokerages in the age of technology, there are few better people to chat with than Gary Malin, president of the New York City firm Citi Habitats. The company has 800 agents that move more than 10,000 apartments annually and currently holds $150,000,000 in exclusive sales listings, all in an environment where tech advances are old the moment they’re born and professional competition in any field, let alone real estate, is revered worldwide. Here’s what Malin had to say:
Heather Senison: If you can explain it briefly, how is technology affecting the role of real estate brokers?
Gary Malin: Ever since I’ve been in this business there have been ways for tenants to find apartments without the use of a broker. Although StreetEasy, RentHop or any of these other websites allow people to find listings, the reality is that many people want to work with an agent. They have either limited time frames to find their apartments, or they’re uncertain about different locations, or they just feel that having an expert work with them to make the best decision is worth whatever potential price comes along with it. There’s always pressure, especially in today’s day and age with the internet, for people to find apartments on their own versus utilizing a broker, so I just think that’s always been part of the business. What I think people really need to understand is when you work with an agent, unless that agent secures a property for you, you don’t pay them any money.
HS: So you don’t think these websites will one day make brokers obsolete?
GM: It’s a service-based business and people like to work with people, especially when making expensive financial considerations, so I don’t think that all of a sudden one day [that will happen]. Now who knows, I could be wrong and I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’ve been in this business for 20-plus years and the same exact thing has been going on for 20-plus years and I’m still here, my agents are still here, and people pride themselves in providing great service and people want great service. It might make the business more difficult, it might make things more challenging at times, but do I think that the broker will be completely removed from the circumstance? Listen, anything is possible, but I don’t see that happening.
HS: How easy was it for people to find listings without brokers before the internet?
GM: There were classifieds in The New York Times, there are signs on buildings, there’s friends giving you referrals. You could do research. There’s a million different ways to find apartments, it’s just become more efficient with the use of the internet.
HS: So the World Wide Web is not the biggest threat facing brokerages today?
GM: The biggest issue in today’s day and age in the brokerage community is that the cost and expense of running a brokerage firm have escalated tremendously over the years. I don’t think it’s easy for small- to mid-sized brokerage firms to compete at certain times depending on market conditions. [If they] don’t have a very large platform, it doesn’t mean they can’t be or won’t be successful, it just makes it more difficult especially as the costs continue to rise.
HS: Are agents doing less work now that house-hunters can search for properties on their own?
GM: No, their jobs haven’t changed at all. This isn’t like going online and buying a pair of sneakers and then they just get sent directly to your home. Just because you can search easily, it doesn’t change the time, effort and attention required of a real estate agent. You still take people out on tours, you still put applications together, there’s millions of things that a real estate agent does that he or she does not get compensated for. The real estate professional’s job doesn’t change just because it’s easier to search.
HS: How can brokers leverage technology to be more efficient and increase their profits?
GM: First and foremost, you can’t have great technology without great agents and you cant have great agents without great technology, so to me they work in tandem, not in opposition. Technology is great at making people more efficient, it’s great at making people more effective at their job if they’re utilizing technology properly. We as a company in particular spend a lot of time, effort and attention creating marketing pieces that our agents can use on [whatever] platforms they use … but if you simply rely on technology, you’re probably not going to reach your potential as an agent. In my personal opinion, and maybe I’m in the minority, but I still believe that the human element in what we do is far more important than technology. I believe in picking up the phone and calling someone and talking to them and hearing them out, or meeting them face to face. A lot of communication has nothing to do with the words, it has to do with your tone of voice, your facial expressions, your hand gestures. Technology minimizes what I think is critical to doing business.
HS: What technological projects is Citi Habitats working on right now?
GM: We had a [customer relations management system] and now we’re in negotiations with a new company to build a brand new CRM for our company. That project, and how it’s going to help our agents communicate with their clients, be more effective in their communication, be more on top of what they’re doing, be more responsive, it’s going to be the nerve-center of our company once it’s all created. I think that system is going to enable agents to perfectly marry technology and the human element. I’m really excited about what it’s going to bring to the company because it’s going to be connected to our marketing platforms, it’s going to be connected to our database, and it’s going to allow agents to really ramp up their efforts and really be more connected to their clientele. So to me that’s the biggest, most important thing that we’re creating right now.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.