An Interview with an MLS Executive Karen Kage, Michigan's largest REALTOR®-owned MLS
By John Peretz, Real Estate Technology Writer
Glimmers of light and hope are beginning to show their way through a gritty and determined Detroit metro area and its surrounding areas. For anyone who watched the Super Bowl this year, the Clint Eastwood TV commercial for Chrysler that talked about comebacks was the talk of the town. And for those of us in real estate, that's good news. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Karen Kage, the CEO of Realcomp II, Ltd., Michigan's largest REALTOR®-owned MLS to talk about real estate and technology.
Tell me what's happening in Detroit from a real estate standpoint?
“You know, it's interesting – we were just looking at some recent article about how the trend is still somewhat downward on a national level, except for Detroit.
We've been able to report an increase in the number of units sold, a decrease in number of days on market and a slight but steady increase in the median sales price in some areas.”
What do you attribute that to?
“Well, I think what we're seeing is that Michigan was one of the first states to get hit by the economic downturn, so it stands to reason that we'd be one of the first ones to climb out. You know, the Big Three automakers are all profitable again. Ford, Chrysler and GM just announced bonuses, and every day you're seeing new technology companies pop up.”
So, how bad was it?
“It was bad. I've been in this business for 33 years, and I don't think I've ever seen anything remotely close to what happened in the 4 to 5 years during the brunt of the recession. But things are definitely looking up.”
“In the middle of 2007 we had 93,000 total properties on the market and that's compared to 28,000 now, so it's a big difference. So we are seeing a turnaround in the economy here and in the overall housing market.”
What about subscriber counts?
“Well, there are fewer subscribers now than we've had in the past, but we're starting to see those numbers stabilize. In March 2006 we had 14,600 subscribers; today, we have 10,300. We are pretty fortunate that throughout those years we never had a time when we lost 10% all at once. I just had a conversation with a manager who keeps track of subscribership and participation and she said she is seeing people coming back who left the industry in 2005-2006.”
How long have you been in the real estate business?
“It's been 33 years. I answered an ad for a statistical typist at an MLS. I walked in and a woman looked at me and said 'Hello, nice to meet you, this is what you'll be doing next week.’ My first job was typing the data sheets on a typewriter. We actually typed them on a typewriter, printed them four to a page, cut them out, made copies and counted them out for as many as each office needed, and drove around to each office every day and dropped them off.”
“Six months later, the lady that hired me decided to go on vacation. She called me from California and said, ’I'm not coming back’. So the EO of the board at the time gave me her job, and I started working my way through the ranks.”
“My first 'Oh, oh story' was when Roger Smith was the Chairman of GM, and he put his house up for sale
with a big note on the documents that said 'Do not multi-list' and I didn't know what that meant. And I put it out there for the world to see. I only made that mistake once because that was a big one.”
So going from typewriters to today's technology, you've seen it all. How has technology changed the RE market?
“Interestingly, real estate used to be a much more of a part-time job or second career. But now we're seeing more and more people choose real estate as their career, at an early age, so I think we're going to see the average age of the REALTOR drop. And these are people who do their business, communicate and live with technology. We actually formed a technology committee so when someone calls up and says ’here's a really good idea’, we say bring it to the committee and look at it. It's absolutely imperative that we stay up with what's available out there.”
What are your seeing in terms of eSignatures?
“Well, I think people are still getting used to the idea. The younger people coming in are the drivers because they don't want to come to the office and sign documents or have you go to their home. I think adaption is going to be slow and steady. We're hearing a lot of times from people who say they never met the buyer until the closing, or the seller for that matter. They do everything online.”
So, technology should make the whole real estate process easier, but how can it help to protect an office in case of an audit?
“Our MLS uses TransactionDesk™ and there is a module inside called DocBox™. We offer it all to all our subscribers at no cost to them, so we can say you can store all your documents, you can make a copy of a transaction that you can put on a CD and store it that way, you can give it to your buyer and seller, etc. We actually made a rule that all the disclosure documents had to be attached online through DocBox on every listing that's on the MLS. So we feel that this piece is extremely important and I think that for the brokers to have one easy place to go to get all of those documents, and each transaction having its own set of documents, has made it really easy on them.”
If there were a brand new person starting in the industry, what would you tell them are the keys of success and how technology fits into the mix?
“Well, I think almost every survey you get today will say the majority of people searching for a home will start on the Internet. So I think that tells you that the consumer is pretty computer savvy and familiar with technology. Chances are you will be communicating in that way. Technology and social media are tools that you need to master.”
“The one thing that I believe firmly in is that no matter how much technology is available, real estate is and always will be a relationship business, because I believe their best way of advertising a REALTOR'S abilities is through word of mouth. So the technology is great and it can make their job so much easier and quicker, but they still have to be able to communicate with the people.”
What about iPads and smart phones?
“iPads are the rage around here. When we teach classes on how to use the iPad, we teach them how to use the MLS on the iPad, how to use the online forms, and even how to use DocBox2Go™, the mobile phone version of DocBox so they can access their records from any smart phone if they need them.”
Instanet Solutions was the first major player to make their forms available on the iPad. Is that helpful?
“It is. We actually teach that as part of using the MLS on the iPad. It's all wrapped up together, to be able to say, ’here you can use the forms, you can use the MLS, your document storage, it's all integrated together’. So it's extremely important.”
What about how mobile real estate has become?
“It has become incredibly mobile. That's why DocBox itself has become so critical to that. A lot of the offices have cut back on their weekend and nighttime staff. That's one of the reasons we said you must attach your documents online. Because if it's 9 o'clock on a Thursday night, and you're trying to schedule something for the next day, you can simply log into the system and pull the documents down without calling an office and waiting. It's has been just a tremendous benefit. And if you're out on the road with someone and you want to schedule something you can pull it down through your smart phone and it gets you the information you need and it all works very well together.”
Do you include certain technology products in subscriber fees?
“We include online forms and TransactionDesk (including DocBox document storage), in addition to Showing Time. We have some others that we have partnered with but we don't pay for it on behalf of our customers, like some CMA programs that we negotiate discounts on.”
What could you tell us about Instanet Solutions?
“I honestly have to say that they are one of the best companies if not THE best company that I have ever worked with. They are always true to their word, which to me is critical. I am a 'do what you say, and say what you mean' type of person, and if I ever have a problem that I think I need to step in and move it up the chain a little bit and reach out, I can be assured that I'll have a response immediately. And that happens so rarely I probably couldn't even tell you the last time.”