Real Estate Inventors: Why Didn’t I Think of That?

Ever had an idea for a new product or tool that would make your job easier? Get inspired by the stories of five practitioners who turned their ideas into money-making inventions.

June 1, 2007

Necessity is the mother of invention. Just ask these five real estate professionals who crafted original solutions to everyday problems, from keeping their cadre of tech tools organized to making For Sale signs visible to buyers after the sun sets.

Most of these practitioners never even realized they’d become “real” inventors until they saw what kind of response their innovative ideas evoked from peers and the general public. From there, they followed the sometimes-grueling path to patent their product, market it to the masses, and turn a profit.

The stories that follow prove that becoming an inventor may not be easy, but it certainly can be rewarding — professionally and sometimes financially, too. Maybe these practitioners-turned-inventors will inspire you to take action the next time you think of a unique way to solve a frustration that you face on the job.

A Bag for Your Gadgets

Inventors: Jean Newell, former broker/associate with RE/MAX 2000, and co-inventor James Newell, former owner of a commercial and building business, E.J. Newell and Associates; Melbourne, Fla.

Problem: Like countless other real estate practitioners, Jean Newell struggled to keep all of her gadgets organized and quickly accessible while she was running business errands and showing homes. Cell phone, PDA, lockbox key, pen, car keys, business cards … the list goes on and on. After one too many times of using another phone to locate her missing cell phone, Newell knew she needed a better system for keeping her stuff together.

Invention: The Personal Utility Pouch, or PUP for short, is a 7-by-9-inch unisex organizer bag with four pouches and two zipper pockets to hold all your business essentials. It comes in a variety of colors, and sells for $19.99 to $24.99, depending on the fabric you choose.

The story: In 2003, at the urging of her friend and co-inventor James Newell (despite sharing the same last name, Jean and James are not related), Jean drew a rough sketch of a small durable bag with lots of accessible pockets and a versatile strap that could be worn over the shoulder, across the chest, or around the waist.

With blueprint in hand, the Newells hired a local seamstress to create a few prototypes. The creation was an instant hit. When the Newells revealed the invention to other agents, orders started rolling in … first 35, then 250, and soon they had enough demand to order 3,000 bags from a Chinese manufacturing company. “The PUP took on a life of its own,” Jean says.

A key reason for the PUP’s popularity is that it serves many audiences beyond real estate agents — from rescue workers armed with life-saving supplies, to savvy travelers, to teenagers juggling iPod gear. The Newells discovered that everyone could use some help getting their gadgets in order.

Eight months after creating the bag, Jean appeared on QVC, a televised shopping network, to promote the PUP; she sold about 3,900 in seven minutes. Today, the Newells have generated more than $1 million in sales from the home shopping channel alone — more than covering their initial product investment of $20,000.

The Newells also peddle their product on the Web through a company they formed, Newco Enterprises. Marketing the PUP has become a full-time job for both Jean and James.

The PUP is currently in a patent-pending phase, which means the Newells have submitted an application with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and their invention is protected as long as a patent is eventually issued. The patent process usually takes about 2 years.

What’s next? The Newells are in talks with a national office supply chain and a major TV shopping network that are interested in selling the PUP and Jean’s latest invention, Hide-a-Note.

Hide-a-Note is a dry-erase board and bulletin board that hangs on the wall and can be folded in half to conceal notes and other clutter. When folded, the board looks like a picture frame. Jean says she thought of the idea because her living room doubles as her home office, and she wanted to be able to transform the space quickly.

“My intention has never been to invent anything,” she says. “I’ve needed to solve problems and when the solutions don’t exist, I just invented them.”

Enjoy Candles Without Fire Risk

Inventor: Greg Hart, GRI, sales associate with HER Real Living; Columbus, Ohio

Problem: Hart was moved by a photo in Newsweek that showed a firefighter who had just pulled a toddler from a burning house. The cause of fire: An unattended candle. Hart did some research and uncovered grim numbers — an estimated 23,600 fires in residences per year are caused by candles, resulting in 1,525 injuries, 165 fatalities, and $390 million in property damage, according to the National Fire Data Center.

Invention: Candlewatch, a safety device for candles, mounts on top of jar candles and automatically snuffs out the flame by closing its lid when a silent timer goes off. It sells for $24.99.

The story: To test his idea, Hart created his own prototype with a canning jar, wood, a part from a crock pot, and glue. After his home prototype worked, he asked a manufacturer to create a more professional version. His first model, made of solid aluminum, was too bulky: It weighed 7 pounds, which cracked jars and created a tipping hazard. Eventually, he found a nonflammable molded plastic that proved to be the best alternative, weighing only 12.5 ounces and fitting snugly onto the most popular brands of jar candles.

In 2001 Hart hired an attorney and began the process of patenting his invention. In the meantime, he learned that being an inventor can be quite expensive — by the time his first patent was issued in December 2002, he already had doled out some $120,000 in manufacturing costs, attorney fees, and more.

To date, he’s sold about 21,000 units through a partnership with Lumi-Lite Candle Co. Inc., which markets fragrant candles. Like the Newells, he’s also had success with QVC. In 2005, he sold more than 3,000 Candlewatch units in just four minutes on the network.

“The dilemma I have now is that 99 percent of the population still doesn’t know about it,” Hart says. “That’s the biggest hurdle, getting this out to the market.”

While Candlewatch isn’t a household name yet, Hart’s invention has earned recognition elsewhere. Last year the History Channel named the product as one of 25 semi-finalists (of 4,300 submissions) for its Modern Marvels Invent Now Challenge. Hart has also been approached by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and the National Inventor Hall of Fame to speak at conferences about his invention and the patent process, which he has been through three times as he developed new iterations of his Candlewatch design.

What’s next? Though he’s still a full-time real estate practitioner, Hart continues to work diligently to spread the word about his product. Lately, he’s had discussions with national insurance companies who are interested in promoting Candlewatch for its fire-preventing potential. He’s also been marketing the product to real estate professionals as a closing gift.

The most recent version of Candlewatch, for which a patent is pending, includes a battery-powered heat sensor that automatically extinguishes a flame that gets too hot. It also has a motion sensor that snuffs out the candle if children, pets, drapes, or anything else comes within 16 inches. This new model likely will be released by 2009, Hart says.

“Candlewatch has opened so many doors for me,” Hart says. “I’m so glad I followed through with the idea. It’s going to make a difference. Once the public learns more about it, they’ll realize that it will protect them from out-of-control candles and will help save lives.”

Selling in the Dark

Inventor: Bob Visotcky, owner of Front Porch Realty; Carlsbad, Calif.

Problem: Despite giving a passionate listing pitch, Visotcky learned that his FSBO prospect decided to work with another agent. While he was in the neighborhood one night, Visotcky drove by the property to peek at the For Sale rider and to find out who got the job. But his curiosity remained unquenched — he couldn’t read the sign in the dark. That’s when it hit him: For Sale signs need night lights.

Invention: The battery-powered ListingLight fastens to For Sale signs to illuminate both sides of the sign. Four light bulbs turn on automatically at dusk and can be programmed to stay on for three hours or five hours. They sell for $65 or $235 for a four-pack.

The story: Visotcky was so confident that the ListingLight would be a success that he “bet his life savings” on it. But hurdles emerged right away. After eight months of waiting for a prototype, and $37,000 in manufacturing costs, the prototype came back “junk” — it was flimsy and unreliable, he says.

“I had no previous experience and I thought it would be an easy device to develop,” Visotcky says. “I didn’t do enough research. I learned that if you hire the wrong team, you’re not going to get the job done.”

Visotcky cut his losses and hired another company to start from scratch. The second time was a charm; the prototype came back in excellent shape.

While he continued tweaking the design, Visotcky began ramping up interest for the ListingLight at trade shows. The early exposure brought in 2,600 presale orders before the first shipment arrived on April 1, 2006. Within a year, Visotcky has sold about 13,000 of the 15,000 products he manufactured upfront.

What’s next? While he still dabbles some in real estate, Visotcky has turned his invention into a full-time job. He travels to trade shows, manages e-mail marketing campaigns, and gives presentations on his product to real estate companies. He also created a related invention, ListingLocks, which secures the ListingLight to For Sale sign posts to prevent theft and to keep the sign from tipping over in the wind.

As a child, Visotcky always dreamed of creating something that people would remember. He says being an inventor allows him to accomplish that goal. “Driving down the street and seeing a sign lit up with the Listing Light — that’s the greatest feeling ever,” Vistocky says.

Slippers for Your Signs

Inventor: Maria Gnas, broker for Team Gnas, Keller Williams Bluegrass Realty; Lexington, Ky.

Problem: Gnas was trying to load open-house signs into the back of her brand new Subaru Outback, but they just wouldn’t fit. So, she tucked them in the backseat instead. One left turn later, the signs’ sharp iron legs poked two big holes in her new leather seats, causing more than $200 in damages. Gnas knew she couldn’t have been the first person to deal with this frustrating predicament.

Invention: Sign-Slippers are light-weight plastic tubes that squeeze over the legs of yard signs to protect your car. The slippers include a cloth bag that covers the legs and catches any dirt. A pair costs $14.95.

The story: Gnas, a former math teacher, knows every problem has a solution. First she tried to fit socks around the legs of the For Sale sign, but they slipped off. A blanket was too cumbersome, and foam was too messy. Finally, she found rubber tubing worked like magic. Her mother made cloth bags to fit over the tubed legs and minimize cleanup.

She never intended to sell the product. But in 2004, her former broker learned of the secret invention and urged her to pursue a patent. Since then she has spent about $3,500 for the patent process and attorney fees (she’s still in a patent-pending phase) and nearly $7,000 to produce 2,500 pairs of Sign-Slippers.

Former real estate clients turned out to be big help in getting the product ready to market. One past client connected Gnas to a company in China that could manufacture Sign-Slippers at a lower cost than in the United States; another designed the logo.

Gnas has been selling Sign-Slippers since 2005 as a hobby, but with a hectic real estate career she admits that she hasn’t devoted as much time as she’d like to marketing. When she does have a spare moment, however, she makes phone calls to pitch the product to potential buyers. One call recently landed an order for 500 Sign-Slippers from a bank that plans to use them as gifts to real estate professionals.

She also is sticking with a simple marketing strategy that she hopes will one day produce a big payoff — freebies. “Giving away products is crucial,” Gnas says. “Nobody knows what Sign-Slippers are. Sometimes people walk past them and think they’re umbrellas. But once the light bulb goes off, they usually want them.”

What’s next? Gnas has sold about 2,000 pairs of Sign-Slippers and has broken even on her initial investment, but has made only about $1,000 in profit so far. However, she’s optimistic that sales will get a boost from a new partnership with Sanzo Specialties Inc., a real estate supplies company that started selling Sign-Slippers online.

“I like making money, but with Sign-Slippers I’ve more enjoyed that I solved a problem,” Gnas says.

Wi-Fi Curb Appeal

Inventor: John Doran, GRI, ABR®, John Doran & Associates; Nashua, N.H.

Problem: How can you grab buyers attention while they're curbside at a listing? More home buyers are driving around the neighborhood with PDAs or laptops to get immediate information on the properties they like. Sure, they can access data from or other real estate listing Web sites. But Doran wanted to add to the curb appeal of a listing by offering the ability for potential buyers to view floor plans, video tours, and other details right from when they are alongside a home.

Invention: eLapTopTour is a wireless service that allows tech-savvy buyers who drive up to a home to tune into customized online information about a property.

The story: Doran, who has been in the real estate business for 26 years, knew he’d need some technology expertise to get his complex idea off the ground. He sought help from a former colleague, Eric Snider, who works in the tech industry.

Together, they came up with an idea for a wireless service that would reside on the property and provide a one-way broadcast to buyers within 300 feet of the home. Buyers would just need to set their wireless connection to “eRealWGW1000” and they’d be automatically directed to the property page. A patent for the wireless gateway is pending.

What’s next? Now that they’ve developed the technology, Doran and Snider are field testing the service through their business, effectioNet, and gathering feedback from real estate professionals. “What they say they like or dislike about it is extremely valuable in creating and tweaking it,” Doran says.

Doran, who does real estate coaching and consulting, has caught the inventor bug and already is brainstorming other novel ideas for the real estate industry.

“In real estate, we’ve moved from a broker-centric to an agent-centric to a consumer-centric environment,” Doran says. “There’s a real opportunity to capitalize on that. We’ve become so high-tech that we’ve forgotten that we also need to balance it with high touch. I hope to use the value of technology on a consumer direct level, but also with high touch.”