5 Users Who Turned Profits on Time-Tested Tech Investments

February 1, 1998

They promise to turn you into Robo Salesperson and make you filthy rich.

They are the products sprung from the latest technological wizardry. Gadgets. Devices. Tools. Their prices are plummeting, their features multiplying, and everybody wants one of these or two of those.

But wait just one nanosecond. Do these techno-tools really pay for themselves and go on to boost your bottom line, or are they mostly hype?

Finding out isn’t easy. Rarely is one thingamajig solely responsible for securing a listing or sale; rather, each goes into a mix that together makes a winning combination. Even so, Today’s REALTOR® located five practitioners who plunked down some cash for technology and managed to measure their results. Here are their reports:

If These Walls Could Talk

Name: Scott and Debbie Ratkowski, salespeople
Company: Century 21--Mueller & Associates Inc., Wind Lake, Wis.
Technology: Talking House System
Investment: $1,695
Return on investment: $11,670 in nine months

It was early 1997, just seven months into their new vocations as real estate salespeople, when Scott Ratkowski and his wife, Debbie, went searching for something that would distinguish them from the competition. Learning about the product from a magazine ad, they settled on a system of small transmitters—called a Talking House—that broadcast information about a property to the car radios of potential buyers sitting outside.

Although Scott admits the cost “was a little scary,” the couple purchased seven transmitters and nine yard signs that encourage passersby to tune in. Those who do so hear Scott and Debbie chatting affably about the home's layout and features, as well as providing price and contact information. Clouds and rain interfere with the transmission, but not too badly.

The dialogue is recorded directly on a computer chip nestled within the transmitter, which is then placed inside the property. About the size of an answering machine, the transmitter can be stashed away out of sight.

The Ratkowskis dished out an extra $200 for transmitters capable of recording up to three minutes instead of the standard minute and a half. “That’s enough time to give a complete audio tour of the house,” explains Debbie. “Half that would sound like a radio spot.”

Although they claim to have landed several listings because of this service, they measure the investment's success by the three buyers so far who've said it was the Talking House that convinced them to investigate further—and eventually buy.

Take, for instance, the time a buyer's agent who was supposed to show a woman one of the Ratkowskis’ listings didn’t show up for the appointment. Instead of driving away, the woman tuned her radio to the Talking House. She called the Ratkowskis from her car and said, “If this house is the way you describe it on the broadcast, I want it!” Just then the tardy buyer's agent pulled up, and they made an offer that evening.

“If it hadn't been for the Talking House,” says Scott, “she'd simply have driven away—taking our commission with her.”

As a Matter of Fax

Name: Gene Rivers, salesperson
Company: RE/MAX–Professionals Realty, Tallahassee, Fla.
Technology: Fax-back system
Investment: $1,200
Return on investment: $75,000+ a year

Gene Rivers’ most productive “assistant” is buried under stacks of old brochures in his garage. It’s a souped-up fax machine called SoftKlone, which, he says, requires no maintenance and enables him to make at least 25 more sales a year than he would without it.

How does it work? Let’s say Joe Average is a potential buyer who wants more information about one of Rivers’ listings. Joe gets the SoftKlone telephone number and a three-digit code unique to that listing from the property ad or yard sign. He calls the number, punches in the code and his own fax number, and hangs up. Seconds later, SoftKlone faxes Joe the property fact sheet.

In similar fashion, a buyer or seller can request any of the literature Rivers has scanned into SoftKlone's 500 electronic boxes, such as personal brochures, mortgage information, and special reports (you know the kind: “Ten Things to Avoid When Selling a House”). Updating the literature available through the system requires nothing more than faxing the new material to SoftKlone.

Rivers insists that the combination of the machine's instant delivery, 24-hour availability, and wealth of information does a better job of procuring buyers and sellers than he and his four assistants could do.

Of the 50 or so calls a day the system receives, he says, “Can you imagine how complicated and time-consuming it would be to personally answer those calls, record the addresses, and mail out the information requested? Not to mention that by the time consumers got the literature through snail mail, they might already have moved on to other houses and other practitioners.”

Yep, speed counts big time in this business.

Taking advantage of the machine's caller ID and report-generating functions, Rivers calls back everyone who requests information. “That’s how I know how much business SoftKlone generates,” he explains. “Consumers flat-out tell me that the machine impressed them and kept them interested in the property or in me.”

Asked whether he's pleased with his investment, Rivers rattles off a string of numbers: In 1993—the year before he laid out $1,200 for SoftKlone (it runs $1,995 now)—he handled about 100 transactions, for total sales of nearly $10 million. Last year those figures doubled, thanks in large part, he says, to his fax-back system.

Portable Profits

Name: Bob Huddleson, principal broker
Company: Metro Brokers and Associates, Denver
Technology: Laptop and portable printer
Investment: $5,000
Return on investment: Roughly $15,000 a year and time to pursue other endeavors

OK, so portable computing isn’t the sexiest technology around anymore. But broker Bob Huddleson insists it remains a wise investment. This, despite his own somewhat unorthodox method of measuring yield.

“Sometimes the value of technology can’t be counted in dollars,” he says, by way of explaining why he's a big believer in laptop computers and itsy-bitsy printers, even though his sales haven't budged from the $1.5 million range for years.

“What technology often gives you is time,” he says philosophically. “Some people reinvest that time back into the business, generating more income. Others, like me, do different things with it.”

Among those things are serving on the NAR Standards Committee and the Colorado Real Estate Commission's Errors and Omissions Task Force and qualifying as an expert witness regarding real estate in Colorado.

“Besides, being able to create forms and letters and keep track of contacts no matter where I happen to be has helped my profitability,” he says. “Without portable computing, I would probably have had to hire a personal assistant by now just to maintain the status quo.” And that would have set him back between $15,000 and $25,000 a year.

Oh, What a Newfangled Web We Weave

Name: Thomas Guarino, principal broker
Company: North American Real Estate Services, Spring Valley, Calif.
Technology: Web site, www.buyourhome.com. His mortgage company's Web site is www.usmortgage.com
Investment: $190 and lots of sweat equity
Return on investment: $12,000 in six months

It helps that broker Thomas Guarino is something of a computer whiz: Building his own Web site saved him the couple of hundred to couple of thousand dollars that pros charge. So for the price of Microsoft's Web-site-designing software called Front Page (about $100) and $15 a month to keep his site online, Guarino has a presence on the Internet. About 25 cyber travelers a day visit, with four so far giving him their business—and a total of $12,000 in commissions.

“I expect more hits [cyberese for Web visits] and more business from it as I get the word out,” he says. And spread the word he does: He lists his Web site address on all print advertisements, business cards, letterheads, and brochures. He also checks into newsgroups and chat rooms to leave his electronic moniker and address. “What good is it if people don’t know about it?” he comments.

Much as he enjoys tinkering on the computer, he says designing his Web site took longer than expected—about 40 hours over the course of several months. “Lots of trial and error,” he says. “When you build your own Web pages, you're never quite satisfied, never quite finished. But as long as it’s bringing in business, that’s OK with me.”

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