New Kid on the Block? Assess Your Tech Needs

From choosing cell phones to GPS solutions, here’s what you need to know to make wise decisions when outfitting your new business with technology.

March 1, 2007

I often receive requests from readers who are brand new to the real estate field: They’re eager to succeed, and want me to tell them which tech tools they need to start their business on strong footing. Most of these go-getters want a detailed shopping list, right down to the brand and model number.

As a matter of policy, I never say exactly which products you should purchase — after all, the “right” tool is always a subjective decision, and it’s best to investigate several options before making your choice. Instead, I explain what to look for in a product, and how to make the best decision for your needs.

So for all the newbies out there looking for advice, here’s what I recommend you should do to find out what technology services and tools you need.

First, Do the Research

Before spending a dime, take these steps:

  • Take inventory of what’s already there. Ask your broker what systems are already in place for practitioners, and check in with your local MLS to find out which tech tools and services work best with its data.
  • Survey your peers. Experienced real estate pros, or even practitioners who are still relatively new to the business, will be an excellent source of information. Find out what they’re using, what they need now, and what they like or dislike about tools they’ve tried.
  • Read product reviews. With a simple Google search or sites like CNET, you can quickly find detailed reviews of all types of tools. At many retail Web sites like Amazon or Circuit City, you can read reviews posted by consumers, which I find to especially be useful since they reflect real life experiences with the products, including the pros and cons.
  • Look for discounts. New technology and upgrades can be pricey. Before purchasing, check with companies that participate in the REALTORS® Benefits program. These vendors have taken the initiative to understand the specialized needs of real estate professionals and may offer you some special deals.

What You Need: The 6 Essentials

To run your office most efficiently, here’s a quick rundown of the technology that’s worth the investment.

1. Mobile Phone. Seriously, could you live without it? A mobile phone, with a standard electronic address book, is a necessity for real estate. You’ll also benefit from having a mobile e-mail service and camera phone — being able to snap photos on the fly comes in handy. If your budget allows, go for a full-featured “smartphone”— combo phone, PDA, and handheld computer with wireless Web access. In other words, it’s a mobile office in your pocket. Whatever phone you choose, before you sign the service contract, inquire about upgrade options since your need for a better plan and phone — especially that smartphone — may change over time.

2. Computer. If you must choose between a desktop or laptop computer, opt for mobility. Then, let your budget be your guide and buy the best you can afford. You’ll need wireless networking and you may want to add an aircard for wireless Web access via cellular later. Before you buy, sample several laptops and a Tablet PC to find the model with the screen and keyboard/data entry that’s most comfortable. And remember, portable computers can take a beating on the road; an extended service contract is like product insurance.

3. Software. Word processing software, a Web browser, and e-mail access is standard. When choosing software beyond that, ask yourself: Will I best be served with generic software applications or specific real estate solutions? Will this software integrate as seamlessly as possible with other applications I’m using?

Virtual tour solutions simplify the steps involved in showcasing your listings. Real estate software calculators for qualifying buyers and figuring loans and mortgages are available online. Electronic forms provide an electronic archive of all contracts and documents.

One of the challenges with real estate software is simply knowing what’s available. The Real Estate Software Directory, maintained by Texas A&M University’s Real Estate Center, is one good resource.

4. Printer. Get the most for your money with a multifunctional printer. The versatility of a unit can offer the convenience of a printer, copier, and fax all-in-one. And, they’re affordable so it no longer makes sense to buy a dedicated printer.

As for other printer considerations, let your budget dictate whether you go with an inkjet or splurge for a laser printer. As a step-up feature, think about fax-to-e-mail or fax-to-PDF conversion capability. These features make it easier to get documents to clients quickly.

5. Digital Camera. Until your camera phone delivers comparable optics and image resolution, you’ll need a digital camera to do justice in shooting photos of your listings. For typical needs, a 3-megapixel camera or better is adequate. You’ll want a 3X optical zoom lens, at a minimum. Also, a camera with a wide-angle lens, described as the equivalent of a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera (or lower), will give you more options when taking photos of houses, inside and out. Cameras, just like computers, come in all shapes and sizes, so sample several to find the best fit for you.

6. GPS. Why waste time with maps when GPS can tell you exactly how to get there and even plan the most efficient route for a day’s worth of home tours? If you have the slightest doubt about how to move about your area or if you work in a place prone to traffic congestion, you should seriously consider investing in one of these navigation systems. The turn-by-turn directions GPS’ provide will save time, and allow you to devote more attention to clients.

These are just some of the basic technology building blocks you’ll need for getting your business running and growing — a business you’ll soon realize is a people business increasingly powered by technology.