Show me the houses!

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Realty One President and Chief Executive Tony Ciepiel remembers the e-mails that used to clog his in-box from house hunters who perused the company’s Web site looking for their next home.

“Just show me the houses,” they complained.

Finally, Ciepiel had enough of the digital tirades and set out to redesign the site (www.realtyone.com).

Today, he admits the new site is a lot more sensible than the old one. It remembers what kind of house the user is looking for. And it remembers the price range, the neighborhood and other key data, so when house hunters log on, they see houses that fit their profile.

It’s the same type of smart personalization used for selling books and CDs, for job hunting and car shopping, and, yes, for news. (Check out SBN‘s personalized Web site, www.sbnonline.com.)

SBN recently sat down with Ciepiel to discuss Realty One’s site redesign and why the real estate giant invested in technology during uncertain economic times.

Bricks-and-mortar companies are scaling back on the Web. Why did you choose now to release such an ambitious site?

As consumer use of the Internet increases, a greater percentage of our customers are utilizing the Internet as a very important part of their search. The most recent data shows that 75 percent of people with incomes over $35,000 have Web access.

When they’re in the real estate market, they’re looking at homes on the Web. A person who doesn’t do it spends three times more time in the market. Once a person has done the education on the Web, on average they spend 2.1 weeks looking at homes, compared to the non-Web user, who spends 6.4 weeks.

The non-Web user is going to look at 15 homes. The Web user is going to look at 7.9 homes.

Now, think of our realtors having to drive people around to look at homes. For us, this was a very logical business decision. What we’ve really done is look at what we offered before, what was available elsewhere, and improve the customer experience with a goal to grow (our) market share.

As we grow market share, we’re going to increase profits and sales, and ultimately, we’re going to create shareholder value. I can’t think of a better reason to build a Web site than to create shareholder value.

What did you learn from others’ mistakes and successes on the Web?

We spent a year developing this site and studied some of the best sites inside and outside this industry, as well as studies by the California Association of Realtors and the National Association of Realtors. We found that consumers wanted to see homes when they came to a real estate site, so we designed our site in such a way that at the home page, every time you go to it, you see another home. We rotate them.

Customers can also see homes with one click of their mouse. Very few sites actually do that.

Another thing we learned is that consumers want to find out information about a home quickly. They don’t want to make phone calls. Our site is the only site in Northern Ohio that allows the consumer to schedule an appointment to see the home online, immediately, through a technology called Showing Time.

And, most people who contact us through the Web don’t have a mortgage, so we partnered with Fannie Mae to offer something called Instant Pre-Approval, an online loan approval in 10 minutes or less. We’re averaging four and a half minutes.

People have never been busier than they are now. They want services performed for them in an automated fashion. Our new site enables the customer to create a private section called My Home Connection and contains a service, HomeFinder E-Mail Alert.

You fill out criteria and save it. Any time a house that meets your criteria comes on the market, we e-mail you a photo and a description of the home.

Sounds like you did a lot of market research.

We have. But we also spent nine months just planning and strategizing what the site would be before we ever started building it. For example, one of things consumers said they wanted during our research was open houses.

Talk about an inefficient process — to open up a newspaper and look at little one-line ads that don’t tell you anything. I have to drive around to try and find the place, and then I pull up to find out it’s not something I’m even interested in.

Now, they can go to our Web site and don’t have to wait for the Sunday paper to get a complete summary of the homes in the area they want and the price ranges.

What’s the current climate of the real estate market?

We’re seeing strong activity in the first-time and second-time market area. Sales for October were 1 percent ahead of last year’s October, which is contrary to what you might expect. We did see a slowdown in September, and sales were off about 10 percent. The other area we’re seeing softness in is the upper end, the above $300,000 part of the market.

But our mortgage business is up 25 percent because of refinancing. The main things that drive our business are interest rates, employment and consumer confidence. The only one that’s waning a little bit is consumer confidence.

But if you’ve got a job, you’re going to jump on these interest rates. There’s never been a better time to invest in real estate. And since 1968, when the NAR (National Association of Realtors) started keeping track of housing appreciation/depreciation, there has never been a year on a national basis that housing values went down.

From an investment standpoint, it’s much less volatile than the stock market. The Northern Ohio market has enjoyed 4 to 5 percent average housing appreciation each year. How to reach: Realty One, (216) 328-2500 or www.realtyone.com