For every generation before us that dreamed of one day purchasing a home, the process was opaque and incredibly complicated. Buyers sought out real estate agents not just for their charm and hand-holding through the process, but because those agents were the only ones who knew which homes were actually on the market. Short of slowly driving block-by-block through your dream neighborhood and writing down addresses with For Sale signs in the front yard, choosing a real estate agent was the only way to ensure that you could even find a home to buy.
I don’t have to tell you that this is clearly no longer the case. With the advent of companies like Zillow and other online real estate databases, today’s consumers have access to nearly as much information as those very same agents. Just 10 years after its founding, Zillow says that nearly nine out of 10 homebuyers now use the Internet when searching for a home. You can check out hundreds of listings at Door! And we’re not just talking about Millennials here. 71 percent of those over the age of 65 search for their next home online. And that figure skyrockets up to 90 percent for those between 18 and 35.
But a funny thing has happened along the way. Even in the face of all of this information becoming available online — the floor plans and photo galleries and school district maps — the percentage of homebuyers who use a real estate agent has actually increased since the beginning of the decade, from 69 percent in 2001 to 87 percent in 2015.
So what gives? Real estate information can hardly still be accused of being held out of consumer view in an impenetrable black box. Instead, the box in today’s market is completely transparent, and accessible to anyone with a cell phone or library card. Access to all of that valuable information has been completely democratized.
But having access to information and understanding what to do with it are two very different things. And therein lies the new role that today’s real estate agents have embraced. Agents have evolved from gatekeepers to interpreters, helping people to sort and synthesize the massive amount of data out there.
And while that evolution has surely been transformative, agents as a whole have handled the transition with grace and the industry’s hallmark charm, combatting ever-increasing amounts of technological innovation with an equal measure of good old-fashioned hospitality.
While vacationers don’t hesitate to book their own flights and hotels in 2016, eschewing travel agents, the home purchase or sale transaction is a large, infrequent, and scary one. Is it really so bad that people want a little hand-holding when making the most expensive purchases of their lives?
The technological tide that has swept through our modern lives shows no sign of retreating anytime soon. Far from it! Someday our grandchildren will look back at today’s so-called innovations and roll their eyes. But as future technologies enhance and sometimes encroach upon our lives, I expect that the real estate industry will continue to match that momentum with warmth and humanity.
Alex Doubet is the founder and CEO of Door, a Dallas-area tech-driven real estate brokerage.
This column first appeared in Park Cities People.
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(image via William Murphy, Flickr)