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Competitive agents are embracing text messaging and podcasts to reach buyers.

April 09, 2006|T.J. Sullivan | Special to The Times

CAN txt msgs make it EZer 2 shop 4 real est8?

Home sellers like Peter Maurer are hoping they will. When the founding partner of a Santa Monica architecture firm put his five-bedroom house in Sherman Oaks on the market in mid-March, his real estate agent, Craig Paul, put more than just a phone number on the sign out front. Paul, who subscribes to a service called CellSigns, also posted a string of numbers known as a "short code" to which prospective buyers can send a text message to request more information.

After the query is sent, several brief text messages are automatically transmitted in response from the text messaging service, giving information such as the number of bedrooms, the square footage and the asking price. One message lists the agent's website address and explains how to request a call or brochure by e-mail. Some services, such as Phoenix-based House4Cell, send messages with photos of the inside of the home.

For buyers, it eliminates the frustration of an empty flier box and playing phone tag with an agent just to determine a price. For sellers, it lets them know who, besides the neighbors, have passed by and snagged the listing information. And for real estate professionals, it's a chance to connect with customers on the fly.

It also offers a new option for homes that are for sale by owner. If sellers don't want their home phone numbers posted out front, they can communicate through a text-message service.

"This is one of the best inventions in the real estate market that I have seen," Maurer said.

Agents, being agents, are continually looking for new ways to acquire listings and communicate with prospective buyers. Text messaging has joined other innovations, including podcasts, which allow real estate agents to produce audio and video commercials for their listings and zap them to people who request them on the Internet.

Several companies have begun offering high-tech services in the last year. House4Cell launched its text-messaging service in 2005, as did one of its competitors, CellSigns, based near Philadelphia. Likewise, companies focused on real estate podcasts rolled out their products last year too, including, based in Marina del Rey, and the Xsites Network by A la mode Inc., based in Oklahoma City.

The timing appears to be right. "Realtors that were in the hot market didn't need to do anything," said Jeff Turner, president of "But we are now back in selling mode in Southern California."

Alexander Villa, an agent with Century 21 Prestige Properties in Claremont, said he's trying to adjust to the needs of a more tech-savvy clientele.

"The demographic is changing, and the focus is on the younger crowd," said Villa, the bulk of whose recent business has been with young families buying in San Bernardino County. Villa uses House4Cell on his listings and said he intends to jump into podcasting next.

"Less than a minute from them requesting something I know it, and I call them back," he said. "If I waited until that night, or later in the day, they'd say, 'Oh gosh, that was yesterday.' "

About 134 million American adults have cellphones and about 27% of them have used text messages, according to a study released last year by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, an initiative of the Pew Research Center. CTIA-the Wireless Assn. reported that 7.3 billion text messages were sent in the month of June 2005, up 154% from June 2004. Five years ago, only 33.5 million text messages were sent in June, said John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the association.

Although still relatively new on the West Coast, using text messages to sell homes is more common in the East. Homeowner Jon Thies, who recently completed construction of a new home in Pennsylvania, said he used CellSigns to help market his prior residence this winter in Wilmington, Del. Although the eventual buyer didn't use the text-messaging feature, Thies said the response to it was "awesome."

"We'd be home, and we'd see cars drive by and stop, and we'd look at the CellSigns website and we'd see that they requested the information we put up there," Thies said.

The area codes of the people requesting the information, which are logged in a secure area of the website, told Thies that many of the prospective buyers came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.

But in the age of do-not-call lists, the matter of sharing a cell number with a real estate agent is bound to concern some would-be buyers. Federal law prohibits cellphone numbers from being placed in a telemarketer's auto-dialer. However, when a prospective buyer sends a text message to the code number on a sign, he is voluntarily sharing his phone number with both the company that runs the service and the real estate agent paying for it.

How that information is treated depends on the agent and the company offering the service.

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