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Realtors get their hands on technology

Brokers learn to love the Web tools that give them an edge with buyers

Melvin A. Vieira, Jr., a broker with Coldwell Banker residential brokerage in Milton, uses his high tech PDA/cell phone to check the latest MLS listings on the go in his car.
Melvin A. Vieira, Jr., a broker with Coldwell Banker residential brokerage in Milton, uses his high tech PDA/cell phone to check the latest MLS listings on the go in his car.

Cruising Blue Hills Parkway in Milton one recent workday, real estate agent Melvin Vieira Jr. pulled in front of a small brick and clapboard Colonial he recently learned was for sale.

The curbside for-sale sign was listing to one side and flapping madly in the strong breeze, its faded lettering barely legible.

Time was, when Vieira, a broker for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, was out making rounds such as this, he'd have to call his wife and prod her to fire up the home computer to look up listing information on a house.

But on this day he whipped out his personal digital assistant, which is loaded with one of the many new programs designed to speed real estate information to agents wirelessly. Accessing the industry's central listing database, Multiple Listing Service, through the program, called Pathfinder, Vieira located the Blue Hills Parkway house: a four-bedroom with original gumwood woodwork, priced at $467,700.

He also surfed the Web on the PDA to the Internet site advertised on the sign, and concluded the seller wasn't getting enough exposure.

Technology ''has made my life much simpler," Vieira said. ''My life has become less complex and less taxing. That allows me to more efficiently talk to more clients with more information -- that's what technology has given me at my fingertips."

Only a few years ago, real estate agents were the keepers of sacred home listings, and their bible was the three-inch bound volumes of MLS listings, updated twice monthly, that they lugged around in briefcases or tossed on the back seat of their car. But their position as gatekeepers is threatened by the boundless amount of free information available to consumers over the Internet, enabling some buyers to find the house of their dreams without ever consulting an agent.

Shoppers can scan the Web to find home listings by location, price, and size. They can look up past sale prices and peer down on the house and neighborhood from satellite photographs. Common mapping programs plot the daily commute from the house, and locate the nearest coffee shop and other conveniences.

At first blush, technology would seem a huge threat to real estate agents. The epitome of the hands-on, personable salesman, brokers have been reluctant to embrace technologies that would seem to distance them from valuable face time with clients. But some, such as Vieira, have become wise to using mobile devices, Web logs, and podcasts to both maximize the exposure of the property for sale, and of their own critical role in selling it.

''Technology that works for realtors is a technology that plays to the consumer focus, that makes a consumer's life easier," said Mark Lesswing, head of the Center for Realtor Technology, at the National Association of Realtors. For agents who ''have been in the market for years and years, technology can be a savior in that it's another medium to show the depth of their real estate knowledge."

Video tours are one powerful new tool brokers are loading onto their websites; customers can watch on their computers as the listing agent walks through a home for sale and comments on the rooms and other features.

Boston Virtual Imaging will take still pictures of a home interior and stitch them together to create a 360-degree virtual image of the property. Buyers ''expect to be given an enormous amount of content," said Matthew Murphy, the company's president.

Boston-area brokers Bill Wendel and John Keith each have their own blogs, which provide information on everything from the real estate bubble to industry news and agent commissions. The real estate industry counts about a dozen new programs that provide listing information and other tools for agents to view on mobile devices, one of which is Pathfinder.

Pathfinder creator Dimitry Petion, a former IBM and Lotus Development engineer, started Advanced Marketing Services Inc. of Quincy in 1993, to put MLS listings online and provide other tech services to the industry. With agents always out on the road, Petion noticed top brokers often spend a good hour in the morning assembling maps, listings, and other paperwork to take with them.

''I stepped back and said there's a better way of doing this," he said. He created a tool where ''everything they need to be productive is readily available and allows them to stay completely connected to the customer."

Pathfinder provides brokers with real-time access to all houses listed on MLS. Its has global positioning and mapping technology to help agents locate houses for sale in given neighborhoods or chart the best route to properties.

Pathfinder can also analyze sales data for similar homes in a seller's neighborhood, so brokers can suggest a precise listing price while at a prospective client's home, rather than throwing out a ''ballpark" estimate.

A skiing buddy of Petion, Vieira is an early enthusiast of Pathfinder, which debuted this year. With so much info in the palm of his hand, Vieira doesn't have to tell clients he'll get back to them later. Indeed, Petion said Pathfinder is designed to allow brokers to capitalize on ''that moment" when they have a client's attention by delivering information immediately.

Just recently, while scouting a house in Milton, Vieira called a client, Hilda Fernandez, who's in the market for a two-family house.

Earlier that day, Vieira sent her an e-mail from his office of a listing he thought she'd be interested in: a two-family on Hazelton Street in Mattapan. Later, sitting in the car, he first sent her a text message, and then followed up with a call.

''Hilda, did you look at the e-mail listing I sent you?" he asked.

While on the phone with her, Vieira called up the listing sheet and photo of the house on his screen, while at the other end of the line, Fernandez looked at a picture of the house on her work computer. The two discussed renovations the property would need and agreed to talk later about seeing it in person.

Soon, Petion said he will introduce another feature to Pathfinder that will generate legal documents, such as purchase offers or sales contracts.

Homebuyers and sellers would be able sign documents right on the device, much the way grocery store shoppers sign for a credit card payment on the electronic screen at the cash register. Pathfinder would also be able to store and track changes made to the documents.

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.

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