Real estate industry edges onto the internet

Copyright: David Lawson – appeared Property Week Sept 1998

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The senior partners dug in their heels. They had lasted for 150 years without it. Why did they need it now?  This attitude will ring bells right across the property world. The 'it' could apply to so many factors - plainer English for clients,  scientific valuation methods, female surveyors, computers. But   the wording is almost literal. IT, or information technology, is at the heart of this particular skirmish in the  battle against change.

  Not just computers, however, but talking computers. You cannot go a day without hearing about the Internet, yet a couple of years ago it was hard to find a surveyor who saw this newfangled form of communication  as more than an irrelevant technological gimmick. How things have changed. The first comprehensive study of property on the Net shows the profession is making up ground fast.

-  Almost seven out of ten have electronic mail.

-  More than half can access the Web - a method of publishing and receiving information in words and pictures.

- A third of firms have set up their own 'home page' on the Web with  details ranging from a simple name and address to complex information on property and services.

  'It is very encouraging,' says Tim Dixon, Director of Research at the College of Estate Management in Reading, who introduced the research findings at an RICS Cutting Edge conference today[4 SEPT]. But there are caveats which show the industry still has gaps to fill.

 First the good news. Property professionals emerge more favourably than a general cross-section of UK firms examined  by the government last year. But there are caveats. The secret probably lies not in some surge of computerisation but the pragmatic way they think.

 The anonymous IT manager railing against senior partners was actually giving an upbeat reaction to Dixon. They may have asked why the Internet was necessary: 'But the success is that they use it so much,' he added.

  In other words, the Internet changes from gimmick to business tool once it becomes useful. The fax went through the same obstacle course ten years ago. Who could survive without one today?

  There are still big questions to answer. Dixon admits that his study of almost 700 practices and companies is weighted towards larger firms. This does not reflect the basic structure of an  industry dominated by hundreds of operators with a handful - or even one - partner. And this is where progress is less encouraging. Among the small general practice firms the survey did reach, only a fifth had Web access compared with more than half the large ones.

  'Small organisations , particularly in the GP and QS groups, have yet to be persuaded of the benefits of the Internet,' says the report.

 One of the driving forces towards online activity is a well-developed IT culture. Many small firms are only just  learning how to use  a single computer. 'Factors such as the cost of internet access can seem insurmountable to a company on a limited budget,' says the report.

  One small firm agreed wholeheartedly in its comments. 'We plan to go on the Internet because we know we have to in order to remain competitive,' it said.

  Dixon has a dire warning for those unable - or unwilling - to make the leap. 'It can mean the difference between life and death if a competitor across the road is using the Internet and you are not,' he says. Small firms might not benefit from leading-edge technology like intranets (where several offices are linked), but email and Web access could be crucial. Clients are beginning to expect  to find information and communicate this way.

  The RICS must bear some responsibility. It has several IT panels and has developed an information  markets strategy. But the profession lacks 'an overarching IT business support function.'

  Dixon points to the way the Institute of Chartered Accountants had created an IT faculty, with a newsletter, booklets and seminars providing technical information at a low subscription. The report recommends a Web site providing more information on how the Internet can help small practices,  and links to the DTI Information Society Initiative.

  Better access to property information is also needed. Sites like Focusnet and Property Information Mall go some way towards this 'but there is a lot of relevant property information that continues to be overlooked.'


How will all this electronic activity affect the way surveyors work when buyers will be able to find their own information rather than going to an intermediary? There is already evidence about deals being done online, particularly in the US, where millions of properties are provided online.

 Professionals appear unmoved by this threat of 'disintermediation'.  'People are happy buying CDs on the Internet but buying an investment property is a lot more complex,' said one IT manager Dixon questioned.

 Like many others, he sees online information as a way to get deals started, but buyers will then move into face-to-face consultation with surveyors. Residential agent are seen as under greatest threat yet they are the most enthusiastic Internet users.

  'If a site generates an email contact, then it has done its job,' said a senior partner. In other words, Web pages are marketing leads - a cheap way of disseminating information. Even housebuyers are expected to demand personal contact and guidance.

    Not everyone is as confident that this route is a good medium for investment, however. 'If you have to use the Internet, it's too late,' said another GP senior. Buyers will not respond if they feel a score of rivals have also seen the information.

   Ironically, the growing popularity of the Internet may prove the strength rather than weakness of professionals. Their role will change from  provider of information to  interpreter and manager, says Dixon. 'This will not happen overnight, but it will be sooner than later - perhaps over five to ten years,' he says.

Building the Web: The Internet and the Property Profession. Tim Dixon. College of  Estate Management, Reading, Berks.