Artificial Intelligence (AI) Creates New Opportunities

Last week I was on a panel at the RESO conference where we talked about software personalization
as an important trend. Back in 2008, I wrote some articles about improving prospecting and real
estate, one aspect of which was that we needed to get smarter about understanding consumer preferences so that consumers don’t have to page through so many listings or can at least see the most likely matches to their interests first. As I noted in that article, the tricky part was that “there are various qualitative aspects of property selection that we don’t currently track data for at the current time.” That’s where “computer vision”, a technology that is becoming both more robust and more common, could make a difference.

“Computer vision” is the ability of a computer to analyze photos and create data out of them. Imagine a consumer likes open floor plans, modern kitchens, wide driveways, high ceilings, mature trees, or lots of natural light – those are all things a consumer might mention when describing their dream home, but little of that information is reliably tracked by agents in most MLSs. With computer vision, that data could be extracted from the listing photos by a computer as keywords by which listings could be searched – without having to manually sort through many homes and many more photos.

I recently saw an example of computer vision demonstrated by RealScout (not a Clareity client) that I was impressed by. I don’t think any company has fully leveraged the potential of computer vision and created the “perfect” product with it, but this company had clearly made some real progress on applying computer vision to real estate search. During the demonstration they showed how they could automatically tag photos, so a consumer could, for instance, page through just the kitchen photos of multiple listings – even if the photos weren’t labeled “kitchen” by the MLS. The technology enables searches for normally unsearchable criteria, and to compare images for key features and rooms side-by-side and roomby-room, as illustrated below:

Images used with RealScout’s permission.

We’ve watched computer vision evolve over the past fifteen years or so – Google’s image search was launched in 2001 and has continued to get more sophisticated, and there are many other companies outside our industry that specialize in it. RealScout is not the only company using computer vision in real estate – during their demonstration they showed how Trulia has used it, and I’ve seen others explore this area over the past few years though not always release the resulting products. There are also quite a number of companies outside of our industry that license computer vision technology – of course, it would have to be optimized for real estate use. And there are some limitations to what the technology can do at this point, especially where listing photos are limited. No one wants their client to miss out on a home because the pictures didn’t highlight a certain feature. That said, this technology – if used artfully – can certainly augment existing listing search technologies and create a compelling user experience.

I have no doubts that our industry will continue to evaluate how to create great listing entry and search experiences using computer vision, and that the number of products – both existing and new –leveraging this technology will grow over time. This is certainly an area to keep an eye on.I have no doubts that our industry will continue to evaluate how to create a great listing search experience using computer vision, and that the number of products – both existing and new –leveraging this technology will grow over time. This is certainly an area to keep an eye on.
Professionally, I tend to operate in the background over long time-frames, and I’m happy with the improvements I’ve been able to make with that level of influence. But there are some issues on which I’ve been waiting too long for change, no matter how long I’ve been beating the drum. So, I’m going to push a bit more here in public, on the blog.

More Complete Data Standards

Alternate APIs to move real estate data have been springing up like wildfire, and while few developers have taken the bait and fragmented their development efforts, this has been a distraction from putting full focus on RETS. Thankfully, RETS is finally making good headway based on incredible volunteer efforts. The “data dictionary” is the holy grail of RETS: one set of fields and enumerations to code apps to. And RETS is now about more than just listings; it includes contacts, searches, and more. There’s more to do to improve the standard, but the industry at large is unaware of the progress that has been made, so it has not been demanding faster standards adoption.

Get involved! Join RESO and read up on progress at and push for standards adoption ASAP. Then we will see easier transitions between MLS systems. We will develop and bring new products into the marketplace more easily. We will be able to move visitor profiles and preferences from an MLS public website to a broker site and/or the MLS system itself. The promise of RETS will be fulfilled.

Client Collaboration

It’s time to expand online client collaboration past where we started and pretty much stopped innovating in 1998.

When it comes to collaborating with buyers, sure, agents need to interact online as they do today around listings. But they also need a more robust search and better search result content, otherwise they’re pushing the client back to the advertising portals. I’m talking about neighborhood info, school info, public records info, and WalkScore. I’m talking about enhancements like lifestyle search. Relevant market trends and statistics for the client search areas (DOM, Inventory, List/Sell Prices, etc.) would also be compelling content. Messaging is also important; having proper alerting options, including email, text message, and phone is key to help ensure agents provide timely responses to questions. I’m all for the collaboration portal offering a way for agents to provide documents to their clients, but I think that these documents need to be more collaborative . For example, financial worksheets need to be interactive and provide alerts in both agent and client directions when a new version is created by “cloning” an old version for editing. Open houses visit planning, note-taking, and feedback should either be built in or deeply integrated. There’s so much more – this is just a starting point for how agents and buyers could be collaborating. And don’t forget that this needs to be mobile-device-friendly.

What do I look for when it comes to agent collaboration with sellers? Obviously, there is messaging, open house activity and feedback, seller-oriented market statistics and updates (i.e. new similar listings and price reductions), interactive and collaborative financial worksheets, and an agent activity log – the flip side of the buy-side functionality. There could be a reverse prospecting tool with “what if” capability – allowing the agent and seller to explore what would happen if improvements were made or the price were changed. There could be an interactive marketing plan and materials, including the listing’s location on advertising portals and metrics for advertising effectiveness inside and outside the MLS. One thing I definitely would love to see is the provision of CMAs, AVMs, and associated financial worksheets that allow for easy change and new versions over time as the market and comps change over the life of the listing.  Again, everything the seller needs to know, and all of the service the agent provides the seller, needs to be accessible from ONE mobile-friendly client collaboration portal.

Business Intelligence (BI)

Brokers and agents need to receive business intelligence from their websites and apps and learn as much about their site visitors as Amazon and others learn from their visitors. I don’t mean just general trends, or raw data about a specific visitor – but actionable intelligence. We should be able to tell, from how visitors use a site, where they are in the lead process and what kinds of listings they are really interested in. For starters. I’m just going to point the way here – not spell it out.

The “Cs” – Community, Curation, & Crowdsourcing

It has taken years, but finally MLSs and brokers are starting to add community information to their systems. MLSs and brokers still foolishly leave crime information out, forcing consumers to go elsewhere for it, but overall community information is much improved. Nonetheless, what has been missing is curation – information reflecting the professional’s knowledge both of the community and the client to create a great client experience. I’ve illustrated this before on my blog showing listings on a map of a neighborhood:
  •     where the best food shopping is
  •     hardware/home improvement
  •     the nearest bank (that the client uses)
  •     the restaurants that meet the client’s taste
  •     the businesses that match up to their hobbies (the judo dojo for Judy and the gym for Jim)

and so forth.

Smart organizations should be crowdsourcing from within (at least!) to create libraries of rich “user generated content” about their community that can be leveraged toward this kind of experience. Business intelligence can be derived from how the clients use this information.

Agent Ratings

Stop complaining about agent ratings! They are going to happen. The question is whether they will happen the way you want them to. So, if you are a broker, it’s time to make up your mind. Do you want the MLS/Association, where you will have control over the process and rules, to handle ratings, or do you want someplace else, where you will have to take what they give you, to do so?

Changing Role of Realtors

We’ve been talking for years about the Realtor role changing, moving away from the transactional role and evolving toward a longer term role in clients’ lives – a financial-planner-type role or something else. I think we need to fast-track that conversation about what we want Realtors to be in 10 years or in 50, and change the culture and use technology to support that role.


So, if you are a software provider in our industry, it’s okay to listen but also it’s important to lead. And if you’re a customer of a software provider that is primarily “customer-driven”, be a smart customer and start pushing for what you need. The industry has a lot of challenges coming up over the next few years. These are just a few of the items I have my eye on that, if executed, could provide a positive benefit for the industry overall. I’ll certainly be bringing up some more at the MLS Executive Workshop in March. Let’s all keep pushing together to make the best possible future for ourselves!


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