Residential brokerage firm SellSmart Real Estate is determined to do things differently, which is part of the reason company president Lynda Cook drives and advertises her firm on a Smart car.
The compact, fuel-efficient Smart car will not be widely available in the United States until next year, but Cook was able to find one. She bought the car and wrapped it in her company's insignia.
Cook drives the Smart car all over town, and she always finds a parking space, because her Smart car can be parked nose-in to the curb, rather than parallel.
"It's been one of the best marketing tools we have," said Cook. "I'm always being approached by people who want to find out more about the car, and then they ask about SellSmart Real Estate."
A relative newcomer to the market, SellSmart Real Estate is quickly climbing the ranks of residential real estate franchise firms. The company found success by offering a discounted commission fee without discounting any of the services buyers and sellers have come to expect from a conventional real estate brokerage firm.
"I think people are wary when they hear that they can get the same service for less money," said Cook. "When we explain that technology makes the Realtor's job easier, and other firms just choose not to discount their rates to reflect innovation, people get it."
Cook and her team believe that by doing right by the consumer, success will follow.
"In many areas across the country, real estate prices have escalated faster than individual earnings," said Cook. "People shouldn't have to pay 6 percent of the purchase price to the Realtors anymore, especially when Realtors have so many tools at their disposal to make their jobs easier."
Cook says that most home shoppers start their search online since the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is now available to the public. Data from research firm comScore Media Metrix supports her claim, pegging the proportion of people who start their home search online at 80 percent. These prospective homebuyers can manage the process of identifying homes for sale themselves with little help from their Realtor.
Additionally, customized Web-based services alert homebuyers the moment a new property matching their criteria appears on the MLS. Other Web-based services help homebuyers calculate estimated mortgage payments and track specific properties.
"Unlike other discount realty firms, we don't have to offer a la carte services to save our customers money," said Cook. "We're full service; we just believe in passing along the savings real estate agents have realized over the last several years to our customers."
In addition to the standard technology-based services employed by residential real estate brokerage firms, SellSmart Vice President Richard Cook developed the Knockbox, a wireless appliance to let home shoppers bring up a virtual tour of a for-sale home's interior from their laptop, PDA or even some cell phones.
"Our Realtors can provide instant information about a listing so that people can tour the property as soon as they find it," said Richard Cook. "Offering as much information at one of the most influential moments of the home shopping experience, right at curbside, helps identify serious buyers and reduces the time a Realtor will have to spend showing a house that might not be right for that buyer."
The Knockbox technology is also helpful to sellers with tenants living in their house who want to limit the amount of showings and for out-of-town buyers who may not be able to tour a house in person.
The SellSmart difference has attracted many real estate brokers and mortgage loan officers looking for an innovative way to run a business of their own, because the company offers not only employment opportunities for agents, but also franchise opportunities with exclusive territories for real estate entrepreneurs.
"Realtors see the increasing demand from the consumer side for more reasonable commission rates, and they are looking for a way to adapt to the market without compromising quality," Cook said. "And mortgage brokers are looking for creative ways to increase their loan business, especially when many real estate brokerage firms are offering mortgage brokerage services in-house."
SellSmart Real Estate made its first big franchise push in the Sacramento market, where the company is now firmly established. The Nevada franchises are almost completely sold out, and the company recently entered the Texas market.
"Our headquarters are in San Diego, and we see an opportunity now to concentrate on business in our own backyard," said Cook, who is now marketing several additional SellSmart Real Estate franchise opportunities in San Diego.
"With a healthy job market, great weather and beautiful landscape, San Diego is well positioned to remain a top city for real estate investment, but the high prices here increase consumer demand for discounted commission fees, and that's where we come in," Cook said.
Cook says she plans to continue to implement innovative ideas that help SellSmart Real Estate respond to the changing market, from ideas like the Smart car that help "green" the company to technological advances that increase efficiency and effectiveness.
Whitelaw is president of Whitelaw Marketing Inc.