Virtual Real Estate: Corley Realty Group Inc. taps the online market

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Michael Corley, president of Corley Realty Group Inc., insists that shopping online for property is here to stay.

“The reason people are turning to the Internet is because they remember the old days of steering and redlining,” he says, referring to the practices of steering minorities to less-than-desirable properties and delineating certain areas, usually inner-city communities, for denying services and investment. “Steering is still being done today. Brokers are still discriminating. The public has a low opinion of real estate agents, preferring to do their own research, evaluation and negotiation, which is what the Internet offers,” he says.

The online trend is called “virtual real estate.” Customers can go to Web sites such as Yahoo!, Craigslist and The New York Times Online to identify properties to buy, or to post properties for sale. Buyers can even view properties in 3-D.

“It has been a long time since customers would respond to a print ad or flyer and walk into a real estate office to inquire about a property. The Web is the place where the majority of customers are looking to find the home of their dreams. Virtual real estate companies are what is being used today,” says Emerson Atkins, a mortgage banker and former president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Real Estate Board.

About 15 virtual real estate companies, including his own firm, are located in the New York area, Corley says. After 13 years on Wall Street as an investment banker, he noticed a shift in real estate shopping patterns. Prior to 2004, the year he launched his company, 64 percent of property buying and selling was done online. By 2004, the figure had jumped to 82 percent and today it stands at 96 percent.

Corley says his online business takes the emotion out of the process while encouraging clients to see him as someone who knows exactly what they need. At the same time, it relies heavily on clients who are computer literate and Web savvy, who own a Web-enhanced phone and have a high-speed Internet connection, he notes.

“In the traditional real estate business, the broker waits for the sales agent to bring in the listing and make the sale on that listing. We focus on what the agents are doing, helping them to execute their specific role efficiently,” says Corley.

Corley Realty operates from an apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., with five sales agents and three administrative staff who work from the comfort of their own homes. The entire staff meets every two weeks via a teleconference to manage sales and once a month in person to strategize, evaluate business practices and conduct training. Staff members update their databases immediately after showing a property and issue monthly activity statement to clients.

In 2006, the firm sold $17 million worth of properties and negotiated $500,000 in residential leases.