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Real Estate Brokers Go High-Tech

An old-fashioned industry embarks on new marketing techniques.LIVINGSTON – A small but growing number of New Jersey firms are developing products and services that are helping to change the way the local real estate industry does business. These innovations, which allow companies to operate more efficiently, save money and market their properties, are becoming more widely adopted as the industry grows more open to new technologies.

“Real estate professionals are becoming more and more tech savvy,” says John G. J. Ritter, president of the Industrial and Office Real Estate Brokers Association of the New York Metropolitan Area (IOREBA), which hosted its first Technology Night last month in Hackensack to showcase new technologies to its members. “Those companies that harness technology in their businesses will have a leg up or an advantage” over less technologically advanced firms, Ritter says.

He estimates that about 80 percent of office brokers use databases such as CoStar or MrOffice, which provide listings of available office space in New Jersey and other areas, while 99 percent of commercial real estate companies use Web sites to market their properties.

One small local company that is enhancing the technological capabilities of real estate firms is Bavelle Technologies, a Livingston-based concern with 10 employees. In the past year, Bavelle has helped more than a dozen real estate clients adopt or upgrade software programs for their property management systems, including some clients that automated their operations for the first time. “We still encounter companies who are still working with paper ledgers to maintain their tenant list and their client list and payments,” says Oren David, a partner at Bavelle, which has about 20 to 25 real estate customers.

For more high-tech real estate clients, Bavelle works on developing Web sites, either by creating new ones to showcase a company’s properties and services, or to make existing sites more interactive so tenants or clients can submit requests or inquiries. Bavelle recently collaborated with another Livingston-based company, Computer Presentation Group (CPG), on a project for Prime Retail, the outlet mall subsidiary of The Lightstone Group, a Lakewood-based real estate firm. CPG worked on the Web design while Bavelle set up customer databases and did programming for the site.

“We definitely see a move toward either introducing technology to the business or improving on what’s already in existence,” says David.

“Everyone is really forced into [adopting new technologies] because it is the most efficient way to operate,” concurs Bruno de Vinck, director and chief operating officer of Lightstone Value Plus Real Estate Investment Trust, a Mahwah-based subsidiary of The Lightstone Group, and another client of Bavelle.

In the past year, The Lightstone Group has promoted its residential properties with online photographs, floor plans and a list of amenities. This helped bring in more than 900 Internet leads in the first quarter of 2007 alone, according to de Vinck. The interactive marketing allowed prospective tenants to run a credit check on themselves before filling out an application, which de Vinck says has generated a 60 to 70 percent success rate in terms of closing on residential units. This compares with a 10 to 20 percent closing rate for non-Internet leads such as walk-ins and applications that are mailed.

Another new technology that is starting to catch on with developers and construction companies comes from Hackensack-based EarthCam. The 11-year-old company, which has fewer than 50 employees, installs and monitors Web-based video cameras at some of the most high-profile construction projects in the state, including Red Bull Park—the 25,000-seat stadium that will be part of the Harrison MetroCentre in Harrison— the Prudential Center that will house the New Jersey Devils in Newark, and the Xanadu project in East Rutherford.

“When I founded the company, construction companies and real estate developers had no need for these cameras,” says Brian Cury, CEO and founder of EarthCam.

Today, he says, that attitude has changed.

With a Web cam installation, companies can monitor a construction site from a remote location to ensure that work is being completed on schedule. Cury says this saves the time and expense of traveling to sites to check up on crews and their progress. Monitoring workers online also tends to improve the quality of the construction, he says.

Web cams also provide a visual record of the entire construction process that clients can use to create a time-lapse movie for promotional purposes. “To be able to roll out a 30-second movie that shows one year of progress, that’s very impressive,” says Cury, who estimates that real estate and construction companies make up about 30 percent of EarthCam’s business.

Digital Vision, an architectural design and illustration company in Elizabeth, creates virtual tours of commercial or residential properties using computer-generated renderings and 3-D animation. Recent projects include Blu Asbury, a 25-unit apartment complex in Asbury Park, and the Eisenhower Corporate Campus, a 385,000-square-foot office building in Livingston that is being renovated by Livingston-based developer Eastman Companies.

Virtual tours help bring a building project to life, says Helder Santos, president of Digital Vision, a two-year-old company with 20 to 30 real estate clients. “In three minutes, you basically give them a very fast overview and at the same time a very complete overview of their project,” Santos says. “It’s much more exciting than sitting through PowerPoint slides.”

He says some residential developers have approached Digital Vision to produce renderings and animation to make their projects stand out. “What people are coming to us for is to give them outstanding images that set them apart from the other projects, which at this point is difficult, because there’s a good amount of competition out there,” says Santos.

He says Digital Vision must contend with 30 to 40 international rivals when competing for projects. Educating real estate firms about Digital Vision technology is another challenge. “Getting people informed is the most difficult portion of what we do,” Santos says. “They think it’s a very simple process, it’s a click of a button.”

In reality, renderings and animation are a labor-intensive and time-consuming process, he says. A completed sketch requires three to five days, while animation can take another two months. Santos says this makes the price of his digital products, which range from $2,200 for a rendering to as much as $20,000 for an animation, hard for prospective clients to comprehend.

“What’s holding us back right now is the lack of exposure of the brokers to the technology,” he says. “They’re so familiar with traditional ways of showing things that sometimes they undervalue the power of the technology.”

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