Making Technology Work for You

Basic Tools Can Help You Manage On-line Access and Excess.

In the past two years, the participation level of commercial real estate professionals on the Internet has risen dramatically. Not surprisingly, much of it is taking place on the low end of the technological spectrum, using simple, unadorned e-mail and no-nonsense Web pages.

Commercial real estate professionals on-line today are down on graphics and high on content. After all, they're people in a hurry. Their careers depend on interacting with other people, not just their personal computers. They haven't got time to stop at every Web page to ring the bells and blow the whistles.

As Gary Tharp, CCIM, of GT Commercial, Inc., in Orlando, Florida, puts it, "I won't let a page load for more than 15 seconds unless I've got to be on that site."

But that is starting to change. For one thing, the sheer amount of information available for the commercial real estate community has mushroomed. Using e-mail, a commercial investment specialist can join a half-dozen property listing services without breaking a sweat (or paying a dime). Meanwhile, on the Web, the latest sites are offering advanced features that allow users to customize their searches and receive a breathtaking amount of news and information.

The question is not if to follow this technological change, but how . With the right tools, a vast array of material is yours via the Internet-and you don't have to be a slave to your modem to find it.

Mailing Lists
Let's start with e-mail. How much of it do you think you can handle? It's a question you'll ask yourself once you start joining Internet mailing lists, if you haven't already.

Mailing lists distribute e-mail messages to a group of recipients. You probably already use them at your place of business to send internal memos. Or, if you're a CCIM, you may subscribe to one or more of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute's (CIREI) regional e-mail lists. Internet mailing lists are set apart by the potential for your messages to be seen by recipients around the globe.

Mailing lists are one of the most popular ways for people with narrow interests of any sort-professional, cultural, social-to communicate. Tens of thousands are on the Internet, and they all function more or less in the same way.

First, you request to have your name added to a given distribution list. Nearly all mailing lists are free to join, though some ask you to register and provide information about your business. You can join lists through Web sites, but others require you to e-mail a command to a central computer that handles the list. The list administrator will provide that information.

Once you have subscribed, all messages posted by other subscribers to that list will arrive in your mailbox. If you see a message that sparks your interest, you have two choices in responding: write a response that goes out to the whole mailing list for everyone else to read (for instance, if you are discussing strategies about marketing investment properties), or else compose a new, private message to the individual whose posting caught your eye (which is more appropriate when initiating a potential deal).

Filtering Out the Dross
A typical mailing list may send five to 10 messages a day; some send a lot more. For example, if you simply subscribe to the five mailing lists at the Dealmakers site (http://www.property.com/), you'll be swimming in e-mail within days.

From a business standpoint, receiving e-mail is a little like panning for gold-you have to sift through a lot of material to find the profitable leads. That's where good e-mail software comes in. Used properly, the top programs (see sidebar) can sift through your incoming mail, find all of your mailing list-related messages, and automatically sort them into other folders that you selected in advance. This leaves you with a much more manageable number of messages in your "in" box.

This process, commonly called "filtering," is accomplished by your e-mail software "reading" the subject header lines of each message. Popular e-mail programs such as Eudora, cc:Mail, and Outlook will display as many subject lines as will fit on a screen. With a touch of a key, you can discard, without opening, each message whose subject doesn't interest you. And most programs provide a virtual trash can so you can pull out a message that you didn't mean to toss.

Mailing list messages that you want to read are sent to the appropriate folders. For instance, each message sent by the five Dealmakers lists-commercial, investment, appraisal, finance, and residential-clearly indicates from which list it originated. You can tell the e-mail filter to search the message's "header" and to send the ones marked "commercial" to the commercial folder, the "investment" messages to an investment folder, and so on.

RealEstate Daily (http://members.aol.com/abiaca/), a new service from Neill Publishing Company, lists property haves and wants, as well as referrals, financing, and anything else related to commercial real estate. The subject line of each message it sends contains a summary of a particular have or want, allowing a simple way to filter the messages.

Some e-mail filtering programs go a step further. Eudora Pro 3.0, for example, can sort automatically down to words and phrases within an e-mail message, and can discard the messages as they are delivered to your mailbox.

How you organize your message folders is up to you. You may decide to open a new folder for every mailing list you join; or you can consolidate the mail from several lists devoted to a related topic (say, multifamily properties) in a single folder.

You also can use filters to keep up with key clients. For instance, when you're out of town and traveling with a laptop, you can forward messages sent from your clients' e-mail addresses to your Internet service provider account and pick them up next time you log on. A number of services, including Internet Beep-Mail (http://www.beepmail.com/) and Sierra-Net (http://www.sierra.net/), will page you when mail is received at a special e-mail address; you could tell the filter to forward all e-mail from key clients to your account at the pager company.

While filters are a valuable tool, they have proven themselves less than adequate in handling junk mail-"spam," as it often is called. But a good e-mail program can help you decide quickly, just by reading the subject line, whether you're looking at spam or a message that's worth your time.

Ted Kraus, who runs the Dealmakers site, gets more than his share of e-mail-300 to 350 messages a day by his estimate. And yet, he says, "it only takes an hour a day to get through them. I won't tell you I'm in love with spammers, but I can tell from the subject line who they are. I just delete them. No big deal."

Attachments
E-mail messages and mailing lists keep you abreast of opportunities in markets that previously were unknown to you. They eliminate geographical boundaries, opening the door to projects, deals, and properties across the country and around the world. Obviously this broadens the number of opportunities you can offer to clients.

But when you see an e-mail list for a property that sounds like it fits your client's needs-what's the next step? You send a private e-mail to the broker who listed the property, and the broker responds by sending you a reply-and something at the end of the message tells you there's an "attachment" sitting in a folder on your hard drive. It's a spreadsheet with all of the necessary financials for the property you're interested in. The broker has simply pulled it off his hard drive and e-mailed you a copy of the same spreadsheet he shows to his off-line clients.

That's exactly what happened to Tom Crawford of Durbin & Associates, Inc., in Arlington, Texas, who posted an inquiry to one of the Dealmakers' mailing lists after a group of local investors contacted him for help finding apartment properties in the Houston area. Shortly after Crawford's message went out, seven e-mails arrived in his mailbox from Tom Wilkenson of KET Enterprises, Inc., in Houston. Wilkenson had attached an Excel spreadsheet to each of his e-mail messages.

When a document is attached, it is encoded by the e-mail software so that the recipient's e-mail software recognizes what's being sent and handles it properly.

For best results when sending an attachment, ask what software your recipient uses. If you're sending attachments from a Macintosh platform to a Windows platform, convert the file to an appropriate Windows format before mailing it (most recent Macs have file conversion software installed). If you both use Microsoft Word, the document will transfer with no problems, even from a Macintosh to a PC. After sending an e-mail with attachments, it's a good rule to confirm with the recipient that the e-mail and the attachments arrived properly.

When attaching graphics, choose a format that is accepted on a variety of computer types, such as GIF (.gif), JPEG (.jpg), or Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) files. TIFF (.tif) files offer much finer detail than the others, but you probably don't need that much precision, and TIFF files are much larger and unwieldy to send over the Internet.

In Crawford's case, he was using the Microsoft Office e-mail program, Outlook, so the Excel spreadsheets came to him without a hitch. "I printed them off and presented all seven packages to the buyers," says Crawford. "They flew to Houston a couple of days later, looked at all seven, and selected a first and second priority to acquire." A short time later, the buyers were in New York, closing a deal on a $5.1 million, 517-unit apartment complex they had chosen.

"I never saw the other broker, never saw the property, never met the owner," he says. "I merely found the property and presented it to buyers."

Web Wonders
E-mail has been the dominant method of communication for Internet-based commercial real estate professionals, and the World Wide Web has been an invaluable tool for research. For example, Tharp used the Web to rescue a deal that was in jeopardy after inspectors found large thallium deposits beneath an office building he was trying to sell.

It was the first time he could recall a problem with thallium levels, yet no one could tell him what the risks associated with it were. With the deal teetering on collapse, Tharp searched for the words toxic and thallium on his favorite search site, Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com/), and found a government report that told him the thallium was too far down to be a hazard. "I said, 'Here is a U.S. government report that says if you don't dig down 22 feet and drink the water or eat the soil, you won't get sick,'" Tharp says. "And the lender laughed, put it in his file, and closed. I saved a $40,000 commission."

Now, however, the Web is starting to supplant many of the functions currently served by e-mail. At sites like CIREI's (http://www.ccim.com/), discussion forums are expanding on the capabilities of the mailing lists by keeping a running discussion going for everyone to read. And at CCIMNet (http://www.ccimnet.com/) and regional sites such as Commercial Investment Brokers of North Texas (http://cibrokers.com), properties appear on spreadsheet-like grids; each listing has a hyperlink on which users can click to see more-detailed information.

It's still not paint-by-numbers; George Thomas, CCIM, of Whiteside & Grant Realtors in Tulsa, Oklahoma, needed to rely on his Web expert to get several pictures of a 70,000-square-foot office building posted on CCIMNet. But those pictures caught the eye of an out-of-state buyer, who bought the building.

But compared with learning to navigate e-mail attachments, looking at a Web page-where the pictures and financials are seamlessly integrated with the text-is a snap. Still, until Web publishing becomes simpler, much of the information commercial real estate professionals want will continue to be delivered by e-mail.

Bring the Web to You
What some consider the next step is already here-"netcasting," where the Web comes to you, instead of the other way around. E-mail and conventional Web sites require you to "pull" information off their sites, but netcasting "pushes" information at you, like a TV transmitter broadcasting a signal. The information is pushed at you in the form of an e-mail message.

PointCast (http://www.pointcast.com/) has become one of the leaders in this new form of Web communication. You simply download the PointCast browser from the company's Web site, select a few preferences, and switch it on. The receiver connects to PointCast, which continually broadcasts news and information from CNN, the New York Times , and scores of specialized information sources, including the CCIM Commercial Real Estate Network. The information is sorted into folders according to your preferences, ready for you to browse. You can set PointCast to update your newsfeed as often as you like-from a few times per day to around the clock.

Real estate will get a powerful boost from netcasting by year-end, with a new PointCast service, Real Estate Insider, which offers a newsfeed specially tailored to the needs of real estate professionals, with information pulled from a variety of sources, condensed, and delivered to users' desktops, free of charge.

Users will be able to customize what they receive from PointCast. "We want to create a very, very personalized service, so customers can narrowly define the business they're in and then we tailor the service to them," says Daniel Levy, Webmaster of Real Estate On-Line, which will provide the service with commercial real estate news.

Internet Plain and Simple
The combination of tools such as e-mail filters, mailing lists, e-mail attachments, and netcasting can make using the Internet a more valuable, easy-to-use business resource. Take the time to explore these tools to improve your use of technology.

Aaron Barnhart

Aaron Barnhart is a Chicago-based Internet consultant and writer on media and technology. You can reach him at barnhart@mcs.net. Security@internet.com Internet security made great strides in 1996, and as a result, all types of electronic commerce are unfolding. Wells Fargo Bank and Bank of America customers can transfer funds between accounts on-line and also pay bills. AT&T customers can have Internet access to credit card accounts, and by the end of the year, they will be able to pay bills and transfer funds to AT&T. VISA and MasterCard have joined forces with Netscape Communications and Microsoft to develop a level of secure software that ensures safe electronic transactions. For real estate professionals, the biggest security stumbling block may be the verification of contracts and other legal documents sent electronically. Various encryption measures and secure Web browser technology are making it possible to verify transmitted documents--and making it nearly impossible for third parties to decode transmitted data. Netscape browsers and servers can create a secure environment in which to conduct business on-line. A primary component is authentication, which essentially assures you that the person with whom you think you\'re communicating is indeed that person. Authentication uses an encryption technology known as a digital signature. Based on public-key cryptography techniques, it has no relation to the familiar, handwritten signature. Instead, a digital signature is essentially an identifier--an unforgeable piece of data assuring that the named person wrote or otherwise agreed to the document to which the signature is attached. All parties to a transaction can easily verify both that the document did indeed originate from the person whose signature is attached and that the document has not been altered since it was signed. Secure digital signatures cannot be repudiated, meaning that the signer of a document cannot later disown it by claiming it was forged. Digitally signed messages can be proved authentic in court, thus allowing such messages to be legally binding. Digital signatures are facilitating immediate handling of financial transactions over the Net. Title companies and mortgage lenders are rapidly implementing secure authentication technology so that real estate deals can eventually be closed completely via the Internet. For more information on how to obtain and use your own digital signature, visit the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) Web site at http://web.mit.edu/network/pgp-form.html and the RSA Data Security site at http://www.rsa.com. In addition to authentication, Web security employs encryption and integrity to ensure safe transmittal of documents. Encryption provides e-mail security by scrambling a message before transmission, which the recipient then unscrambles. Public-key cryptography is the current method of choice for encryption, and PGP, available free on the Net at the above Web address, is one of the most widely used encryption systems. Integrity verifies that the content of a message arrives at its destination in the same form it was sent. This may also be accomplished with public-key cryptography, because it\'s assumed that if the signature isn\'t broken, the message must be the one sent.