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Use These Tools to Integrate Technology Into Your Business.

Though rumored to be technological slowpokes, many commercial real estate professionals are on the fast track when it comes to integrating technology into their businesses. But with a constant stream of new products and services, how do you determine which tools will boost your business instead of your blood pressure? Commercial Investment Real Estate has identified three hot tech trends that have piqued commercial real estate professionals' interest this year.

1. A Range of Exchanges Despite embracing e-mail, Web sites, and other Internet-based tools, many brokers draw the line at online property listing networks, also known as commercial information exchanges. For instance, when the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin considered starting its own exchange, Gary Stein, executive vice president of the Polacheck Co. in Milwaukee , didn't see the point. “I didn't want my competitors to know what [listings] I had and what I was doing,” he says.

Stein's attitude echoes throughout the industry. For most of its history, commercial real estate has operated under the code of not sharing information.

But attitudes change, and in the past three years, local CIEs have more than doubled the number of markets they serve, according to the National Association of Realtors. “Sharing information makes deals happen,” said NAR past president Russell K. Booth, CCIM, CRB, at the Realcomm conference this year. “Commercial practitioners are finding their customers don't value them so much for the information they keep but rather for the expertise they offer.”

A month after trying his local exchange, Stein agrees. He's still learning the ropes, but he finds that access to market data helps him better serve clients. “Knowing what competitors have in the marketplace, that helps,” he says. “The fact that you have it all right in front of you is terrific.”

Stein joins a growing contingent of technology-minded real estate professionals who are discovering the value of sharing information. Led by the success of established national online property databases such as CoStar Group and LoopNet, local CIEs are helping practitioners sell and lease commercial properties in small markets.

In part, client expectations have forced the industry to adapt, says Edgar Schuttenberg, CCIM, CPM, of Grubb & Ellis/Krombach Partners in St. Louis . “The client no longer wants to wait for you to send something in the mail. They don't even want to wait for you to walk to the fax machine and send it to them,” he says.

“The information's out there, and people are going to get it,” says Michael Bull, CCIM, president of Bull Realty in Atlanta . “If you don't give them the information, they're going to get it somewhere else.”

CIEs rely on brokers to input property data. Beyond property listings, these database-driven exchanges provide sale and lease comparables, market inventories, reports, statistics, and presentation materials, among other information. While viewing basic listings is usually free, most CIEs charge fees for varying levels of service.

This year CCIM Institute launched an enhanced version of CCIMNet, its nationwide CIE, with the goal of developing a national network of property data. The site, http://www.ccimnet.com, was re-engineered to give users autonomy and ownership over their listings. With mapping, geocoding, audio/video, and virtual tour programs, brokers can customize their property data. CCIMNet plans to expand its features to include presentation materials and broker and company profiles by year's end. It also develops local and regional CIEs that integrate with its national site.

A number of other providers offer similar services. Commercial Search (http://www.commercialsearch.com) operates exchanges for real estate associations and other related groups in eight states. Users can customize listings and share them with other parties as they see fit. Xceligent (http://www.xceligent.com) provides a tenant search across its database of properties. The company populates the exchange with its own research, using data from public property databases and other sources. It also offers a technology-only product for small broker groups trying to save money.

Most CIEs rely on brokers to keep their data accurate. For example, CCIMNet requires users to update or verify data every 30 days to ensure the system stays current. Xceligent verifies broker-provided information and automatically reminds users to update listings.

Exchanges also build on cooperation between market participants. Users of Houston 's local CIE, Commercial Gateway (http://www.commgate.com), only enter data once; then it is uploaded to other third-party services, although plans to send data to LoopNet and CoStar have not yet materialized. St. Louis CIE listings are sent to LoopNet and soon will appear on Missouri 's economic development Web site.

Along with simplicity, local control is a top reason why exchanges are becoming more popular. Most vendors allow organizations to create their own rules about how information is presented and who gets access to it.

What took local exchanges so long to get started? Many commercial firms already had invested in their own technologies, says Schuttenberg, who is a director of the St. Louis CIE (http:// www.stlcie.com). “It took some time to convince the brokers that our CIE system was not there to compete with or replace their in-house systems,” he says.

In addition, commercial property is difficult to simplify with technology, says Fred Baca, president of Colliers International's Houston office. Commercial brokers didn't understand the benefits of the Internet until residential real estate sites took off. “There wasn't a perceived need,” he says. “Today that argument's over, and it's a mad rush.”

2. Self-Defense Strategies Along with its benefits, the Internet comes with its share of dangers, from viruses lurking inside e-mail to hackers skulking in cyberspace. But by taking some basic defensive measures, commercial real estate companies can prevent business-halting disasters.

While not the most serious Internet threat, spam, or junk e-mail, surely qualifies as the most irksome. “Spam is paralyzing efficient usage of the Internet,” says Jeffrey Weil, CCIM, senior vice president at Colliers International in Walnut Creek , Calif. A frequent speaker on technology, Weil knows colleagues who confront hundreds of junk e-mail messages every morning. Much of it comes from anonymous sources, making it difficult to identify spammers, he says.

But strategies exist to reduce spam. For example, most e-mail programs include filters that block certain messages. After clicking on the Organize icon on the Microsoft Outlook toolbar, users can customize the program to automatically delete messages including words or phrases commonly found in spam, such as “free offer.” Using filter programs also reduces the risk of introducing viruses, since users can delete messages without even opening them.

Spammers looking for active e-mail addresses often send HTML messages, which resemble Web pages. These e-mails carry an embedded bit of code that automatically notifies the sender that you've opened the message. After verifying your address, spammers can use it again or sell to other marketers. Accessing e-mail in text-only format can combat this particular scam.

Also proceed with caution if you receive an unsolicited e-mail that offers an unsubscribe option, Weil warns. “If you reply, it may instead trigger your address to be real and more valuable, and then it can be resold to other spam operators,” he says.

Finally, be careful about submitting personal information over the Internet. Many sites that require e-mail addresses sell or trade their lists. Before providing information online, read the privacy policy. If there isn't one, think twice before typing in your e-mail address. If you need to provide an address to receive online goods or services, set up a free e-mail account through an independent provider, such as Yahoo! or Hotmail, and use that address.

Filtering e-mail should help protect against a more potent Internet danger -- computer viruses. But for less than $50, practitioners can purchase anti-virus software from Symantec, makers of Norton, or McAfee, says Saul Klein, president of Internet Crusade, a real estate technology consulting company in San Diego . Experts suggest regularly downloading updates to any anti-virus software, since new viruses constantly are created to infiltrate unprotected systems.

For companies or individuals that have broadband Internet connections, firewalls are another essential tool. A firewall is a computer program that prevents unauthorized access to private data, such as client information stored on a company's local area network or intranet, by outside computer users.

Unlike dial-up connections such as modems, broadband Internet access is connected all the time at the same point of entry. By scanning the Internet for these open unprotected ports, hackers break into systems and can wreak havoc by deleting files and stealing personal information such as credit card numbers. They also can launch attacks on other computers or steal access. “There are people out there that want to market their goods and services through your server,” Klein says. Firewalls prevent such intrusions from happening.

Norton, McAfee, and other manufacturers offer off-the-shelf firewall solutions, and many Internet service providers install firewalls for their customers. However, even some ISPs aren't immune to the dangers hackers pose -- a fact John A. Simpson, CCIM, MAI, owner of Commercialappraisal.com in Arnold , Md. , discovered the hard way. When Simpson's Web provider temporarily moved his site to fix a hardware problem, they removed the site's password defenses, unlocking the doors to Simpson's site. Hackers walked right in and defaced the front page.

To prevent such evils, Simpson suggests using Linux or Unix operating systems, alternatives to Windows that offer better overall security -- particularly for companies running their own Web servers. For those using Web hosting services, he advises thoroughly questioning the network administrator and becoming educated about their security measures. “Make them convince you why you should [entrust] your database to their server,” he says.

3. It's a Wireless World Once thought of as merely electronic Day-Timers, personal digital assistants have become the must-have tool for commercial real estate pros who want to be connected 24-7.

“All my deals are on it, all my contact information is in it,” says Hans Hansson, president of Starboard TCN Worldwide Real Estate Services in San Francisco. “I never miss a beat as far as what I have to do,” he says.

These portable, pocket-size gadgets span the gamut in price, with features ranging from calendars to digital cameras. But ask commercial real estate professionals what capability they most want in a PDA and the answer is usually a cell phone.

That wish came true as a new breed of PDAs hit the market recently, offering cell phone capabilities combined with Palm and Pocket PC operating systems. The Handspring Treo 270 and the Samsung SPH-I330 are two PDA/cell phone hybrids that use the Palm 3.5 operating system and run all standard Palm applications. Thera and the Pocket PC Phone Edition are the first PDA/cell phone hybrids to run Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system.

The hybrids are pricey, ranging from $500 to $800, with service plans running $30 to more than $100 a month. Along with usual PDA and cell phone features, such as one-button calling from contact management programs, these units usually offer color screens, modems that run 56 kbps or better, e-mail and text messaging, MP3 players, and sometimes digital cameras and voice recorders. The hybrids tend to be bulkier than regular cell phones, but close in size to PDAs.

Smaller and less expensive both to buy and run are smartphones, cell phones that contain some PDA functions and wireless capabilities. For example, the Nokia 9210 Communicator combines cell phone and high-speed Internet technologies and integrates with numerous software packages and Web-based applications. The Sony CLIƒ PEG-NR70V includes a built-in digital camera and keyboard. Other products, such as BlackBerry's wireless e-mail pager/PDA devices, quickly have become top tools for commercial real estate professionals who communicate via e-mail most frequently.

Frank Pipgras, CCIM, a principal with Aguer Pipgras Associates in Sacramento, Calif., uses the Kyocera QCP 6035 smartphone. “It can surf the Web, and it runs on the Palm operating system. I got my phone and Palm in one,” he says. The phone's analog mode provides broader call access, but Internet service functions are on digital mode, which presents limits. “If you're in the country, you can get a phone call but you can't surf the Web,” he says.

Rosey Miller, senior managing director at Julien J. Studley in Los Angeles, has been using a BlackBerry for more than two years to send and receive e-mail and manage his contacts and daily schedule. Its tiny screen means constant scrolling and he wishes the device had voice-activation, but Miller's experienced no problems and even has used the device to negotiate deals. “Sometimes ideas pop up at one or two o'clock in the morning,” he says. “I can reach to my bedside, punch in a quick message, and my client has it when they arrive in the office in the morning.”

As with any emerging technology, wireless systems have their flaws. In 1999, Hansson became one of 8,000 beta testers for OmniSky, a company that offered full Internet and e-mail access through Palm devices. For more than a year, he retrieved e-mail on his Palm and sent and received reports from CoStar.

Last year, Hansson upgraded to a Palm 505 color organizer, but because OmniSky could not provide an upgrade for newer-model Palms, he had to cancel the service. In December 2001, OmniSky filed for bankruptcy and sold its assets to Atlanta-based ISP EarthLink. In March, EarthLink launched an upgraded OmniSky service that supports newer Palms, and Hansson tried it again. After spending seven hours on the phone with EarthLink's technical support, the service still didn't work. “I finally killed it,” he says. “EarthLink simply could not provide the support.”

As with all technology products today, shakeout times are getting shorter, as companies trip over each other to offer more features for less money. A decade ago, carrying the equivalent of a desktop computer in your vest pocket was merely a pipe dream. Today, it comes with a phone, camera, voice recorder, music player, Internet access, and more. Think about what features you want tomorrow, because the possibilities seem endless.

Warren Lutz

Warren Lutz is a free-lance writer based in Eugene, Ore. Mining Your Own Business How do you convince a business to lease industrial space in a 270 million-year-old property? “Battling people\'s perceptions is the toughest part,” says Timothy P. Basler, leasing specialist for Hunt Midwest Real Estate Development. The Kansas City, Mo.-based limestone mining and real estate development company is the owner and developer of Hunt Midwest SubTropolis, the world\'s largest underground industrial park. “When they think of an underground space, they assume it will be a cave with bats, stalactites, and water,” Basler says. While SubTropolis was developed in the company\'s excavated limestone mines, it offers the standard features available in surface-level industrial properties. “When prospective tenants see the modern, brightly lit facility, the leasing success rate is much higher,” he says. With nearly 44 million square feet of space cleared through the years, converting the empty mines for industrial use seemed logical to Hunt Midwest. “It was really an evolution of thought,” Basler says. “In the 1960s, it started out as simple storage. Car manufacturers would ask to store their cars here in the winter to protect them from the elements. Before long, it evolved into traditional warehouse space,” he says. When Hunt Midwest realized the potential for a full-service underground industrial facility, taking the next step was simple. During the mining process, limestone ceilings were left intact and 25-foot pillars spaced 40 feet apart were carved out for structural support. “Add a concrete floor, lights, sprinklers, and a dock, and you\'ve got a warm shell industrial space,” Basler says. Why Go Below? The facility\'s low rental rates draw a variety of tenants whose needs range from warehousing to light manufacturing to office/flex space. Lease rates average about $1.45 per square foot gross to $2.85 psf gross for dry space as compared to an average of about $3.75 psf net to $4.25 psf net for above-ground industrial space in the Kansas City metro- politan area, Basler says. The reason for such low rates: “Construction simply costs less underground,” he says. Energy cost savings is another reason why tenants choose to locate underground. Since the park is built in a limestone bluff, the year-round temperature remains around 70 degrees. “No heating is required at all for industrial space and very little cooling is needed depending upon the type of business,” Basler says. Thriving Down Under With the facility\'s vacancy rate steadily hovering between 4 percent and 6 percent annually, Hunt Midwest built and leased 240,000 sf of speculative industrial space underground in 2001. Despite last year\'s slowing markets, “our vacancy and leasing rates weren\'t affected at all,” Basler says. In fact, SubTropolis experienced a surge in activity as the markets went south. “When companies need to tighten their belts, they often look to us,” he says. -- by Jennifer Norbut, editor of Commercial Investment Real Estate.

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