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Realty pros see cloud on horizon

Earlier this month, New Orleans-based real estate and insurance professional Louise Kennedy began a statewide search for agents interested in joining her as part of the Louisiana branch of the “cloud-based” virtual brokerage eXp Realty International.463326519 (1)

The industry veteran will manage a team of agents from across the state who will work remotely and process all transactions through her small office. In exchange, agents will have unlimited access to training tools through a virtual office that can be accessed at any time from any location via the Internet.

Local real estate companies have also embraced websites and equip, or at least encourage, their agents to conduct business digitally. But they insist their office space won’t be put on the market anytime soon.

Kennedy, who has more than 25 years of experience in real estate and insurance, said the growth of web- and email-based tools has enticed real estate agents to embrace new technology. She predicts the cloud office trend will change the way Realtors do business.

“The industry is nearly there,” Kennedy said. “More than 90 percent of all buyers start their search online, and many of them already have a personal contact with an agent or broker who can help them look where they want to look. I think there will come a point where the industry has to think about the viability of physical broker offices.”

Since eXp Realty was founded in 2009, the brokerage has recruited about 400 agents across 29 states. President Jason Gesing said the company’s business model keeps its physical profile low in an effort to minimize overhead costs from maintaining a traditional storefront office.

“Clients are already dictating to agents where they want to meet,” Gesing said. “Documents are signed through email or at a coffee shop. We just don’t see the value in a ‘brick and mortar’ office. The question is how soon will agents be willing to make that shift.”

While many agents in the New Orleans area will concede that technology has changed the industry, very few will say they are prepared to leave the confines of the brokerage office.

“The industry has been saying for years that bricks and mortar are on the way out, but we are all still here,” said Margie Inman, president and broker for the New Orleans-area branches of Coldwell Banker. “You don’t have to be lavish, and none of us really area. But your agents need that place to collaborate face to face.”

Inman said there is a certain level of isolation working in the cloud, and agents don’t get the chance to bounce around leads or other information.

“Some of my agents are in the office every day, while others come in once a month, but there is still some level of interaction,” she said. “Agents offer tips on neighborhoods and where to find other properties to show. It also benefits those newer agents looking to seasoned veterans for advice.”

Chip Gardner, special initiatives director for Gardner Realtors, said physical brokerages in the New Orleans area are more viable because of the atmosphere of the market. He describes it as more “neighborhood-centric” where a physical presence is beneficial for the client and agent.

“We have 24 offices all over the metro area, and we utilize that footprint to the fullest,” Gardner said. “Agents from one office can meet with clients in another office across town and get sales leads and other info about that part of the neighborhood.”

Some smaller, independent broker/owners concede that the landscape is changing and that there is no longer a need for a sprawling brokerage with multiple desks. But they say their agents are still looking for a physical presence where they can link to the Internet.

“It doesn’t hurt to keep a small satellite office with a couple computers where agents can stop in to ask questions or get information,” said Craig Mirambell, owner and broker for Mirambell Realty. “Agents still want a place where they can talk to a broker and drop off a check.”

Agents who have been in the industry a while could probably get along fine on their own without an office, Mirambell said, but a newer agent just getting started needs to have that interactive atmosphere for training.

“It can be tough to gain momentum as a newer agent,” he said. “There are studies that say only about 33 percent of those who go through the licensing course make it through the process. There is so much to learn and it takes time to build a client base. Physical interaction is key.”

Reporter Robin Shannon can be reached at robin.shannon@nopg.com.

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The initial version of this story incorrectly identified eXp President Jason Gesing as the company’s founder. Glenn Sanford is the founder.