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Howard Hanna invests $6 million in A.I. to study housing market, boost sales

Howard Hanna Real Estate Services has invested more than $6 million in the last 12 months in new analytic technology and partnerships, designed to more precisely pinpoint the pricing, condition and characteristics of the most desirable houses for sale, its president said.

The new technology allows managers and agents to study market trends more closely, identifying the price ranges with the most activity, the types of houses that are selling most frequently, and the kind of improvements that may be necessary to get a higher price, said Howard W. "Hoby" Hanna IV, the real estate firm's president.

It can also help agents to prod hesitant sellers to get off the fence, by demonstrating from mortgage data how many pre-approved buyers "are running around today" in the local market, he said during a stop in Buffalo this week.

"We’ve developed some analytic data and invested in that science, in artificial intelligence, to really take a look at where the market is moving, as opposed to just a gut," Hanna said.

"That’s going to improve more and more over the next five years in the industry, for those of us who are investing in it. We can use technology and data science to really dictate and indicate where the market is going to go."

That's what more than 300 of the company's executives and branch managers from throughout its nine-state network came to Buffalo this week to learn about. As part of the company's annual two-day managers' symposium, held this year at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, the managers gathered to exchange ideas, hear about the technology, and gain some additional insights into the real estate market both nationally and even within their own areas.

"All the markets that we’re in have the same challenges and opportunities," said Hanna, whose firm became the No. 1 brokerage in Western New York after buying RealtyUSA. "So it's created a little bit of a drag."

Hanna noted that last winter "was so bad" and so long that the spring housing market started about two months later than normal. As a result, since buyers are still out there looking, agents are not seeing the typical seasonal downturn they normally expect going into October and November. So he expects a 10 percent increase in sales in the fourth quarter, with that strength carrying over into next year.

"All in all, I think it’s going to be a strong 2019," Hanna said. "We’re seeing a consumer confidence that should blend into housing, so we’re projecting and planning for a robust 2019."

The Howard Hanna managers also came, in many cases, to see Buffalo and discover what the buzz is all about. The firm's president, who is based in Cleveland, said two of his managers from that city even compared what's happening now in Buffalo in some neighborhoods to where Cleveland was seven or eight years ago.

"They really feel like it’s a vibrant city, different from their perspective," Hanna said. "Some neighborhoods that have turned over with new development and energy and restaurants and bars and a younger face moving back into the urban area. That’s boded well for Cleveland, so I think they thought that was kind of exciting. Buffalo’s on the front end of some momentum there."

But it's the new technology investments that drew more attention, as a means of simplifying and easing what can be a stressful experience. "That’s going to make a huge difference for the consumer. The reality is that when someone sells their house, they want to sell it quickly," Hanna said. "I think the consumer will appreciate the process more. So we’re spending a lot of time working on that."

Such investments in marketing and technology are not unique to Hanna. Rival Hunt Real Estate Corp., in February, joined the Adwerx Enterprise automated listing advertising program, allowing agents to grow their business by using online, social media and mobile marketing. Just over a year ago, the ERA-affiliated company also introduced a new tool for consumers from Buyside that pulls together and analyzes data to provide multiple home value estimates while matching buyers and sellers.

But Howard Hanna brings more capacity to the table as the nation's third-largest brokerage firm, with 11,000 agents in 326 offices. Hanna said the company's investments are aimed at setting itself apart from the competition in a crowded marketplace of real estate agents.

"The key for us is can it differentiate the Howard Hanna real estate agent from the competition, so that the customer sees the value that we bring to the table?" Hanna said. "If it doesn’t differentiate us, if it’s just what everybody else has, how does that set us apart and help us help the consumer in the end?"

In particular, he cited a partnership with San Francisco-based RealScout, which not only provides listing, price and open-house information, but also asks specific questions of consumers about what they like and what they want to see in a house or neighborhood. Besides helping that consumer narrow down a search, that data is compiled into broader market reports that can guide agents.

"It relies on the answers from the customers. It’s real interactive," Hanna said. "So rather than salespeople calling their sphere and friends and telling them they should sell, we can give them real concrete date on why they should sell, or why they can ask more for their house."

Other investments include:

  • A lead-generation contract with to drive data from the national online listing service back to local realtors that have the primary listing.
  • A million-plus investment to become a part owner of MoxiWorks, a Seattle-based company whose system makes brokers more profitable.
  • A new proprietary customer-relationship management application that Howard Hanna built internally.

"We all know that selling a house and buying a house is an infrequent and complex transaction," Hanna said. "If we can make it easier for the consumer and the realtor, that’s our end game."

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