Mike Kalis can’t figure out why builders don’t act more like retailers.
Kalis, the managing partner of Michigan-based Marketplace Homes, thinks builders, like dealers, need to extend the hours and days they make their models—which are their “stores”—available for viewing. And he believes he’s figured out a way to help builders do just that.
The 10-year-old Marketplace has made a name for itself by offering to list prospective buyers’ existing homes for 1% or lease those homes for up to six years if buyers agree to purchase a new house from one of Marketplace’s 80-plus builder partners. It expects to help builders close 1,400 homes in 2013. Most of these closings will be in Atlanta, Chicago, and throughout Michigan. But Marketplace recently entered the Minneapolis market, and just started working with McBride & Son in St. Louis, which it helped sell a dozen homes in the first few months of their partnership.
Now, the company wants to sandpaper another layer of friction from that purchasing process. Sometime in November or December, it plans to launch iTours, a software-enabled program that would allow builders to open their models at their shoppers’ convenience.
“We believe that any professional retail environment should be open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week,” says Kalis. “It’s amazing that many builders are not! The iTour platform allows a builder to supplement the current sales staff in the mornings, evenings, and other days [they] are off.”
Working with Marketplace to develop iTours is Detroit-based iRule, which specializes in turning smartphones or tablets into personalized remote-control centers. “Normally, we sell to the end user,” says Itai Ben-Gal, co-founder and CEO of the four-year-old iRule. “What Marketplace needed was a function that could handle 1,500 homes. And what excited us was that Mike and his team are not afraid to embrace technology.”
When BUILDER spoke with Kalis and Ben-Gal, Marketplace and iRule were ironing out some of iTour’s details. But here’s how it would work, essentially:
Let’s say a buyer wants to view a model home after work, at around 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. He or she would might be out of luck with most builders, whose models typically don’t have night hours and are open only on certain days. But that buyer could set up an appointment through Marketplace or one of its local builder partners by phone or its website. (Kalis says that some kind of proof of identity, like a driver’s license, would be required for security purposes. Ben-Gal adds that all messages and remotes would be encrypted.)
At a designated time, a Marketplace salesperson would unlock the doors and turn on the lights at the model remotely, and conduct the tour with the customer via cellphone. If the buyer is interested in the house or wants more information, he or she could make a second appointment for a face-to-face meeting with the salesperson.
Marketplace Homes is iRule’s first builder client, and Ben-Gal says his company is “extending some of our functionality” to allow what could be dozens of employees to show houses remotely. Ben-Gal also acknowledges that Marketplace or its builder partners may need to show a model “hundreds of times” before the builder actually makes a sale.
(Marketplace Homes currently manages its customer relations through applications provided by SalesForce.com. “This platform is one of the keys that have allowed us to take real estate sales into the cloud,” says Kalis. Lindsey Roberts, Marketplace’s chief technology officer, says her company’s SalesForce customer-relations management will house a unique—and to her knowledge, the first—controller application for the home automation iRule is developing.)
IRule would charge a fee (most likely to the builder) for each home that can be toured remotely. Kalis sayshe’s been in talks with smaller builders initially about their participation, including Randy Wertheimer of Hunter Pasteur Homes, one of Marketplace’s first customers. Marketplace then plans to expand the program to its larger regional and national builders in January. “Our current partners will be the first that we call,” says Kalis, “but we are excited to touch base with any builders that believe, as we do, that being open 12 hours a day and revolutionizing real estate are something they want to be a part of.”
Marketplace Homes also manages about 1,500 rental homes in 20 states. Ben-Gal says it’s possible that the iTours platform could be tailored to show rentals to prospective tenants. “But for the time being, we’re taking a crawl/walk/run approach,” he says.
John Caulfield is a senior editor for BUILDER.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN.