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Property software focus - Part 1

publication date: Mar 31, 2010
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Property software focusProperty professionals looking for software have a huge choice. Tim Summerley, MD of Vebra, says “If you key ‘estate agency software’ into Google you’ll get thirty or forty plus results – some of which even I don’t recognise!”
Some of these companies provide niche software that fulfils certain specialised functions – for instance Mortgage Brain helps agents handle mortgage searches and applications; Qube is aimed at facilities management. But even in the market for core applications, there’s strong competition.

On the residential sales side, Mike Smithson, MD of The Property Jungle says, “Vebra and Dezrez are probably by market share the biggest that we come across. We see Expert Agent, and Reapit, and Gemini and Aquarius from VTUK quite often, as well.” Most of these systems are strong on marketing and portals integration, but differ in the extent to which they support back office functions.

Mike Smithson MD The Property JungleDezrez is strongest in the 1–5 office segment, though it supports a number of larger chains. Reapit is stronger in corporate business, while Tim Summerley of Vebra says his company supports “businesses all the way up from one chap working in his spare room to major chains like Smith Gore, or Staggs in the South–West with 17 offices.”

Integration with portals is particularly important as this is the primary way most agents market their properties. Mike Smithson, MD at The Property Jungle, designs websites for estate agents so he has a ringside seat.
“Way back in 1997,” he says, “property display sheets on websites were largely static pages. Around 2000, Dezrez and other software developed, but the basic layout wasn’t very flexible. Now we’re able to receive data from the software using technologies like XML, and we have much more control over how it looks.”
Besides, he says, the job has got easier now that Rightmove has created an industry standard, the BLM file; “If you can get the data to Rightmove, you can get it to any portal.”

But Wilf Lewis, of Dezrez , says the sheer number of portals means agents can’t keep up. “There are so many portals now, it would be a huge cost if you were to do it manually. We get calls every day from new portals – it’s a full time job for us.” wilf lewis dezrez

On the lettings and property management side, accounts and back office functions are more developed owing to the nature of the business. Mark Howlett of PropCo says his clients need a “cradle-to-grave solution” from marketing to back office accounts, while the marketing side of a lettings system accounts for less than 10 per cent of its entirety. Mark Quigley, MD of CARL Comms, concurs – and adds that though it’s more complex, lettings software is often cheaper. “That reflects the value of the average sales transaction, rather than the complexity of the software!”

How far can you go? Property Intellect will even be building a Capital Gains Tax function into its property management software later this year – that’s quite a stretch! Mark Daruvalla of CFP points out not only is the process complex, it’s regulated – so CFP’s WinMan software has accreditation from ARLA, NAEA and the Institute of Chartered Accountants, for the way it ensures compliance with the relevant code of practice and handling of client money. “You have to ensure that client cash is handled and accounted for properly,” he says.

Here again different vendors target different niches. Property Intellect’s sweet spot is from 3–5 users, the smaller and medium sized agency, while PropCo serves small businesses but scales up to Countrywide lettings with “hundreds of branches, thousands of users, tens of thousands of properties”.

mark quigley MD C.A.R.L. COMMSMark Quigley says CARL has “people who start their businesses with us – usually people who’ve used it before and understand the benefits – and clients with multiple offices running hundreds of properties per branch.”

Not all vendors can support the larger agent. While there’s a huge number of products for the single agent, particularly in residential sales, Stewart Anderson points out that, “For multi–branch businesses, and those including lettings and financial services, you can count the number of products on the fingers of one hand.”

Sales and lettings agents often want different things from their software. “The estate agency side is heavily motivated by marketing, matching and mailing,” says Peter Grant of VTUK, “while property management is far more motivated by compliance, by reporting, and by ensuring that the business is being conducted in the right legal way.” That makes it difficult to provide a single software package that covers both sides adequately – and makes it tricky for agents with both sales and lettings sides to know what is best for them, an all–in–one package, or separate, focused solutions.

Phil Barton of Property Intellect says, “You can end up with a monster – a complete mishmash.” He currently specialises in lettings; he is looking at supporting sales, but would prefer to build a separate module, using the same database. That’s not dissimilar to what LetMC has done; MD Glyn Trott says, “We’re seeing estate agency and lettings software work together, increasingly, but we’re meshing with Dezrez rather than writing our own system.”

Stewart Anderson CEO AspasiaOn the other hand Aspasia has a philosophy of covering all property functions with the same package; it handles property management, sales, lettings, even financial services. Stewart Anderson, CEO, says sometimes he sees agents using “one package for sales, one package for lettings, one for finance, one for mortgage sales – but that means there’s a lot of rekeying and a lot of room for error.”

Philip Evans of Pex Software, favours all in one systems, but says they can be expensive for smaller agencies, up to about three branches. “In five years’ time,” he says, “the systems will be more accessible – in the meantime the products (and now services) offered by Dezrez and other are good value for money to small agents.” Agents also need to consider integration between front office functions and the back office. Software packages differ vastly in their approach. Tim Summerley of Vebra says, “We don’t do the statutory accounting on the residential side, but we do support the management accounting and management reporting so you can see what an individual branch is doing.”

While some sales agency packages are effectively CRM systems (customer relationship management) with little workflow or accounting included, lettings systems are more integrated. Phil Barton says, “You’ve got multiple relationships you are handling, it’s not a simple linear process as it is on the sales side.” So lettings packages like Property Intellect and CARL handle both front and back office functions. Mark Quigley, MD of CARL says, “it only stops at the office accounts, that’s where Sage (accounting software) comes in.”

PETER GRANT VTUKHistorically, most property software was set up to handle the large amounts of data in the business, replacing Excel spreadsheets and Access databases. But high spec packages go beyond being mere data repositories – they have high powered workflow engines, too. VTUK’s Taurus product allows companies to automate basic tasks such as arranging an EPC. Peter Grant’s research showed this cost agents £18.91 in phone calls, time, and faxes, when they did it manually. Taurus handles the whole process through a web service – the savings to the agent are obvious.

PropCo enables agencies to write their own workflows within the system. Mark Howlett says, “Where there are repetitive regular routines, such as reminders as a tenancy period comes to an end, they can be automated. You will achieve zero errors, you will ensure you do it on time, you will save cost.” He believes workflow will become real battleground for software – and that it will squeeze out some of the less strong vendors, who don’t have software powerful enough to provide automation.

The benefits from automation can be huge. Glyn Trott reckons one agent can manage 30 houses manually, or 100 with most software, but claims an agent can manage 300 properties with LetMC. Besides, he says, automated booking also brings in customers other agents don’t get – the top time for appointment booking is 8pm, when most agents aren’t open.

Another increasingly important area is reporting. Tim Summerley of Vebra says “People really want to understand the business, what’s going on, how fast it’s going.” VebraLive allows a manager to run reports on all the branches in a network, seeing how they perform on any particular measure. There are over 100 templated reports in the suite, and others can be tailor-made on request.
However, many agents want reporting but don’t use it as much as they should. Wilf Lewis says “Reporting is one of those things that when people look at a product, they want to see all the reports, but then they go back to the branch and don’t actually use them”. He believes they should – for instance, Dezrez can show which portals generate leads, and which leads convert to sales. That’s very useful if some portals aren’t pulling their weight, as the advertising budget can then be redistributed to more successful portals.

With all these questions to consider, and a huge choice of potential systems, many agents don’t know where to start in taking a decision. Phil Barton says, “We do get quite a few technologically not very literate people come to us, and that is a problem with the sales process.”

GLYN TROTT MD LETMCGlyn Trott suggests that rather than getting bogged down in tech talk, agents focus on their business needs.
“Get everyone in your company to write down what they need. Make your checklist. That forms the basis of the procurement process,” he advises. “Next you can narrow down the companies of interest.”
Some salespeople will try to blind their clients with technology. Mark Quigley says agents shouldn’t be bamboozled – it’s more important that the salesperson understands the agent’s business. “Does the person I’m talking to understand where my business is and where it’s going, and efficiencies, and how my business can benefit?” In particular, the software provider needs to be up to date on regulation, on the market and the challenges it holds for the future – if not, however good the underlying technology, agents won’t get what they need.

Agents should also look at what they might need in a few years’ time, to ‘futureproof’ the business. Stewart Anderson says, “Agents may not be big enough to need an Oracle back end right now, but if they’re going to grow, they may need it in a couple of years.”

Many agents make a checklist covering basic functionality that they need. But Philip Evans, of Pex Software, believes agents should also consider how they can use the software to differentiate themselves. “If you buy ‘off the shelf’ software you use the same processes as your competitors, so it’s hard to leverage what is unique about the business. Imagine 22 estate agents on Angel Upper Street all using the same software, they end up differentiating themselves only by their cars and their colours.” He points out that larger firms, invest in bespoke programming to make their software applications unique.

While the procurement process is driven by the agent, software vendors can make it more useful. VTUK adds value by carrying out a risk analysis and identifying areas where agents can save cost or increase revenues – and, Peter Grant adds, the service is free, whether or not the agent buys the software.

SoftwareSavings from the right system can be considerable. Mark Howlett cites PropCo’s landlord portal replaced monthly statements which were being mailed to an expat landlord in Bahrain. That saved £15 a month straight off. And Phil Barton says many agents underestimate the staff time they can save; “They’re spending three days a week just updating their spreadsheets!”

Agents need a little technology nous to make sure they get the right product, though. Software can’t be treated as a ‘black box’, the technology that lies behind it is important, particularly the database system. SQL Server is commonly used, for instance by CARL, LetMC, Dezrez, and Property Intellect – but the less powerful FoxPro is still used by some. On the other hand, for major applications, Stewart Anderson says, Oracle is the most powerful database back end – and Aspasia runs on Oracle. PropCo takes a different approach, using the open source software MySQL to reduce costs.

Comparing prices can be tricky as there’s no one pricing method. Some providers charge per user, per concurrent user, per office, or by the number of properties managed. Sometimes particular modules or functionalities cost extra, for instance portals listings; sometimes larger users get discounts. Sometimes, agents will need to buy a licence for the underlying database software as well as the property package. Some charge a one-off licence, others a subscription. Some offer users a choice between both models. Nigel Stanley, Estates IT, says, “A subscription model is a bold business plan that relies on confidence in the quality of our service. It is always an attractive option to keep your money in your own pocket for as long as possible. This is how we ensure that every client is always important to us, after all we have not run off with the entire IT budget.”

But Phil Barton says it’s not the price that is important. “The cost is trivial compared to the payback time” – and that can be as little as three months.
Believe it or not, there are still agents out there with no property software at all, they are managing with a mix oMARK HOWLETT pro pcof paper and Microsoft Office. But software is becoming crucial. The portals are taking an increasing share of the market and many vendors and landlords now expect to be able to log on to the agent’s site to get what they need.

Mark Howlett believes agents who are still using paper have a limited amount of time left. “Ten years ago,” he says, “it didn’t matter what software you used – now it’s business critical. You need to get it right.”

Pricing – each to his own!

  • LetMC– Glyn Trott says, “We price per branch. In estate agency it’s about users, but in lettings it’s about how many properties you manage so it’s very much a branch model.”
  • VTUK – Startup, £495 setup charge and £35 a month up to 20 properties. VTUK established agent, £495 setup and £150 a month up to 4 users – 36 month contracts.
  • CARL – £1800 for first user, additional users at £350, one-off licence fee.
  • Vebra – Tim Summerley says, “I make a point of not talking specifically about costs – it’s very different depending on what exactly a client goes for.”
  • Dezrez – £110 per branch per month – 10 concurrent users.
  • EstatesIT – From £50 per branch, per month, no long contracts.
Making a decision on software? Click here to see Propertydrum’s chart of key features.