Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Matt McDonald uses a Matterport camera during a photo shoot at a riverfront penthouse in June.

The fundamentals of buying and selling real estate may not change much, but nearly everything about how the deals get done is transforming all the time. From 3D virtual reality home tours to buy-it-now cash transactions, agents have to get creative and stay ahead of market forces and intense competition.

"What I have realized over the last 19 years is that the market evolves rapidly, and you have to evolve faster than the market," says Mark Hite, whose team closed more than $83 million in real estate deals in 2019.

Current conditions don't make matters any easier. In June, there were about 2,300 real estate agents in the area and about 1,700 homes listed for sale. (Yes, there were more agents in the area than homes for sale.)

Historically low interest rates are fueling buyers' appetites, hundreds of people displaced by April tornados went looking for somewhere to live, and sellers' trepidation about listing homes during the coronavirus crisis have all combined to create an exceptionally crowded, competitive market.

But even outside of this time of tight inventory, real estate pros are always looking for ways to stand out.


Tech Support

From social media to virtual reality, technology has changed nearly everything about the business of buying and selling homes, says Matt McDonald, who works for the The Group Real Estate Brokerage. That said, the fundamentals of understanding what a client is looking for and helping them find it remain the same, he says.

"It's totally different, but it's the same, too," he says. "You go through the same steps, but things are different because the steps have all had a technological shift."

After 13 years in the real estate business, McDonald knows pictures speak volumes. So when he had a good year and a little extra cash, he invested about $5,000 in a Matterport camera that shoots 3D images and creates seamless virtual reality experiences for folks who want to tour properties remotely.

"The visual aspect of real estate marketing is perhaps the most important," McDonald says. "People don't envision their dream home when they look at a set of blueprints. They need visuals."

McDonald bought the camera in 2016 — then the first of its kind on the Chattanooga real estate scene — and had used it about 10 times a year for high-end homes. But when coronavirus hit and people became nervous about visiting properties, the fancy camera became central to his marketing strategy.

"I've done 20 in the last three months," says McDonald, who spends about an hour methodically capturing images for every 1,000 square feet of space. "I thought it was just exciting technology, but it has ended up being very valuable during the COVID-19 scare."

Photo Gallery

Real estate pros


He recently used the camera to create a 3D tour of a $2.25 million riverfront penthouse full of custom furnishings and curated artworks. That's exactly the sort of place that is ripe for the Matterport treatment, McDonald says. The images are vividly detailed and not forgiving of any flaws, he says.

"If your home is not really ready to show, you don't want to use the Matterport," he says.

Social media has become another tech tool for attracting attention in a crowded market. Gary Crowe, owner of the Uptown Firm, uses social media and behind-the-scenes video storytelling to engage people — whether or not they ever become clients. For example, Crowe posts videos of homes under development and asks for input on social media on tile choices, paint colors and other details.

"I use the ideas, I really love to do that," he says. "I really don't know what color I should paint this house, and some people have really clever ideas."

That interaction is one key to using social media in a way that stands out, Crowe says. Everyone uses social media to market their business, but much of the time he's not really trying to sell a specific house through those interactions, he says.

"Sometimes the house is already sold," he says. "People want to be part of the process. They don't want to be sold."

Those posts inviting input into decorating decisions have always brought a lot of engagement, but they've taken off recently, Crowe adds.

"Since COVID, everyone is staring at their phones and the interactions have really shot up," he says.

Buyers are more empowered than ever through online listings, which is a far cry from the days when an embargoed listing book came out every other week and buyers had to find an agent who would give them a peek, says Charlotte Mabry, who has been selling real estate for 34 years.

"In 1986, there was no computer, no cell phone, we would go at 11 at night and pass packets of paper to each other in the parking lot of Northgate Mall," Mabry laughs. "The listing information was in a book that came out every two weeks, and whoever had the truck in the office went and got those books for everybody."

Mabry uses Facebook Live videos and live radio to extend her reach. "That changed the feel of our listenership and viewership," she says. "Social media has really just blown up."

And in a market where so few homes are available, agents have to get creative, Mabry says.

"We have to go outside of the Multiple Listing and say, 'OK, I have a buyer that's going to move in a month, and I have to find them a house," she says. "That means knocking on doors, sending out mailers. That's just a fact of the marketplace right now."

Virtual tour

Take a Matterport tour of the Penthouse at River Pier Landing:

The home is listed by Anne-Marie Jolley with The Group Real Estate Brokerage


Buy It Now

In March, Hite started making as-is, cash offers to sellers who don't want to deal with the process of cleaning up and listing a property. The price he pays is lower than the price sellers might get on the open market, but it also spares them work they want to avoid.

For example, a home he recently bought in East Brainerd had years of deferred maintenance and needed wall-to-wall updates. Hite bought it for $190,000. He will spend $45,000 to fix it up, and then relist it at $289,000.

"This has been a huge success for us," says Hite, who has been selling real estate since 2002. "We're closing several a week. It's really starting to be a major force."

The reasons a seller will consider the buy-it-now option vary — from busy young families who don't want to mess with the listing process to older homeowners who are ready to make the move to a lower-maintenance home, Hite says. People have also liked the as-is option because they don't want to show their homes in the age of COVID-19, he adds.

"One family, they have a 4-year-old and the wife is expecting and they didn't want people in their house," Hite says. "They're not making what they could make on the open market, but the ability to have peace of mind was worth it to them."

Hite leveraged his personal financial resources to launch the program because he felt strongly there was a need for it, he says.

"I was looking for the next item of change I could do to differentiate to help more people," he says.

It's been 15 years since Mabry started offering to buy any home she couldn't sell in 120 days, and she's only had to pay up four or five times, she says. As the market fluctuates, the appetite for those kinds of transactions does, as well, Mabry says.

The houses she bought after they didn't sell came in the 2009 to 2013 timeframe, when the market was hit hard by the housing crisis.

"When the market dropped in '07, '08, '09, you couldn't give a house away," she says. Now, with homes in short supply and mortgage rates in the basement, things look different.

"Today, if you came to me and said, 'I don't want to wait on the timeframe, would you buy my house?' I would absolutely buy your house," she says. "Though you might not like the price."


New Neighbors

Rocio Kemp spent a career in international logistics before she began selling real estate in 2017. The native of Costa Rica has carved out a niche helping first-time and Spanish-speaking homebuyers at a time when the local population is increasingly diverse.

"Chattanooga is a point of relocation these days," she says. "We have a growing population of Spanish-speaking people coming from Central or Latin America, and these people want to reach the American dream."

In a tight market where homes can be hard to come by, she focuses on helping people who may not know where to begin in their search, Kemp says.

"I love that, the ones that have been living here for 10 years, saving penny by penny, and now they see that they can buy a house after all," Kemp says. "My role is to make that dream come true because it's possible, it's attainable."

Josue and Ashley Fernandez met Kemp when they turned up at Buffalo Wild Wings in 2017 to watch the Costa Rican team play in a soccer match. He doesn't meet many fellow Costa Ricans here, and her jersey caught his eye, says Josue, who came to the United States in 2012 to play college soccer.

"I was not expecting anyone to know about that game," he says.

When Josue and Ashley, who met at Bryan College and married in December 2017, were ready to buy a house, they knew they wanted Kemp on the job. The rent on their apartment was about to jump to $1,100 a month, and it didn't make sense to keep paying that kind of money with no property to show for it, Josue says.

"We tried to build up our savings and reached out to her, and she told us about the different kinds of loans and a couple of contacts we could work with," Josue says.

Josue and Ashley bought their home in Brainerd in April 2019, and they've enjoyed being able to host friends and family — a priority Kemp understood as she helped them house hunt, Josue says.

"Her passion is first-time homebuyers and so she really helped us with the different questions we had and eventually we got to the house we bought," Josue says.



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