Can Facebook Save the Real Estate Market?

When I checked Facebook earlier this week, I learned from my friends' status indicators that Ken was looking forward to eating lasagna after a trip to the gym. Steve and Michelle were worrying about an ice storm. Bret was planning to cook a rib-eye steak. And Tracy Wortmann, a high-school classmate with whom I reconnected last fall, had a different piece of news to share: "Tracy has 5 new listings, let me know if anyone is looking … Now is the time to buy!!!"

Wortmann, as you may have guessed, is a Realtor. And even in the worst real-estate market in decades, she's recently learned how to drum up business using Facebook, the social networking site founded by college kids that's recently become all the rage among middle-aged folks like me. She's hardly alone. "Realtors are probably the most natural networkers around," says Pablo Viola, an Internet marketing consultant who created the 12,700 member "Real Estate on Facebook" group. "They understood right away what it means to belong to a community and the benefits of networking through this channel. … [They] translate their offline networking online very easily."

Lately many sales and marketing types have been flocking to social networking as a new way to win friends and influence people. But among realtors, the technology seems to be approaching a tipping point. Bill Sands, a broker in central Pennsylvania, attended the National Association of Realtors convention in Orlando in November, and he spent most of his time attending seminars explaining how to use social networking sites to find clients and sell houses. "There was actually quite a bit of buzz about it—a lot of the [agenda] was about social networking," says Sands, who's begun using Facebook himself.

My former classmate Wortmann joined Facebook in October, at the urging of a high-school classmate who's also selling real estate. Her friend told her that Facebook was a great way to reconnect with long lost friends. But Wortmann instantly recognized that the site could also be a great way to connect with potential clients and alert a broad swath of people about the homes she has for sale. At first she networked mostly with other Coldwell Banker agents around the country, hoping to win referrals from people who were relocating. Then one day, she saw another high school classmate post on his status update: "I've gotta sell this damn house right now!" She immediately e-mailed him and referred him to an agent near his home; if the house sells, she'll get a piece of the commission as a referral fee. More recently, Wortmann says, another of our old Warren Hills classmates posted that she was getting her house ready to put on the market. Wortmann quickly sent her an e-mail, and within 24 hours, she'd grabbed that listing, too.

Fair or not, there's a perception that real-estate agents can be a little pushy—constantly handing out business cards and otherwise trolling for listings. (In their defense, if you worked in a commission-only job in a field that becomes ridiculously overpopulated during every housing boom, you might behave the same way.) Wortmann says she's careful not to be too heavy handed with her Facebook marketing efforts. For instance, she's never posted photos of her listings or given out the addresses to her network of 176 friends. "That way I'm not invading anyone's privacy," she says. And like many people who've grown to love the effortless, low-key method that Facebook offers for keeping in touch with people, she believes using the site is far more polite than hectoring people by phone or sending out those ubiquitous realtor holiday calendars. "Online I don't think people think I'm being too aggressive," Wortmann says. "In this world we are so very busy, and networking online, people can get in touch with me any time of day, so I'm not bothering anyone."

Other brokers say they feel like they're treading a careful line as they try to exploit their network of contacts without being too in-your-face. On Facebook, "you wouldn't want to say, 'I've got a new listing at 102 Main Street' and go tooting your horn about how beautiful it is," says Sands, the Pennsylvania broker. "You've got to be a little more coy with it."

Kate Foster, an Oregon agent and my wife's former college roommate, whom I reconnected with on Facebook), has shied away from using the site to actually market listings. But since joining Facebook in September, she's become very aware of how useful it can be to keep track of past clients, who are often among her best future customers. "It's been a really nice way to keep up on people without being obtrusive, just to kind of know what's going on," she says. That's especially true because many people routinely use the site to announce that they're getting married or expecting a child—the kind of life events that often lead to a real-estate transaction.

There are probably critics who aren't so keen on people using a technology originally aimed at fostering and maintaining friendships as a tool for commercial purposes. But it's hard for me to get too self-righteous about this—and not just because some of these people doing so are my friends. I joined Facebook just over a year ago because a colleague suggested it would be a great way to help promote my first book—although beyond posting a picture of the book's cover, I never really figured out how to use Facebook to drive book sales. But since signing on, I've reconnected with dozens of old friends from high school and college—and during a recession that's causing friends to change jobs unexpectedly, I'm glad to have such a convenient way to keep in touch as people's lives (and e-mail addresses) change.

As for the real-estate community, the growing popularity of social networking is one bright spot during some really dark days. Says Wortmann: "I'm trying everything in a market like this, because something is going to work. And so far Facebook has been unbelievable."