Buy A Shopping Center Without Leaving Your Desk

May 14, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids Real Estate CEO Brian Silvernail has introduced a computer program that allows commercial real estate investors to take a trip and never leave the farm — or the office.

Silvernail launched I-CAST — Internet Casting Accountability Sales Technology — in March of 2002. It works like an online parade of businesses in West Michigan.

The benefits are twofold: The program provides online preliminary tours of properties to prospective investors, and sellers can find out how much interest a property is generating. The tours can be taken from virtually anywhere in the world.

"In the olden days, you drove by something, went onto the property and looked a little closer," Silvernail said. "If people were more interested, there would be a showing. Then, if you had further interest, you had to have a meeting, which provided information a little more detailed.

"With I-CAST, you have all that at the tips of your fingers, and if you're interested you can take a tour of the property."

It allows an agent to be in more than one place at one time.

"We are marketing in excess of $120 million in listings at one time," Silvernail said. "I could never do that physically. This lets me reach more people with more sites, and my sellers are also up to date."

With I-CAST, the property owner gets a monthly e-mail with a link to a report that reveals the level of interest the property has generated.

There are three levels of interest that are recorded. They include a "virtual drive-by," a "virtual showing" and a "view package."

A virtual drive-by includes the address of the property, asking price, square footage, number of acres, occupancy rate and income targets, along with several selling points to entice taking a virtual tour or downloading a package of information about the property. A simple click to MapQuest can provide detailed instructions on how to get there.

"It's almost like driving past a piece of property and taking a look at the exterior features, but with a little more information," Silvernail said. "On a virtual drive-by, they can remain anonymous and do a virtual tour of four or five different pictures."

The second part of the package is a comments page where a small narrative or sales pitch is located along with small photos of the project. The "virtual showing" level puts the viewer virtually in the property's parking lot, according to Silvernail.

"You will be looking at the building from photos we have taken with a 360-degree tour camera," Silvernail said. "We have photos for inside and outside and do several different views.

"If someone chooses to go to the next level, they can no longer be anonymous. We know they have an interest when they leave 'anonymous world' and go into 'identification world' — and the owner is notified immediately."

The third level of interest is a "view package."

"We term that as a virtual meeting," Silvernail said. "What you can get from virtual packages are actual CAD files with dimensions and larger versions of the photographs from the main page, an abridged version of the title, appraisal survey and a number of things we can put in the package."

Each of the three levels is recorded as a "hit" on the Web site. The number of hits representing the three levels of interest are recorded and reported to the seller.

"If they don't go very far into it, they most likely don't have a great deal of interest," Silvernail said. "If they do a virtual tour, it shows that there is some interest in the property, and the virtual package shows a lot of interest."

The virtual package includes a nine-page PDF file with four pages of CAD information, some aerial photos, graphics and lease information — all in full color.

"The great thing about it is that you can print out the complete package 24 hours, seven days a week — and it's instantaneous and immediate," Silvernail said.

In order to download the virtual package, the viewer must log in with an e-mail address.

"What we're trying to do is make the entire marketing process paperless," Silvernail said. "We will still snail-mail things, but we try not to fax things because fax reproductions look so terrible. The main thing we want to know is the interested party's e-mail address."

When that e-mail goes out, the seller is notified immediately via an automated process, according to Silvernail.

The properties are sent via the Internet to eight trade list services or associations, and up to 11 additional real-estate-related sites. It networks with interested parties and has the potential to reach between 15,000 and 20,000 e-mail boxes.

Properties may be accessed online at grandrapidsproperties.com. Viewers may click a function to e-mail a friend, sending the information to other interest parties, according to Silvernail.

One example of a listed property is a shopping center in Wayland with an asking price between $7 million and $8 million.

"Within the first three or four hours, we had more than a dozen package requests," Silvernail said of this particular listing. "We also have virtual mailboxes that print out and send back messages to ourselves internally. It's not just to be accountable, but also for follow-up functions."

For the Wayland property, for instance, there were 125 drive-bys in mid-March. Of that number, 95 did some sort of virtual tour, 60 conducted a plat tour and 27 took a view tour, equating to about a 30 percent showing rate of those who viewed the site.

Computer specialists from Internet Media Works worked with Silvernail to establish the site.

"My vision was to create an effective, paperless marketing system," Silvernail said. "The hope is by the end of this year to be working on the next level and including everything from contract to close, and the complete administration, from buy-and-sell agreement, to contract, to closing.

"It's being customized to fit the industry. Everybody talks about this technology changing and revolutionizing the industry.

"The events of 9-11 have pushed this quicker than ever before. The e-mail process is becoming a better tool to use than regular mail because people can access a digital file that they can look at right now and not have to worry about going through mailroom detection systems."

Following the initial launch in March, property listings are being added to the list weekly.

"We're not trying to cover the world, we're trying to cover West Michigan," Silvernail said. "It's just a slice, so we don't have all those big search pages.

"It's easy to browse."

During the first month of operation, Silvernail said the site had visits from people in 15 countries, including Lithuania, Israel, Japan, Canada and the Netherlands. Silvernail said more than 400,000 total hits were recorded in the first month after the launch.

"There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world right now, as far as I know," he said. "I was able to sell one $4.5 million building in Muskegon that I had never even been to. A developer saw it on the Web page and e-mailed back a response.

"It shows how we can do more with less time, which also results in lesser fees. My colleagues, frankly, aren't going to like it, because I can afford to take a smaller commission fee because the amount of time expended on a piece of property is drastically reduced."           

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