Talking Houses Practically Sell Themselves

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Drive a neighborhood full of "for sale" signs, and you might see signs telling you to turn on your radio to find out more about the houses on the market. More and more realtors are using short-distance radio to help sell properties.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

You know those signs on the highway that tell you where to tune into traffic information on your car radio? You may have noticed similar signs cropping up on residential streets like Seaton Place in northeast Washington, D.C. As I round the corner on this short block, a blue and white yard sign in front of a brick rowhouse invites me to tune my radio to 1670 AM.

Unidentified Man: This property has four bedrooms and two bathrooms. You would love the hardwood flooring, the wood trim work and the high ceilings.

ELLIOTT: This is a talking house.

Unidentified Man: With an in-law suite in the basement with a separate entrance, you can generate income to help you pay the mortgage. If you're currently not working with an agent or realtors, and you'd like to view this property...

ELLIOTT: The sound is being broadcast from a second-story bedroom, where realtor Michael Bullock(ph) has tucked a small electronic box in the closet.

Mr. MICHAEL BULLOCK (Realtor): As you can see it's set to 1670. You typically just press the button or you can use your microphone to record your message. You can listen back to it and it will just continue to relay.

ELLIOTT: This is a black box that looks a lot like, maybe, a small DVD player.

Mr. BULLOCK: Yeah. Exactly. That's exactly what it looks like. You can turn up the volume.

Unidentified Man: I'd like to share with you my unique carpeting.

ELLIOTT: Bullock has been using this technology for about three years now ever since he bought a transmitter at a real estate conference in Florida.

Mr. BULLOCK: And it's relatively inexpensive. It doesn't cost much at all for the transmitter. So, one transaction more than pays for it, so it's done well for me.

ELLIOTT: He paid $250 each for the 10 transmitters he rotates among the houses he's selling. The talking house is the brainchild of Richard Matthew.

Mr. RICHARD MATTHEW (Realtor): I was in the real estate business in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin years ago before there was a multiple listing service. And the listing is where the lifeblood of any real estate firm. So I was constantly trying to find ways to offer services that the competition wasn't offering. And I'd heard about a little radio transmitter that operated off a tape and could be placed with a short range. But it was very expensive, but I was curious and I bought one, and it didn't worked very well.

ELLIOTT: So he recruited his son, Scott(ph), who had an electrical background to take a look. Scott Matthew knew his dad was onto something.

Mr. SCOTT MATTHEW (Richard Matthew's son; Electrician): Well, I thought it was genius. People love to get in their car when they're starting to think about buying a new home, and drive through neighborhoods that they might like to live in. Unfortunately, all they saw at that point was the yard signs, and the idea was it was like having a realtor standing out front, telling everyone who drove by all the wonderful features that they couldn't see from the street.

ELLIOTT: Without the hard sell. The problem was finding an electronics firm to make a device that would work and stay within the guidelines of the Federal Communications Commission. Scott Matthew says the same FCC rules that allow you to use devices like garage door openers and baby monitors also allow for these low power radio transmitters that only broadcast a few hundred feet.

Mr. S. MATTHEW: When the code is written, they basically said if you can live with the following really restrictive rules, well, you then you don't need a license. This is just for fun and we tweaked and fiddled and got every last foot out of those really restrictive rules and suddenly we had something that really worked. So they didn't really plan on this part of the code being allowed for a commercial use, but we found a way to get 500 feet and had a whole new market.

ELLIOTT: The Matthews' first, rather primitive transmitters, were on the market in 1985. Over the next 15 years, they would sell more than a quarter million devices, mostly to real estate companies, but also to car washes and fast food restaurants to broadcast messages while customers waited in line at the drive through. The Matthews sold their business in 2000, but the device they developed is the one being used by real estate agents like Michael Bullock in Washington, D.C. He is now renting out his transmitters to owners trying to sell their own homes, and he has expansion plans beyond real estate.

Mr. BULLOCK: You can put it in furniture stores. You can put it in schools to help out parents - any parents that are in the neighborhood, can just tune in and you'll receive all the information that they like, actually. And it'll all be just for 50 bucks a month. You rent one for like 50 bucks, so how can I say no?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: But for today, he's working with a potential new client, Ruby Woodard(ph). He's hoping she'll lease her property with him and he's counting on the talking house to help convince her.

Ms. RUBY WOODARD (Real Estate Client): Okay. I'll try it out.

Mr. BULLOCK: Yeah. Yeah. Try it on your way out. Turn your AM radio on to 1670. You'll hear a recording.

Ms. WOODARD: All right. Thank you.

Mr. BULLOCK: Okay? Sure. You're welcome. I'll be talking to you.

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