Suppose the boss tells you your job has been transferred, from Baltimore to Arlington, Texas. You want to stay with the company, so you agree to move. You'll need to buy a house. But you know nothing of Arlington. And you have little time to learn.
Where will you begin to look? How do house prices compare? You don't even know what you can afford. Where are the good communities? Where is the entertainment? Where are the best schools? The best shopping? The nicest neighbors? Crab cakes?
If you have a personal computer and modem, you can find out that crucial information before you move. Interactive online services let you question real estate experts and residents in communities all over the world, from the anonymity of your computer keyboard. And the services are surprisingly inexpensive.
More than 100 information computer services exist nationwide. Among those accessible to consumers with PCs and modems is Rockville-based General Electric Information Services (GEnie).
A $4.95 basic monthly fee to GEnie allows subscribers to review real estate listings and use electronic bulletin boards. Type in queries about banking, weather or night life in specific communities or places in general, and a fellow-computer user who lives there likely will respond.
"All of a sudden you have people to talk to there," said Chip Chiappone, manager of GEnie product marketing.
Even technical questions about local home financing options, and resale values get responses, said Paula Gilbert, system operator of GEnie's Home and Real Estate Roundtable. "We have authorities all over the U.S. accessing the bulletin boards, and generally, you would get answers to your questions that night," she said.
For another $6 an hour GEnie users can "attend" real-time conferences with real estate experts and ask questions there too, all from their computer keyboard.
CompuServe of Columbus, Ohio, also offers relocation help. For $7.95 a month, subscribers can browse reams of information, including real estate want ads to find homes for sale.
Choose from recent ads for a Colorado mountain estate for $1.5 million, or a mobile home on Maryland's Eastern Shore for $39,900. Ads are listed by sellers and agents.
New York-based Prodigy Services Co. also offers help via computer, for $12.95 a month. Prodigy users have access to a series of online relocation guides from Coldwell Banker. One guide is an index that allows users to compare current home prices in their city with prices in 30 to 40 other places nationwide. Arthur Ullrich, a vice president with Coldwell Banker in Mission Viejo, Calif., said Prodigy subscribers looking for homes in distant places can also get help online from real estate agents who live there. To alert an agent that you want to look in a specific area, you fill out an electronic questionnaire about your home preferences.
"We transmit it to a real estate broker in the community in which the subscriber has an interest. Then they call the user and tell them what property is available."
But even if you don't have a computer, you still can take advantage of technology to make moving easier. Most real estate offices are connected to a multiple-listing service that can match buyers to homes anywhere in the country.
New companies are refining the computerized home search business with sophisticated listing services. HomeView, a realty search service in Needham, Mass., offers a color image data base of as many as 30,000 homes for sale in that state.
Sitting at a HomeView computer screen, a buyer touches color )) pictures of the homes he wants to tour. The screen shows facts about each house, views of the street it's on and color pictures of each room. The service is free to homebuyers. HomeView gets a part of the listing broker's commission.
Kerry Leppo, HomeView's vice president of marketing, said the company will offer its service in Maryland and several other eastern states this year.
Wes Shaffer, marketing director of Atlantic Systems and Programming, a computer support company that works with real estate offices in the Baltimore area, warns consumers to be wary of new online services with few users.
"You're going to see a lot of these cropping up," he said. "Some may work, some won't. You have to have enough interested people at both ends of the network. If you're the only one on the system, it isn't going to be very useful."
GEnie Customer service: 800-638-9636
Cost: Starts at $4.95 per month; no hourly charge for non-prime time (between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.).
Needed to register: Computer, modem and communicationsoftware.
Customer service: 800-848-8990
Cost: Starts at $7.95 per month. Additional charges depend on services used and connect time.
Needed to register: Computer, modem and communications software.
Prodigy Customer Service: 800-776-3449 or 800-776-0840
Cost: Starts at $12.95 per month. Additional charges depend on services used.
Needed to register: Computer, modem and communications software, plus Prodigy software, which retails for $49.95.