Interactive systems give home shopping new meaning Going Public

April 24, 1994|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

A graphic in Sunday's Real Estate section incorrectly listed the number of homes for sale through Dial-A-Tour, an interactive phone service owned by SLM Computer Business Services in Ellicott City. The company said this week there are 300 homes listed.

The Sun regrets the errors.

House hunting may never be the same.

Large real estate companies and a handful of other businesses are introducing new tools to help buyers shop for houses without leaving their homes. Home Net, Dial-A-Tour, Hot Line and Comp-U-Home are but a few of the services available now to consumers in the Baltimore area who want to house-hunt from their living rooms.

Consumers may be surprised to find the detailed array of information, which real estate agents once held tightly to themselves, now available to anyone with a telephone or a computer and modem.


House hunters may pick up their phones or sit down at their home computers, punch in the size, style and neighborhood of house they want to buy, and get an immediate list of houses for sale in their price range. They may specify how many fireplaces they want. Whether they prefer a 15- or 30-year mortgage. How much money they need to qualify for a loan.

And they may do all of this from home, anonymously, before they meet with a real estate agent or a loan officer.

Steve Murray, editor of an industry newsletter called Real Trends, which tracks the real estate trade, has helped companies set up interactive systems, including one for Long & Foster Inc.

"When you go to any kind of store, you prefer to do your own shopping first, prior to having a salesperson attach to you," Mr. Murray said from his office in Denver. "It's the same with buying a home."

He said interactive listing services have been around for four or five years. Fewer than 20 firms in the country had installed them prior to 1993. But suddenly, he said, brokerages and other companies of all sizes want them. Mr. Murray offered three reasons why interactive services now are growing: the cost is coming within reach of leading residential brokerage firms; consumers are more open to using interactive services; and consumers, more and more, want access to listings.

But don't look to the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service to offer their data base to the public. The CMMLS coordinates all listing information about houses for sale in much of the state, and the real estate community shares MLS listings.

Right now, no one but a MLS-subscribing agent may pull a listing out of the CMMLS system. Warren Tunkel, CMMLS executive vice president, said that won't change.

But nothing prevents agents from giving their own listings to other companies to distribute to consumers. That's how the new listing services get their information.

Mr. Tunkel agreed that new interactive services will save agents some time, since prospective buyers can do much of their preliminary searching on their own.

"But on the other hand, it may be a disservice to the public," Mr. Tunkel said. "The expertise of the Realtor in a transaction and the ability to help a person find what they are looking for goes far beyond what a computer can provide. Listings are just a tool."

James P. O'Conor of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in Timonium, believes most consumers still want to search for houses by hiring a sales agent at the start.

"At present, buyers are still quite satisfied to get information in the more conventional method," Mr. O'Conor said. "We have no immediate plans for customer access," to the brokerage's listings except through agents.

Other brokerage firms say they are happy to open their listings.

"A lot of people want to look at houses, but they may not want to sit down with an agent," said Donald Grempler of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. in Towson.

Mr. Grempler's firm makes its listings available to consumers with personal computers through an on-line computer information service. He doesn't think it makes the company's real estate salespeople obsolete. When house hunters have narrowed their search, they'll call a sales agent to help them make other decisions and initiate a contract, Mr. Grempler said.

Some examples

Here are just a few of the companies that offer listings by phone or computer, free to consumers who want to browse. The services are accessible all day, every day, from anywhere.

* Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. has a new service for consumers that describes its 4,500 listings in the Baltimore area by telephone. Just call a local number from a touch-tone phone, punch a few buttons, follow the audio text and find out what's for sale in your favorite neighborhood. Long & Foster calls its service Hot Line; the system went on-line March 6.

* Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc. offers personal computer users with modems a listing of homes for sale by its agents. Grempler's service is called Comp-U-Home.

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