The caller didn't know where to turn. The owner of an Alexandria, Va., townhouse had put his home on the market months ago. His real estate agent visited once, staked a "For Sale" sign in the yard, then dropped out of sight. Buyers were nowhere to be found. Now, he wondered whether the woman on the line could help.
Another plea came from a homeowner facing foreclosure. He needed to sell his home at a lower price -- and fast. Yet another query came from a military man looking for help in relocating, preferably from someone who could speak Spanish to his wife.
At the Real Match office in Annendale, Va., Marguerite Downey listened to callers, one by one, asked some questions and pumped a few key facts into her computer.
Names of real estate agents with particular specialties flashed on the screen, agents she could link with callers in minutes.
The new referral service matching buyers and sellers with agents appears to be the first of its kind -- at least in metropolitan Washington. Real Match screens its agents based on experience, sales, education, special credentials or awards and former customers' recommendations.
The service, in business for about four months, hopes to expand soon, with more agents licensed in Maryland and Washington. In the spring, the company says it will try to crack the Baltimore market.
Similar services are likely to become one by-product of an increasingly computerized industry, says Nancy C. Hubble, former president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
Already, catalogs listing agents with special, nationally recognized designations are available. Two-way data bases could take that idea one step further, she said.
"As we become more computerized, it doesn't surprise me we're seeing these services," Ms. Hubble said, predicting more and more agents would take advantage of new ways to market themselves as they become available.
Finding the right agent often is more important than people think, said Ms. Downey, marketing director for Real Match. "It's surprising, but the biggest transaction of most people's lives people will put into random strangers' hands," she said. "Things do go wrong."
With the service, buyers and sellers save themselves the time and hassle of calling numerous agencies or sitting through several agents' presentations to find the right person. They are not charged. Agents pay $75 per referral.
Ms. Downey's sister, Frances Downey, started the company after getting her real estate license and seeing the competition among agents.
"Agents are forced to spend too much time selling themselves instead of homes, while their customers are overwhelmed by the competition to gain their business," said Frances Downey, the company's president.
When customers call in, they're questioned about the type of home and location they are seeking, whether they're relocating and whether they're first-time buyers.
The customers also are asked about special needs, for instance, whether they want an assumable loan or a foreign speaking agent.
The 30 agents listed by Real Match come from a cross-section of companies. Some are licensed in Maryland as well as Virginia.
Each specialty listed by Real Match -- assumable loans, foreclosures, foreign languages, first-time buyers and relocations -- is covered by at least two agents.
The company expects to keep its agent data base to no more than 50 agents to retain its exclusivity. Several loan officers and title companies, recommended by agents, are also listed.
For more information, call (703) 256-9000.