Houses that talk sell themselves Radio: So instructed by the sign on the lawn, prospective buyers dial their car radio to a voice talking about the home.

September 14, 1997|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There's a lot to be said for a house that speaks for itself when a "for sale" sign is posted in the yard.

Given a voice, the house will market itself 24 hours a day to prospective homebuyers. All it takes is a small electronic device and a car radio to get a residence talking.

Passers-by have been curious about the sign identifying Gus and Ginni Zachmeier's home in Joppatowne as a "Talking House." The couple have watched, amused, as a few people have tried in vain to get their home to chat with them.

A closer look at the sign reveals instructions for home shoppers to tune their car radio to a specified station. The house responds with a message about its four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, large family room, formal living and dining rooms, new kitchen appliances, parquet floors and deck.

"It's a fairly nifty gadget," said Gus Zachmeier, an engineering manager for Science Applications International Corp. "You can shop right from your car."

"It's good for the person looking for a house, and it's definitely good for the homeowner," added his wife, a secretary at St. Stephen School. "It saves a lot of time showing a house to people who are not really interested."

"Talking Houses" -- equipped with low-power AM radio transmitters -- are popping up at scattered locations throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area. The devices have been installed by a handful of local Realtors experimenting with a marketing tool that offers an audio walk-through tour to anyone who parks a car in front of a house and turns on the radio.

"It certainly is a different way of marketing a property," said Claude Gollihue, a Realtor with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn's Jacksonville/Phoenix office. He has seven transmitters and installed one in the Zachmeier's house.

"It is just one part of a marketing plan but it definitely is an edge," he said. "It's the best thing I use. It sits there 24 hours a day and the message is continuous. It's amazing the amount of traffic it creates."

Realtors write the scripts for two- to three-minute recordings that they hope will arouse the curiosity of potential buyers, communicate the home's finest features and help it to stand out in a busy real estate market.

The recordings may also correct misconceptions by emphasizing, for instance, the fantastic river view of a waterfront home that cannot be seen from the road.

The L-shaped rancher in Hydes that Bill and Addie Turnbaugh sold this summer looks small from the outside but is open and spacious inside with large rooms and a lower-level family room.

The house had been on the market for many months when Gollihue took over as the agent and installed a transmitter. In two weeks, about a dozen prospective homebuyers visited the home -- the same number that had toured during a prior six-month period, Bill Turnbaugh said.

"It got a response very quickly," he said. "It really helped to get people inside to see what was there."

Price, room sizes and features such as swimming pools, updated kitchens and baths are usually included in the messages, which can be picked up as far as several hundred feet from the house.

"People love them," said Scott Matthew, president of Realty Electronics, the Fond du Lac, Wis., firm that has manufactured and sold the broadcasters since 1993.

"When someone goes out for a drive on a Saturday and they see 40 or 50 houses for sale, all they can do is stare at them," he said. "If it's a talking house, suddenly they've got a real feel for the house.

"Talking houses stand out."

Matthew's father and partner in the business, Richard Matthew, first used the devices in his own real estate business in the late 1980s.

About 50,000 have been sold to 5,000 Realtors nationwide. The firm estimates that the devices are used in about 1 percent of homes on the market.

The transmitters cost the agents about $200 and are moved from house to house as sales are finalized.

"I've been in sales a long while and there's a lot of creative things available," said John Shaughnessy, a Realtor with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in Federal Hill, who has six transmitters. "This type of sales tool is being used in other areas and it's coming off very good."

The devices are about the size of an answering machine, plug into a wall outlet and store a message on computer chips.

They are placed on a table or the floor inside the house, and the seller hears the message only if he tunes in.

"Sellers seem very excited about it," Gollihue said. "It gives them something no one else has. It makes their house stand out. The recording will get people to stop and listen and call to schedule an appointment."

And if the house isn't what shoppers want, they won't make an unnecessary call to the Realtor.

"I get more qualified calls from people who know the price and the features already," Gollihue said. "It saves me from showing the property to people who are not prospects."

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