House hunters in search of their ideal living space can hop on the Internet and explore listings at warp speed. www.realtor.com

May 03, 1998|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

No need for home shoppers to grab the car keys and spend the weekend driving through neighborhoods in search of "For Sale" signs.

Certainly not in this day and age.

Now with a click of the mouse, they can be launched into cyberspace -- a galaxy filled with World Wide Web sites that promote new homes, existing homes, mortgages, title companies, associations and advice.

Comfortably dressed in slippers and bathrobe, shoppers can browse through a builder's model and check out floor plans and prices for new homes throughout the nation.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"The majority of houses that are listed for sale go on the Internet," said Layne Morrill, president of the National Association of Realtors. "The Internet is making it quicker for the homebuyer to make a selection. Homebuyers can pre-shop, narrowing down their housing choices before approaching a Realtor."

At any hour of the day, homebuyers can hop online to find a Realtor or builder, get advice about home inspections, pre-qualify for a loan, research a community and its schools, and gather detailed information about homeownership and loans.

They can shop for interest rates, find out when it's a good idea to refinance, learn about reverse mortgages and -- if they choose -- even apply for a mortgage.

"The Internet is literally reinventing the real estate business," said Laurie Moore-Moore, co-editor of REAL Trends, a real estate industry newsletter. "Basically, it means better service to consumers, time savings for everybody and a new promotional medium for the industry."

It also means information -- and lots of it. Growing numbers of real estate Web sites are providing consumers with quick and easy access to information about real estate transactions that wasn't so available before.

Of the 350 largest residential real estate firms in the country, 219 had Web sites one year ago, according to the results of a survey by REAL Trends. That number is believed to have grown substantially over the past year.

And as Realtors reach out to consumers, consumers are embracing the new technology. According to a Nielson survey done in December, one of every four adults is now using the Internet.

"There is a tremendous dissemination of information," said Ramsey "Bill" Flynn, president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA. "The Internet is educating the buying and selling public, and the consumer is able to make more intelligent and better decisions."

One of the more highly regarded real estate sites is HomePath.com, sponsored by Fannie Mae. The site aids consumers in determining if they are ready to buy a home or whether they should refinance. It also helps them through the home shopping and buying process, and offers tips on choosing a mortgage.

It has mortgage payment and housing affordability calculators, a glossary of terms and help in finding mortgage lenders.

"Fannie Mae is educating consumers so they can make informed choices from a place of knowledge rather than feel intimidated by the process," said Anne Ryals, HomePath specialist for Fannie Mae. "We're trying to make it easier for people by making information available to them at their fingertips."

Consumers can use the Internet to select a real estate company and agent from a growing number of Web sites that often showcase a company's services on a home page that links to individual Web sites with photos and information on agents.

Shoppers can evaluate a mortgage lender, look up the definition of a real estate term, read over a contract and keep in touch via e-mail messages with all parties in the transaction.

"People gathering information and being able to communicate is very, very helpful," said Tom Champion, senior loan officer for Norwest Mortgage Inc. "If someone is relocating, they don't have to wait until they get here to see homes. And if a client is traveling and you need to talk, you can send e-mail."

Answers to questions about local taxes and explanations about settlements may be found in Web sites such as the one created by Citizens Title Co. in Baltimore that also includes basic information about the firm and its officers.

And for shoppers interested in new construction, there are Web sites filled with information about builder's models and floor plans -- a marketing tool that is growing in importance for firms such as the Ryland Group Inc., said Robert Seeman, advertising manager.

This year has seen the launch by Baltimore-based Digital Marketing Concepts Ltd. of virtualhomes.net, which gives buyers room-by-room video tour that can be viewed either on their Web site or on compact disc. More than 25 Realtors have used this cyber technique to market their listings, according to Ginny King of Digital Marketing Concepts.

New Home Search, a Dallas firm, has a Web site featuring more than 100,000 builder models and plans offered by over 5,000 builders in 50 markets. Shoppers can conduct a search by price, area, city, county, minimum square footage, subdivision amenities, number of bedrooms and baths.

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