Using the Web to find a house

Popular: As real estate Web sites have proliferated and become more sophisticated, they have attracted a widening audience. Seventy percent of homebuyers now use the Web to get real estate information.

March 19, 2000|By Jenna Kern-Rugile | Jenna Kern-Rugile,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Did you buy your home more than two or three years ago? If so, odds are you didn't bother going online to find your dream house -- or, if you were among the early Web surfers, the most you found online were incomplete listings of properties, plus maybe a photo and a few "how-to" articles.

Details on each property were scant and tools to help you through the complex process were few.

But in the past 24 months, online home services have flourished and have become more sophisticated. Today's Web-savvy consumers have demanded more, and they're getting it.

Seventy percent of today's homebuyers use the Web to obtain initial information about a property, according to a study released last month by Gomez Advisors Inc., an e-commerce research and analysis company, and Inman News Features, a real estate news service.

Sellers are also benefiting from the online revolution, with new specialized sites such as Homegain.com, which allows them to anonymously request agent proposals and select the best one. Another site is Homebid.com, which lets sellers auction their houses online.

"Consumers are flocking to the Internet to learn more about the home-buying and selling process before they contact an agent," says Nick Karris, who heads up Gomez's real estate services and Internet mortgage sections. "The information is enabling them to take the lead role when buying a home."

"The Web has helped demystify the entire process for homebuyers and sellers," agrees Blanche Evans, author of "Homesurfing.net: The Insiders Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home Using the Internet."

"Armed with the information they get on the Internet, they are no longer outsiders in their own transactions," Evans said.

That said, you'd assume that all's well with the online real estate industry.

Think again.

Though consumers have more knowledge than before, the industry has no clear-cut standards governing its sites.

The information is inconsistent; photos may or may not be available; virtual tours are few; many listings are out of date; and industry politics have played a role in determining a site's listings.

"Most consumers don't understand why listings are so out of date, spotty and poorly presented," Evans said. "Part of the reason is because it's up to the individual Realtor [to provide the site with the listing], which it shouldn't be. The listing sites ought to have standards that present a better quality -- for the consumer."

Even though the standards aren't in place, you need to know where to go among Web sites. Moreover, the sites best suited for your needs will depend on what you're hoping to find. For example, if you're only interested in new homes, or if you want to include "For Sale By Owner" homes in your search, you need to know the sites that offer the information.

Here are reviews of some of the major national sites, plus a regional site:

Realtor.com

Realtor.com, the national king in number of listings, is the flagship site of HomeStore.com, a portal with sites for remodelers, new home shoppers and more.

Boasting more than 1.3 million listings, Realtor.com has agreements with more than 650 of the 800-plus multiple-listing services in the country, according to Gomez.

Realtor.com has enticed more than half of the services to provide listings exclusively. In exchange, they are paid $1 per listing as well as stock options in the company. That arrangement has hurt other sites but was a smart business move.

As the official Internet site of the National Association of Realtors, the Web site is unquestionably weighted toward that professional association.

That's not a problem if you plan to use a Realtor as your agent. But you're out of luck if you want your Web search to include owner-sale listings or properties handled by brokers who aren't Realtors.

Also, just how current Realtor.com's listings are is a matter of debate. Recent articles say the site is not updated daily, though a spokesman disputes that claim. According to one industry source, there is a 24- to 48-hour lag.

Realtor.com's search parameters are comprehensive, allowing you to plug in the standard information -- price range, number of beds and baths, and minimum square footage.

But the site also allows you to plug in a nice selection of search criteria for interior and exterior features (workshop, tile floors, tennis courts, fenced yard) and community amenities.

Most Realtor.com listings do not include an address. Another glaring absence -- available from most of its competitors -- is the sales data that allow a buyer to determine what homes in the area are worth.

The site's neighborhood profiles are extensive and include school assessments, crime reports and the average cost of a house. The reports are free, but you need to submit personal information to access them -- data that will be given to at least one sponsoring advertiser (an agent, a moving company, etc.).

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