Web-surfing for a home

Web: Most homebuyers now use the Internet in their house- hunting. But the process has its drawbacks.

November 23, 2003|By Rebecca Boreczky | Rebecca Boreczky,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Ronnie and Thomas Lengle of Virginia needed to relocate to Baltimore last year, they began shopping for a house through the Internet.

Sixty-five percent of prospective buyers used the Internet to shop for a home last year - up from 2 percent in 1995, according to a study by the National Association of Realtors.

That number is growing by the day, experts said, as many shoppers seek information about houses on the Web before embarking on the traditional search to visit homes and hire real estate agents.

The public's appetite for this burgeoning piece of the home-selling business has caught the attention of real estate agents vying for business and rattled an industry that has long controlled the way customers get their information about available homes for sale. Shopping for a home via the Internet and new industrywide rules that govern it also have caught the attention of the federal government, which wants to make sure the process is fair and competitive.

Information about home listings on many Internet sites has its shortcomings. But the Internet does enable buyers to search for houses, view neighborhoods, select real estate agents and schedule appointments to see properties. Many homes provide virtual tours, which include photographs of the property's interior and exterior. The Web also has become a one-stop shop for home buying: Homeowners can obtain a credit report, check the worth of their present home and apply for a loan.

"Customers are online more than ever," said Blanche Evans, editor for the trade journal Realty Times. "If you want to find buyers, you need to look for them online."

But navigating the Web for houses is difficult for many shoppers because information about available homes for sale often is limited. Most Web sites require prospective buyers to first provide personal data so an agent can contact them about the house.

Though initially slow to embrace the technology, the real estate industry has adapted to the Internet as its customers demanded it. In the past, practically all information about homes for sale was available only from licensed agents who shared a database of listings.

But as Internet commerce has boomed, real estate companies have invested heavily in their Web sites to make them easier to use and provide more information to lure customers and to promote their agents and other businesses.

"Some agents feel it's a people business and think the Internet is taking away people's need for agents," said Don Adams, co-manager of Long & Foster Real Estate in Pikesville. "Some agents don't realize that the Internet makes for better-informed clients. Agents don't realize that people still need them to take them through the process of purchasing a home."

Many said online listings have improved the business.

"There is no question that the Internet has helped Realtors save time by allowing homebuyers to pre-screen homes and narrow down the search," said Jody Landers, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "No real estate company - large or small - does not have a presence on the Internet."

But the process has its limits. The Lengles, for example, quickly grew frustrated by their initial Internet search for a Baltimore home.

After several hours of pointing and clicking, the Lengles were ready to give up. The couple often found that the Web information was out of date, and that the homes they called about were under contract or sold. Some Internet sites had limited information about the houses for sale and few of them were consistent in what features each home carried.

"In the past, agents controlled which houses they showed to the homebuyer," said Patrick Lashinsky, vice president of marketing for ZipRealty, a 3-year-old Web real estate company that has offices in Maryland. "Now people want to see all the homes available and control which homes they see."

Many Internet listings are not updated immediately on real estate Web sites, leaving many buyers with a false sense of what properties remain on sale.

Most real estate agents and brokers in Maryland subscribe to an Internet system known as Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., which provides updated information on listings. That system is available only to industry professionals.

Realtors have been spending plenty of money to keep buyers at their sites so that when the buyers are ready to call for help, they'll contact the company whose Web site they're using. The industry has spent considerable time and money in protecting the image of real estate agents, noting that buyers will still need them when buying a house.

Sandy Schafer, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Linthicum, said the Internet frustrates some in the business as well.

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