Personal Business: REAL ESTATE
USING A MOUSE TO HUNT FOR A HOUSE
Bill and Eileen Callahan actually enjoyed their recent search for a home. That's because they did much of the hunting from the comfort of their living room in Plano, Tex. In just a few hours of surfing the World Wide Web, the Callahans researched the towns surrounding Florham Park, N.J., the site of Bill's new job as a marketing director for AT&T. They decided which community they wanted to live in and which 10 houses they were interested in visiting. After arriving in New Jersey for one day of looking, they bought a home. "Consumers no longer have the time to drive around house-hunting every weekend," says Robert Becker, president of Coldwell Banker Realtors' Northeastern region. "They want information on their terms, fast and easy, with no strings attached."
Real estate professionals are paying attention. They're making it increasingly convenient and efficient for the time-squeezed family to find a home without ever setting foot in an agent's office. The latest sales tools include the Internet, cable TV, pushcarts in malls, interactive kiosks, and videos.
The Internet is the fastest-growing new sales tool. At the beginning of 1995, some 300 Web sites carried real estate information; today, there are more than 7,000, says Iverson Moore, spokesperson for the National Association of Realtors.
Some Web pages provide useful general information, such as median house price in a community and percent of high school students who go to college. They may also help you figure out your mortgage payments or how much you can afford to pay for a new house. Then, there are the listings, which generally include a photo, a brief description of the home, and the agent's phone number. But the inventory is slim: Only about 8% of the 4 million houses for sale in the U.S. are advertised online, according to Moore.
Where should you begin your online house hunt? The National Association of Realtors' Web site (http://www. realtor.com) is a good starting point. The group claims it has 250,000 listings in 37 cities and expects 500,000 in 50 cities by yearend. Coldwell Banker (http://www.coldwell banker.com), the largest company-owned real estate firm, posts about 100,000 homes. Other sites worth visiting: Real Direct (http://www.real direct.com) and Homes and Land Magazine (http://www. homes.com/Welcome.html). While the content can be good, the technology isn't perfect: At several sites, the information requested did not appear.
If you would rather click your TV remote control than your PC mouse, try tuning into your local cable-TV channel. A growing number of realtors are advertising homes there. Agents buy four-minute time slots to show photos of homes, with the price and the broker's picture and phone number. "I have gotten a tremendous number of sales leads from cable TV," says Simon Geiger, an agent with RE/MAX Spoonriver Realtors in New City, N.Y.
Some firms, such as Ebby Halliday Realtors in Dallas and Prudential Krause Realty in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, even have their own 30-minute TV shows that advertise homes holding open houses for the coming weekend. Call your cable company to inquire about a home-advertising channel in your area.
Say you've fallen in love with a house you saw on a cable-TV show or read about in an ad. Phone the agent. It's possible that he or she can send you a video showing someone walking through and describing the house. HomeScope, an Irving (Tex.) company, produces videos for realtors to send to potential buyers.
"COMFORTABLE." Less convenient than your living room but easily accessible is the nearby shopping mall. Realtors have discovered that these high-traffic areas are ideal places to set up shop. Often, they rent a booth or pushcart to display photos of homes for sale. "Consumers initiate the contact with the agent, so they're more comfortable and unintimidated with the sales process," says Brenda Cyr Sinclair, a co-owner of three Century 21 Quality Homes Realty offices in northern Virginia, where she has two carts in local malls. About 35% of her company's annual sales are from cart customers.
Prudential Real Estate Affiliates are among the brokers rolling out interactive kiosks in malls. These ask consumers to touch a screen to view homes and community information. Potential buyers are then directed to agents.
While these new tools won't be the definitive answer to all of your relocation problems, they can help you find a new house without leaving home.EDITED BY AMY DUNKIN By Toddi Gutner