REAL ESTATE: Technology gets real – Housing information on the Internet has changed the buying game

If you had asked me a year ago what the Internet meant to me, I would have said “entertainment.” Today, it means “empowerment” to me and a staggering number of other people.

Take buying a house, for example. It’s now possible to find out almost everything about a house almost anywhere in the country, anytime. In many regions, you can take a virtual home tour where you’re guided through every room, around the yard and the neighborhood, via videocamera.

Virtual home tours aren’t available here yet, but they will be very soon. Right now, you can go on line and find clear photos of businesses, homes, land and vacation properties for sale. You can find a complete and current listing of open houses, with maps telling you how to get from your house to the one for sale.

You can find information on getting qualified, types of loans, mortgage rates, financing, and offers already made on your dream house. You can read about the school system, neighborhood, and local amenities. And in some regions, aerial photos are available showing your house in relation to those amenities.

According to Judith Lindenau, executive vice president of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors (TAAR), the rise of the educated consumer has been enthusiastically embraced by the real estate industry.

“Multiple Listing Services and Realtor organizations used to be the ‘keeper of secrets’ in a number of areas, for a number of years,” she said. “Now, we strive to provide as much information as we can and help the consumer move through increasingly complex transactions with more confidence.”

By providing more information up front, consumers and Realtors can save time, money and disappointment. It also helps weed out the people who are merely curious from those ready to sign the papers.

The strong national economy and good interest rates have allowed real estate companies to invest more money into telecommunications technology. Ironically, that same technology will mean a decrease in real estate personnel, and it’s already happening in every state but Michigan.

Right now, the largest real estate target market is with baby boomers, who just happen to be the highest percentage of Internet users. Baby boomers are using the Web as their primary media source for property listings, home buying information, and real estate-related financial questions.

Coldwell Banker Schmidt Realtors recently signed listing agreements with Microsoft’s on-line real estate service, HomeAdvisor. While offering traditional listing services, MSN HomeAdvisor also offers calculating services for renters who wonder if they can afford to buy, and sends e-mail to consumers to alert them to a new property on the market. You tell them what you want, where you want it, for how much, and they let you know immediately when it becomes available.

According to Betty Corcoran, president of one of New York’s largest private residential real estate brokers, Web customers spend, on average, one month with an agent and actually visit five properties before buying. These Web-browsers eliminate listings long before they ever talk to an agent or step over a threshold. By contrast, non-Web customers spend an average of four months with an agent and visit over 21 properties.

Gary Vidor, co-owner of Help-U-Sell of Traverse City and chairman of the Technology Task Force for TAAR, appreciates the tremendous impact the Internet has made on business.

“It all comes down to who has the presence, how fast and easy the consumer can get information, and how fast the business can follow-up,” he said. “On line, we figure we only have about seven seconds to focus your attention. If it doesn’t happen in seven seconds, you’re already on your way to another site.”

Just as important as grabbing attention is immediate follow-up. Vidor, for instance, can be paged by phone or e-mail no matter where he goes and he has web sites with fast and easy access to information. But there will always be a need for exceptional customer service, no matter how educated or technically-savvy the consumer gets.

In fact, many real estate companies are moving into concierge services where they not only sell the client’s house, but also arrange financing and provide information on snowplowing, landscaping, repair and cleaning services.

Another natural progression finds them moving into other quality of life services, like financial planning or para-legal services.

No doubt technology has changed the real estate buying game, but one thing hasn’t changed: It’s still a business based on relationships, trust and a warm handshake.

You can find TAAR’s web site at BIZNEWS