MARY JANE BURT – Predicts more innovation

Instead of getting in a car and riding around to look for yard signs, more and more homebuyers are letting their mouses do the driving as they click their way through and real estate firms’ Web sites.

Use of the Internet to search for a home has risen from 2 percent of buyers in 1995 to 77 percent last year, according to a homebuyer and seller survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors. Seventy-one percent of buyers cited a yard sign as the second-largest source of information.

“[The Web site] is the main point of contact now,” said Matt Day, director of Internet strategy for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Connecticut and Westchester County, N.Y. Day noted that Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage has not done a local survey, but he believes the numbers in Connecticut are similar to the numbers in the national survey. The firm saw 44 percent more traffic on its Web site last year than in 2004.

“This is the sense that we get,” he said.

Mary Jane Burt, a residential agent at H. Pearce Real Estate Co.’s New Haven office and the company’s self-proclaimed “techie,” agreed.

“In some respects, I think our numbers are at or higher than NAR’s survey,” she said.

When respondents to NAR’s survey talked about where they first learned about the home purchased, 24 percent of buyers identified the Internet, up strongly from 15 percent in 2004 and only 2 percent in 1997. Although most buyers use an agent to complete the transaction, 36 percent first learn about the home they buy from a real estate agent and 15 percent from yard signs; five other categories totaled 7 percent or less.

“Buyers who use the Internet in searching for a home are more likely to use a real estate agent than non-Internet users, and consumers rely on professionals to provide context, negotiate the transaction and help with the paperwork,” said NAR President Thomas M. Stevens, senior vice president of NRT Inc. in Vienna, Va.

“The real estate industry today bears little resemblance to the way we did business 10 years ago. It is hard to find another industry that has adopted technology so readily to its customers,” Stevens added. “Realtors have invested a lot of time and money in building information technology, and because of these efforts, more consumers than ever are using the Internet in their home search.”

‘A Better Job’

H. Pearce has had a Web site for some time, Burt said, but it has grown in the number of hits and in sophistication in the last three to four years. Information is more easily accessible now than it was several years ago, and customers are using it a lot more. Burt said she has even worked with clients who have bought property without ever visiting it, including one client from Texas. Those clients visited H. Pearce’s Web site, e-mailed pictures and used the telephone to make their decision.

The way that real estate agents use the Internet is evolving, Day said. Realtors now treat clients who contact them on the Internet pretty much the same as they would a client who walked into a storefront.

“In the last 10 years, the real estate industry has done a better job of realizing visitors [to their Web site] are customers,” Day said.

A good Web site puts together all aspects of real estate, from home information to community and mortgage information, he said. The new designs and information, along with real estate agents’ attitudes toward the Internet, are benefiting both the customer and the Realtor, Day added. Homebuyers who use the Internet to search for a home typically spend less time physically looking, something that saves both the buyer and the Realtor time.

The Web also allows homebuyers to come into a relationship with a real estate agent with more information, saving both time, Burt said. Clients are more inquisitive about the “down and dirty” parts of buying a home, like assessments. She compared it to medicine today, where patients often go to the doctor armed with more information than they did before the advent of the Internet.

“Several of my clients are so well informed they enjoy going through the down and dirty work,” she said. “All of this comes from the Web.”

A good Web site is also something that helps agents seem more professional and value-added, Burt said.

Web sites help real estate agents be more efficient, Day said. Instead of carrying around a big book of houses, which often contained stale data, agents can get up-to-the-minute information from their company on the Web. Coldwell Banker uses a system called LeadRouter, a system that contacts a real estate agent almost the second a homebuyer shows interest in a house they have seen on the Internet. One agent at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage established a relationship with a client when, after receiving the alert about a client who was interested in a home, contacting that client right away. The homebuyer was stunned at the timing, and was still on the Web site, looking at the home in question, Day said.

But what the future will bring will be even more interesting and efficient, according to Day, who called LeadRouter “the tip of the iceberg.”

“It’s only going to get better,” he said.

Day said he expects to see even more information consolidated on real estate companies’ Web sites, which will lead to even less physical searching for homes. Web sites will get more interactive and creative as designers and agents begin to understand customers better, he said.

Burt said she does not expect that the next innovations with real estate and the Internet will be shocking, but she expects to see more 3-D images and tours of homes, along with computer-aided design (CAD)-like technology that will allow people to virtually arrange their furniture in homes they are looking at online.