- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2000

One of the best things about the Internet for the home buyer is the wealth of information it provides. Agent listings, owner listings, mortgage calculators and virtual walk-throughs of just about everything from modest condominiums to grand multimillion-dollar homes all are available. Unfortunately for the home buyer, the best thing about the Internet is also the worst thing.
"I suddenly realized that I had spent hours in front of the computer clicking around and never really got anything near where I wanted to move," says one recent home buyer, who bought a home in Loudoun County five months ago. "Most of the listings were already sold."
This once was a frequent complaint among many prospective home buyers that Internet resources were too sparse and out-of-date to be of any real use. In the fast-changing landscape of the Internet, however, such complaints are becoming things of the past.
"The Internet is dramatically changing the way Realtors do business," says Dennis Cronk, president of the National Association of Realtors (NAR). "Consumers are becoming much more well-informed and the home-buying process much more efficient than ever before."
According to the NAR, 23 percent of home buyers use the Internet as a "front end" resource, often spending large amounts of time clicking around before consulting a broker. That is up from just 2 percent of home buyers in 1995.
"Anything you can do off line, you can do on line as well," says Blanche Evans, author of "Homesurfing.net" and the editor of Realty Times, one of the largest real estate news services on the Internet. "You can compare prices, shop for services and get information about current market conditions."
It's not always easy to deal with the bombardment of information, though. It also is not always easy to discriminate among flashy sites that promise much but deliver little. For the uneducated consumer, the Internet can be a tough place to travel.
"There are lots of pitfalls on the Web," Mrs. Evans says. "It's easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what's out there."
Take tax rates. Many homes featured on the Internet quote the tax rate for the current owner. Yet that figure is almost sure to go up as soon as the house is sold. It's an increase that should be taken into account when working out monthly payments, but it's easily lost in the barrage of facts, figures and graphics.
"When you go to the Internet, you're going to see a lot of information that is just plain worthless," Mrs. Evans says. "We try to inform the consumer about what to look for."
Homesurfing.net, which is a Web site as well as the title of a book, draws a half-million visitors a month, according to Mrs. Evans. Currently Amazon.com's best-selling guide to Internet home buying, Homesurfing.net breaks down the buying and selling process into a manageable series of steps.
The steps are crucial. Most people, according to Mrs. Evans, start out on the Internet by checking out listings. That's a mistake.
"People waste a lot of time that way," she says. "They are much more likely to look at homes they can't afford."
Homesurfing.net can guide the visitor to on-line loan providers such as Eloan.com, which will help them determine how much home they can afford. They also can compare the cost of buying an older home most houses on today's market are between 30 and 50 years old with the price of a new one. If their credit needs a little first aid, there's even a section on how to repair it.
Another popular Web site is Realtor.com, put together by NAR. Offering more than 1.3 million homes from the multiple-listing service used by most Realtors, Realtor.com doesn't aim to replace the local Realtor. Instead, it helps the prospective buyer find one.
In addition to home listings and specific services aimed at Realtors, Realtor.com offers consumers up-to-date information on interest rates and buying and selling homes, along with advice on finding lenders, negotiating prices and even decorating.
"Who would have thought four years ago that Realtors would make their listings public and post their information 24 hours a day, seven days a week?" Mr. Cronk asks. "We've been able to list 95 percent of all homes available for sale."
Though Realtors feared four or five years ago that the Internet would cut them out of the home-buying process, studies show most home buyers still use the services of a Realtor. There is an emotional connection to buying or selling a home that has kept Realtors in business despite the popularity of the Internet. The Internet be-comes the transaction facilitator the Realtor remains the transaction finalizer.
One striking Internet innovation is transaction management, which allows all the documents relating to a home purchase to be assigned a special Web address. Appraisals can be posted on line, and other service providers also can post information. For the consumer, such an approach means lower costs and a bit less mystery to the process.
Erealtor.com, expected in November, will be just such a transaction management site. The next phase of Realtor.com, the site will provide access to all documents pertaining to a real estate transaction.
"If everyone knows what's happening, there's an increased likelihood to close on the deal," Mrs. Evans says.
Transaction management has become feasible only recently, with the signing of a new law making electronic signatures viable. Now, if you are buying a home across the country, you won't have to travel 3,000 miles to close the deal. The whole thing can be done on line.
"You can close from anywhere in the world," Mrs. Evans says. "You'll just go to an e-signature notary like you go to a notary public now."
At Youdecide.com, the home-buying process is simplified even further. This new offering it debuted just last October and was revamped in March bills itself as the place where consumers go to make major life decisions.
Obviously, buying a home falls in that category. Youdecide.com editors have pulled together some of the best articles and tools related to home buying. Forget sifting through the magazines, books and other Web sites: Articles from Smart Money on savings strategies and mortgage and loan calculators are all just a mouse click away, according to editorial director Joanna Smith Burrs.
After doing the research, the prospective buyer is guided to a "marketplace" where providers compete for his or her business. It's the kind of informative-interactive combination that makes the Internet so attractive.
"It's not like a magazine, where you just get information," Mrs. Smith Burrs says, "and it's not like the telephone, where you're just getting a sales pitch. We want to present people with the tools they need to make an informed decision and carry it through."
If you are selling your home, the Internet picture is not nearly as rosy. Sellers have a "tremendous disadvantage," according to Mrs. Evans, because on-line buyers want to see a large volume of homes. They are much more likely to go to sites run by Realtors, rather than FSBOs, the real estate agents' term for "for sale by owner."
"Sellers need a realistic idea of what the competition is like," Mrs. Evans says, "and the best way to do that is still through a Realtor."
For-sale-by-owner transactions actually have declined, from 18 percent in 1997 to 16 percent in 1999, according the NAR's 1999 home buyers survey. That's no surprise to Mr. Cronk Owners.com has about 35,000 listings, Realtor.com has 1.3 million.
"Realtors are providing a value-added service," he says, "and with consumers suffering from information overload, a Realtor is often the one person with enough expertise to straighten it all out."
Nevertheless, a number of Internet sites offer information of interest to sellers. Homesurfing.net offers a list of things to do when preparing a home for sale, such as opening windows, getting rid of clutter and planting flowers in the front yard. The site can guide prospective sellers to sites such as Owners.com and other places to market their homes on the Internet.
"You have to understand that you are competing with professionals," Mrs. Evans says. "So we try to tell you the same things a Realtor would."
The Internet has changed the role of the Realtor. Most would say it is for the better. No longer does an agent have to spend time going over the features of a home; the Internet already has done that. Instead, Internet-savvy agents spend more time doing the kinds of things most confess they would rather do, such as interpreting data and negotiating agreements.
"In the old days, real estate agents were gatekeepers," says Phyllis Alexander, a top seller in Pardoe RE/ERA's Georgetown office who has seen the traffic on her Web site increase every year. "Now, we can spend more time negotiating and consulting. It's actually much more rewarding, because we're dealing with buyers who are much more involved in the process."

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