- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

Where can you view hundreds of homes across the country, research unfamiliar neighborhoods and schools, shop for a Realtor and obtain a mortgage without ever leaving the Washington area? Do you have a computer at home?

Armed with just an Internet connection and a comfortable chair, savvy house hunters have made the Web a major resource to assist them in their long-distance search for new living quarters.

Providing a wealth of information that was once only available to Realtors and once was especially hard to get for someone in a distant market Internet sites today allow home buyers to instantly see photographs of a potential home and find out everything, from the asking price and tax fees to the square footage and amenities.

"Virtual tours" allow people to take a "three-dimensional" look at homes for sale. This technology allows a person in Los Angeles to instantly see a panoramic view of the kitchen or family room of a home in Virginia and vice versa.

"The Internet is a very useful tool," says Gail Belt of Coldwell Banker in Northern Virginia. "We have buyers coming in from as far as Canada and London, and the Internet is invaluable to them and us. We can go on the Internet to identify properties they like.

"It helps the buyer and agents by allowing them to quickly get basic information to determine if they want to follow up or not," she says. "When the buyer identifies homes on the Internet, the Realtor can get a feel for what caught their eye and appeals to them."

Realtors say the Internet has become a virtual necessity. It has created a more focused search for homes from what once amounted to a clutter of faxes and lengthy drives to homes that, it turned out, did not fit the buyer's needs.

Blanche Evans, author of "Homesurfing.net: The Insider's Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home Using the Internet," says the Web has practically supplanted the more traditional home search, whether across town or cross-country.

"It's usually the first step in the process of eliminating or selecting a home," says Ms. Evans, who also works as an editor for Realty Times.

The influence of the Internet on real estate is growing, says Kiem DeLiese of Homestore.com, an online company that offers home and property information, as well as products and services for real estate professionals. One of the firm's sites, Realtor.com, "was launched in 1996 and has continued to gain in popularity ever since. In fact, the most recent survey by the National Association of Realtors showed that 41 percent of home buyers in 2001 found their home on the Internet."

In addition to research for home locations and amenities, Ms. DeLiese adds, "Homestore enables professionals to not only show their listing to potential customers but also communicate with them through online tools, such as e-mail and instant messenger."

Will Ampofo of Executive Realty in Largo cautions against relying exclusively on the Internet for a home search. He says even with advances in the Internet, professional real estate agents still have the most up-to-date information.

"A lot of those sites are not being updated" frequently enough to be reliable, Mr. Ampofo says. "Realtors have their own database that is more current than what the public can get. Some people get frustrated because they see a home that they really like and find out that it sold a month ago."

Ms. Evans and other Realtors say there is no substitute for the services a real person can offer. Real estate professionals contend they are much better prepared to help with all aspects of the home buying and relocation process. They usually can help secure financing, identify a home inspector, decipher corporate relocation packages and even recommend professionals for remodeling projects. Many Realtors also mail maps of the new area to prospective home buyers to help give them a better idea of the area they are examining.

Then there is the problem of too much information.

"The Internet can also be a double-edge sword, because so much information can be overwhelming," Ms. Evans says. "It's better to get in touch with a qualified agent first to help guide you through what is available."

"The best way to find a Realtor in another market is to talk with your local Realtor and let that person refer you to someone in another location," Mr. Ampofo says. "You can still go on the Internet to look at houses, but your own Realtor will help narrow the search."

Thanks to technology, just about the entire home-buying process can be done long distance, but Realtors say almost everyone wants to at least physically walk through their prospective new home before making a final decision.

Ms. Evans says that to buy a home without ever seeing it requires a lot of trust in the Realtor.

"You would need a good relationship with your Realtor to be your proxy to look at the home, hire an inspector, take photos and reach an opinion," she says.

When looking for the right house, finding the best schools is also a major consideration. Many sites on the Web provide help. In addition to sites put up by individual school districts, sites such as the one managed by Fairfield, Conn.-based School Report, offer information on school districts across the nation.

The School Report's site, located as a link on Homestore.com's home page, allows you to select up to six school districts you are interested in, and a real estate agent in that area will contact you. The agent will send a report either by e-mail or through postal mail.

Home buyers also are discovering that the Internet is a great source for finding out about neighborhoods. Official sites such as home pages of towns or cities, state economic development departments, chambers of commerce, and business or merchants' associations offer a wealth of information. Local media Web sites, such as newspapers and TV affiliates, also are helpful.

Home buyers can research an area's crime rate and neighborhood information online. More and more local police departments are putting neighborhood-by-neighborhood crime statistics on the Web, and community and school board sites often provide information on community events and school activities.

Some real estate companies have home pages that can provide a virtual visit to your new neighborhood, complete with parks, schools, recreation centers and places of worship.

"The Internet is a far more robust tool to help consumers make decisions about their new home. The trends speak to increased use of the Internet and decreased use of more traditional sources," Ms. DeLiese says.

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