- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

With so much information at buyers’ fingertips, Realtors and homeowners are not only competing for buyers with the folks selling the house down the street, but also with hundreds of other sellers with similar homes. The process of narrowing the list of prospective homes used to consist of endless drive-bys but now can be accomplished with the click of a computer mouse.

Making your home or listing stand out on the Internet amid of sea of listings can be challenging, but area Realtors say having a well-planned online presence is a must. Today’s buyers typically know what they want and will quickly pass by online listings that offer too little information or don’t appear to meet their criteria right away.

Just as curb appeal is important when selling a home, so is Web appeal.

“Online listings are powerful advertisements for showcasing homes for sale,” says Carol Harriston, a Realtor with Long & Foster in Silver Spring, Md. “If a listing does not adequately describe key selling features of the property, it may easily be overlooked by the buyer.”

Studies have shown that 87 percent of today’s buyers find their home first on the Internet before contacting a Realtor, says Rob Carter of ZipRealty in Vienna, Va. In 1999, just 37 percent used the Internet in their home search, according to data from the National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.

“Forever and a day, Realtors have been controlling information, but since the Internet has blown up, clients come to us with the properties that they want, and our job is to be more knowledgeable than they are,” Mr. Carter says.

He says price is the No. 1 factor that attracts buyers to follow up with an agent on a particular home seen online.

“You won’t get any attention as a seller if the home is not priced right,” Mr. Carter says.

He says buyers know how much house they can afford. If a buyer has a $500,000 cutoff and you’ve listed your house at $505,000 - even though it’s really worth $485,000 - the buyer likely may never see your listing.

Ms. Harriston says buyers surfing the Web for homes are interested, at a minimum, in price, location, the number of rooms, and photos or virtual tours. Experts agree photos are a must, but they also can hurt if they don’t represent the home well.

When listings don’t feature photos or virtual tours, some buyers may assume the property doesn’t show well and it’s not worth their time, Ms. Harriston says. On the other hand, if the listing includes an exterior photo that shows the house in winter weather during spring or summer, the buyers may wonder why the home hasn’t sold and lose interest.

Experts say it’s important to mention features that aren’t necessarily shown or aren’t as obvious in photographs, such as new floors or a new roof.

“Agent remarks that include any upgrades that were done on the house are helpful to buyers, but if left unstated, there may not be a photo that can show that any improvements were done,” Ms. Harriston says.

Mr. Carter says investing in professional photographs is well worth the cost.

“Photos are the first thing that people see, and their first impression is impacted,” Mr. Carter says. “If you can’t capture them first with the picture and price, then you’ve already lost them.”

This is especially true for out-of-town buyers who are more dependent on the information found in the listing, Ms. Harriston says.

However, while there are common features that attract prospective buyers, Ms. Harriston says what prompts one buyer to follow up on a Web listing may be completely different from what prompts another buyer to contact the agent. For instance, she says, a listing for a home in foreclosure and in need of repair, with no interior photos, may appeal to certain buyers.

“Those buyers who are seeking a fixer-upper or foreclosed home being sold in as-is condition may contact an agent or broker when the price appears competitive, even when there are no photos,” she says.

Another buyer may follow up on a house seen on the Web because it is well staged and reasonably priced.

Ms. Harriston adds that including information about an open house in the listing also helps to get buyers’ attention. She says the Internet is fast becoming the best advertising for attracting buyers to open houses.

ZipRealty is building on the fact that clients are more knowledgeable today, Mr. Carter says, and that philosophy is part of the company. He says ZipRealty tries to include everything a client would want to know about a property in the listing and link it to sites such as www.zillow.com so buyers can see what’s next door.

“The objective is to keep clients on your site,” Mr. Carter says. ZipRealty, for example, has linked its site to street maps, interactive forums and a “guess the price” game.

If an agent’s technology is even a half-generation behind, Mr. Carter says, that agent risks losing clients. To keep up, ZipRealty released a new iPhone application in December that enables house hunters to search for homes, photos and prices and estimate value using their cell phones.

Realtors such as Ms. Harriston say agents looking to create their own Web site should review other agents’ sites in addition to contacting a few Web design companies.

Kelly McLaughlan, chief executive of KME Internet Marketing in Northern Virginia, says, “It is absolutely essential for Realtors to maintain an active, integrated, multimedia online presence in order to attract new customers, engage current or potential clients, and establish themselves as reputable community leaders and local real estate experts.”

She says it’s all about professionally engaging clients in the online context with which they’re comfortable, whether it’s through their own Web sites, third-party Web sites or advertising venues or using social media.

“Maintaining your brand and reputation across all these channels is as important as distributing effective and appropriate listing advertising,” she says.

Ms. McLaughlan adds that online buyers and sellers typically will review an agent’s profile, community presence, knowledge and their listing inventory in less than 10 minutes and suggests that Realtors be “findable” across all outlets. She offers real estate agents and others a checklist on getting started promoting their business online (www.kmeinternetmarketing.com/internetchecklist.html).

“The old-school way of real estate is gone,” Mr. Carter says.

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