- - Thursday, May 5, 2011

The days when homebuyers flipped through a magazine of homes for sale, peering at a small black-and-white photo to see whether a property appealed to them, are long gone.

Today’s buyers have the option of viewing hundreds of home photos online or on their smartphones and have countless pieces of information at their fingertips before they even call a Realtor or visit a home in person.

The 2010 National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers showed that 89 percent of homebuyers searched online for a home, while fewer than 1 percent used a home book or magazine. Although most buyers start their search online, 85 percent of those who used the Internet purchased their home through a real estate agent.

One of the newest trends for homebuyers is the use of mobile applications to find homes and gather information about properties and neighborhoods.

Century 21 recently introduced an app for all smartphone platforms that links information to the Century21.com website. Locally, Century 21 New Millennium’s free downloadable app enables buyers to search for all available properties in the Washington area.

“The mobile website is more simplistic than the usual website, so when you access it from a mobile phone, it is easier to read,” says Todd Hetherington, CEO of Century 21 New Millennium. “Buyers can search by address, by county, by ZIP code and even by state for information.

“The mobile app has all the information available on the regular website, such as the price, the number of bedrooms and baths, pictures and sometimes even pictures of the community. If the property is in a homeowners association, the site will share the fees and what amenities are included in the fees.”

Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage offers the Coldwell Banker real estate app for the iPad, an application potential buyers can download for free.

“The iPad app is interactive because buyers want to do more than just search for homes,” says Darrin Friedman, branch vice president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage’s Chevy Chase office in the District. “The way we communicate with buyers is important, so we deliver more content that matters to them, including access to videos via the iTunes channel. There are videos of homes, but also videos for things like ‘how to get your garden started in the spring.’ “

The Coldwell Banker app for the iPad enables buyers to search for homes, real estate agents and offices; view videos of listings, agents, offices and communities; view integrated data on local amenities; contact an agent or office directly from the iPad; share listings on multiple social media sites; and create a favorites section for saving searches, listings, agents, offices and videos.

“The application can be used by people who are not necessarily tech-savvy, so even someone who just bought an iPad can use it,” Mr. Friedman says. “Mobility is key in this business, because clients want information at their fingertips no matter where they are.”

Mr. Friedman says customers without an iPad can access the same information on the ColdwellBanker.com website using a computer or smartphone.

“The main value is to educate clients and give them information that is useful, whether that is about a neighborhood they didn’t know existed or a specific property or even gardening,” Mr. Friedman says.

Coldwell Banker also has introduced a real estate game similar to Sim City for iAd for iPad, accessible through banner ads on various sites on the iPad.

“We are the first to do this, which allows people to click on an iAd banner and create a city or town of their dreams based on different categories such as travel, shopping, education, restaurants and active living, then use a sliding scale to find neighborhoods and properties that meet their criteria,” Mr. Friedman says.

In addition to mobile applications, buyers in the Washington area can take advantage of QR, or quick response, codes on property signs and on real estate agents’ websites and business cards.

“QR codes are prevalent in Europe and Asia and recently have been popular in our area,” Mr. Hetherington says. “Buyers can download a QR reader, then take a picture of the house and instantly get information on the property, including the price, number of bedrooms and baths, everything you would find on a website. Buyers can also use a text code that they can find on the yard sign to get the same information if they haven’t downloaded the QR application.”

QR codes also can be used on a computer to gain instant access to information. The codes also can be used to contact the listing agent for the property.

“One of the great things about the ease of access to information directly by buyers is that they can be anonymous,” Mr. Friedman says. “NAR says that it takes about a nine-month incubation period while buyers do research before they call a Realtor, so QR codes and mobile apps are great for people who are just getting started.”

Buyers ready to work with an agent may want to find one who offers SpatialMatch, a new tool developed by Home Junction. SpatialMatch, a search-engine application that can be embedded in a real estate agent’s or broker’s website, offers a wide range of information to buyers.

“Consumers can see everything they want in one spot through our lifestyle search engine, which gathers information from 104 different databases,” says Grant Gould, co-founder of Home Junction. “We integrate data on things like local amenities, so people can immediately check by address or ZIP code where they would find coffee shops, restaurants, hair salons, schools, everything they need in terms of local amenities. The site also includes demographic information so people can find out if the area has families with children or a high owner-occupancy rate.”

Mr. Gould says 19 real estate agents in the Washington area have SpatialMatch on their websites.

“The technology makes this simple, so non-tech-savvy people can use it,” Mr. Gould says. “Everything is map-based, with different filtering mechanisms that make it simple to click on different pieces of information.”

The company offers a version of SpatialMatch that includes MLS listings that are updated every hour, so agents and their clients will find complete information on neighborhoods, including property records and school district information.

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