August 27, 2008
Tap Tech Tools to Find Dream Home
By Kristine Hansen
Around-the-CLOCK Internet access, and a wealth of information online, quickens the pace at which consumers decide to buy -- whether it's a handbag, vacation or a house.House-hunters and their realty agents who use online tools strategically are a step ahead of the game. Listings can now sparkle, dazzle and convince. A deal can swim through faster than the old days of faxed listings, with the potential buyer having little more than a piece of paper in hand before the first showing.
When Jessica Marshall and her husband began shopping for their first home in March, she spent many hours in front of the computer. Because of her online sleuthing, they looked at only about five houses before making an offer.
Their research plan pivoted on assessing crime statistics and zooming in on each block via online database and mapping tools. For each house, Marshall consulted the city of Milwaukee's crime- analysis mapping, where a downloadable map for each police district depicts the types of crimes that have occurred and on what street. Also accessible from that site is the Milwaukee Compass Project, which can pull up crime history (such as homicides, rapes, assaults and vehicle theft) in nearby blocks. The results eliminated some houses in relatively high-crime neighborhoods.
The couple also used Google's street-level mapping option at maps.google.com. Like other online mapping tools, an address is pinpointed on a map. But Google takes it one step further by providing a photo taken from the curb. This showed Marshall which houses were situated on corner lots.
"We didn't want to live right on the corner. We wanted to be set back a little in the neighborhood," she says.
Crime-analysis mapping indicated that crimes were most prevalent near gas stations, she says. "There were some houses we didn't even look at," Marshall says. "If it was right by a gas station, we'd notice there were a lot of burglaries, and we wouldn't even go look at it."
Check out the neighbors
Marshall even looked into her potential new neighbors for each listing by visiting an online database that lists assessed value and estimated market values. By entering an address, the homeowner's name and the home's assessed value (and selling price) appears, along with information about neighboring houses.
Using the names of the current homeowners, gleaned from publicly available records, Marshall then visited Wisconsin's circuit court access site. "I'd look up the neighbors to see if there was anything shady going on," she says, before driving by the home a few times at various points during the day.
Mark Gill also used crime-statistics databases when he began shopping for a home two years ago. "The tools are far more advanced than they used to be," says Gill. "It gave us a real flavor of how safe the neighborhood was. That was really important to us."
Real estate agents are scrambling to keep up with clients who use Web tools incisively to research houses and make decisions, even before they set foot in a house. Joan Sliker, a broker with Cream City Real Estate Co. in Milwaukee, says she is increasingly relying on Web tools as another outlet for the homes she tries to sell. The company has a custom-designed Web site with detailed, large photos of each home's interiors, which "really gives you a good feel for the house before you get into it," she says.
For one of Sliker's recent listings, a craftsman bungalow, online photos welcomed virtual visitors, showcasing a pie laid on top of the kitchen's island and sun streaming in through the windows. Nothing seemed to be out of place.
"You have to make sure your pictures are of good quality and done when the listing is put in. You have a short window of time and have to really give them a feel for that house in seconds," Sliker says. "You've got to keep up with how people use technology, such as cell phones and personal digital devices, such as BlackBerrys, so they can react with whatever information you have."
And it has paid off. "There were houses not in areas where (potential buyers) were searching, but they saw the interiors of the rooms. And one of them just got accepted because of that," Sliker says.
In February, Cream City Real Estate added a personal-digital- device section on its site that works well for tech-savvy buyers who happen upon a house while out driving. The buyer can log on to the Web site -- which is posted on the company's yard signs -- from their handheld devices and download information without having to wait for a call back from the agent.
"It's not just going to show part of the picture. It will be sized to the screen," Sliker says.
Lisa Dixon, of Re/Max Elite in Kenosha, Wis., has sold four homes using Real Estate eCards, which allow step-by-step design creation of a listing, including borders, music and lots of photos. The listing can then be e-mailed.
Dixon began using the service six months ago and found that the artistic presentation attracted a different population: those casually shopping for a home. Yet they ended up making an offer, pulled in by a home's character, a dimension not always able to be realized by a listing sheet or a drive-by.
"Sometimes the outside of the house may not be pleasing to the eye," she says, adding that sellers like the eCards, too. "They like the image it portrays of their house."
"I really like them because I can get them out to Realtors without having to print everything out and then mail it," Dixon says. "By the time it gets to people it's been a few days."
Agents, lenders and other providers in the constellation of real estate services are finding one another through social networking sites such as MyDealBook.com., a free Facebook-type site designed for brokers and others linked to the real estate industry. The site was launched in May.
"We try to facilitate those relationships so the industry runs more smoothly and deals get done more quickly," explains founder Ryan Slack. For example, a landscape architect enrolled with the site can learn about deals through member brokers. Connecting with homeowners in need of lawns or new yard designs cuts down on marketing time.
"It takes people's resumes and breaks them down in an easier (to read) manner," Slack says. In MyDealBook's first month, 330,000 memberships became active.
"Eventually we'll make it more consumer-friendly, so that consumers can search for professionals and get a better sense of those professionals' track records," Slack says. "For example, homeowners and home buyers will be able to see what kind of transactions or projects the professionals have done and perhaps even check references."
Find a new home
From the same person who launched Priceline.com. comes LotandHome.com., a site focused solely on new-construction houses and lots open for construction. There are 60,000 model homes on the site representing 700,000 sites nationwide.
Fred Catona launched LotandHome.com., based in Wayne, Pa., in May. "There's never been one place, under one roof, for someone to see all the new homes available in the country," Catona says. A concierge is assigned to coach each site visitor. Agents and brokers pay nothing to advertise on the site. If a deal is arranged, at closing the buyer gets a 1 percent cash rebate, the seller 1 percent and LotandHome.com. 3 percent.
Agents and service providers say that they're running hard just to keep up with high-tech tools wielded by customers. "We're not just selling us. We're trying to market houses," Sliker says. "We've got to be on the cutting edge of technology. You have to have a solid Internet presence.
"Most of the people are shopping online today."
Originally published by Kristine Hansen , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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