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How to Pick a Real Estate Web Site

Real estate is big business on the Internet. More homes are listed online than ever before. And that's leading to stiffer competition between real estate web sites, as well as greater scrutiny of advertising claims. While that's good news for consumers, what's the real message here? Actually, there are two messages for both homebuyers and sellers trying to choose a web site: 1 - Bigger isn't always better, and 2 - There's no substitute for research.

A January, 1999 study questioned whether four major real estate sites actually publish as many home listings as they boast of. A major Multiple Listing Service (MLS) consulting firm called Clareity challenged the advertising claims of, CyberHomes, HomeSeekers, and HomeAdvisor. Researchers tried to verify the claims by manually counting the number of homes listed. Clareity's results showed some major discrepancies among the number of listings claimed, saying that the four exaggerated their numbers anywhere from 8% to 170%. Two of the web companies challenged the study, however, and Clareity has since revised some of its findings.

Clareity asked whether all these sites are really as big as they claim to be. But how much does size really matter to the consumer? It's the old quantity versus quality debate. The bottom line is what type of experience does the web offer the homebuyer? Is the web site easy to navigate? Can you find homes in the neighborhoods you're interested in? The other point to remember is that online real estate advertising is still in its infancy and real estate databases need time to work out the kinks.

But homebuyers shouldn't be turned off from using the web. Shopping online is a great shortcut to getting the essential information about home listings, sometimes directly from the seller, although you may have to wade through several sites to get there. Obviously, you'll have to visit the home in person to get all the facts and a feel for the home.

One of the major advantages of working from your PC is anonymity. That's where the computer can insulate the buyer from pressure sales tactics. There's no real estate agent filtering the information or pressuring you to buy. Naturally, once you make any contact with an agent, you lose your anonymity and become a "sales prospect." But you get to choose when and where to approach the agent or home seller. But just remember that e-mail is a very impersonal medium. It's easier to misunderstand, or be offended, when you're not facing a person directly or talking over the phone.

The web also is a great source for FSBO listings (for sale by owner) because it offers FSBOs a place to advertise without going through a real estate agency. The main reason people choose to sell without an agent is financial--they save about 6 percent in realtor commissions. Of course, what the seller chooses to do with the savings is another matter. They may or may not reduce the price proportionately.

By Cliff McCreedy

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