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Tuesday, 28 September, 1999, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Finding a home from home
The National Association of Estate Agents can help the house-hunt
By BBC News Online's Jane Harbidge

House-hunting, as many of us know to our cost, is a time-consuming and exhausting business.

The Property Maze
How often have we all viewed a place that sounded promising from the description but screams "no" at you as soon as you walk through the door? Had we known, we could have saved ourselves, and everyone else, a lot of time and trouble.

Click here to see a BBC News Online road-test of property websites and their addresses.

The Internet has been hailed as a cure-all solution - a quick, efficient way of weeding out those unsuitable places, offering surfers the potential to spot their ideal home without the hassle.

So what can a potential buyer expect from house-hunting online?

There is a myriad of "umbrella" sites, which claim to offer hundreds or even thousands of properties to view from your personal computer.

estate agents
Going round estate agents can be time-consuming
All you need to do, they say, is key in a few of your needs, such as the location and number of bedrooms - and hey presto! You've found your dream home.

Sadly, the reality doesn't quite always match up to the promises.

The range of properties advertised online tends to represent the tip of an iceberg, sites are often not updated often enough, resulting in disappointed and frustrated house-hunting surfers, and in general the geographical areas allowed in searches are too wide or too narrow.

Most people looking for a new home will consider a handful of towns or villages and the surrounding area. Yet most sites ask you to specify either one county or one town - producing either dozens of homes in too wide an area (the whole UK in some cases) or too few. So if you're looking in an area covering a few towns or villages, you have to carry out separate searches.

The choice is yours

However, all is not gloom. Some properties not shown to customers by agents seem to mysteriously appear on sites.

And some house owners choose to use the Net privately to reach a global audience for a fraction of an estate agent's fee - advertising rates range up to 170. One is even free.

What's more, the Internet is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - unlike an estate agent's office.

"Umbrella" sites usually include either useful links to estate agents' websites in a given area or at least listings of agents' addresses and phone numbers. Clearly a quick way of contacting agents if your job has forced you to move to an unfamiliar place.

Internet house buying and selling is still in its infancy but many are convinced the Web is the ideal medium for it. For them, the Internet is the future of property sales.

I was wrong, admits agent

Stephen Elvin, Principal of Chilterns Estate Agents in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, has done a U-turn in his views.

"If you had asked me a year ago, I would've said it's a people business. People need to come into the office and we have to speak face-to-face.

HouseSearch is one of over a dozen sites which can help house-hunters
"Now I've realised if you don't go down that route, you're likely to be left behind. There's a fear factor among some estate agents."

He estimates that about two-thirds of estate agents are now online, and believes in time, all will be forced to have one member of staff dedicated to updating their website full-time.

At present, many agents update their sites only weekly or fortnightly - although there are exceptions.

"Most households have a pc and an awful lot are on the Internet now," he said. "If we value a property, part of the marketing package is that your property will be on the Net, seen by a worldwide market - for letting as well as sales."

But he admits that for buyers, the Internet's scope remains limited.

"It's useful for browsing or as an inducement for prospective buyers to visit a particular town or agent.

Time is money

"Inside the M25 (the motorway circling London) my colleagues regularly get hundreds of enquiries from people working in the City who simply haven't got time to go round agents and want to view property online.

"Using the Net is becoming the norm, even here in sleepy Leighton Buzzard. I can see traditional advertising dying.

"Even now, sending house details by post in hotspots is dying out. Colleagues in Marlow or Henley can phone 10 people when a house comes on and it will be sold before the details are even typed."

The Internet may become an estate agent's shop window of the 21st century.

But in property hotspots such as these in the last year of the 20th century there's little incentive for estate agents to spend time putting up house details online when there's money to be made by picking up the phone.

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See also:

01 Oct 99 | Your Money
Viewing some home pages
13 Jul 99 | The Economy
Housing boom spreads across Britain
10 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Net bids for homes
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