Area Realtors Swear By Realtor, Zillow, and Bing

March 28, 2010

For people looking to buy homes, the Internet has become the first stop of choice. A 2008 profile of home buyers and sellers conducted by the National Association of Realtors found cyberspace was the top source of home-search information 87 percent of the time. That's 2 percent more than real estate agents ranked in the survey, more than 20 percent more than yard signs and better than 40 percent more than open houses and newspaper ads.

Consumers are the big winners in this technology-driven paradigm shift. With hundreds of real estate sites to choose from, there's more information available than ever, some of it once accessible to agents only. With pictures, videos and satellite-generated bird's-eye views, buyers can compare homes without leaving their homes or offices, and that leaves more time and energy for the most promising properties when the comes time to do the legwork.

The sites have been a boon for agents, too. The ones surviving, and even thriving, in this tenuous real estate market are those that are tapping into technology to enhance their services and connect with would-be clients. Which sites they recommend to house hunters depends on the agent.

Rob Giuffria, vice president and broker with Premier Prudential Homes, named Realtor.com, Zillow.com and Bing.com as his top three picks.

Realtor.com, the official site of the National Association of Realtors, has listings for millions of homes in regions across the United States and Canada. The site is also "broker agnostic," Giuffria says, meaning no broker gets better placement than any other. Information includes the type of house, pictures and listing agent. But the home-value feature is not as accurate as others, he said.

Zillow.com is a Seattle-based website that, among other information, provides estimated home values. The company pulls data for a variety of pools and, using algorithms, determines the approximate value, or Zestimate, of the house. Giuffria maintains that the Hartford-area data is accurate within plus or minus 8 percent. While he said the majority of agents might disagree, "it's very defensible data."

Bing.com, a search engine powered by Microsoft, takes Zillow's trademark satellite images of homes a step further, giving users a closer bird's-eye view roughly 200 feet from above the property. The images also can be manipulated and viewed from four sides, a handy feature for assessing surrounding terrain or determining whether the house borders a commercial site, busy road or a house in disrepair.

"So, when a [client] says, 'I want to see this house,' they already know what's around it and how the land is situated," says Giuffria. "Is it on the side of a mountain or is it next to a river? It does not replace seeing the house, but if you can exclude this or that home, you can spend more time on the houses that meet your criteria."

Margaret Wilcox, an agent and broker with Coldwell Banker Real Estate, ranks Realtor.com as her second-favorite website. She said the time lag in posting information to the site can render information about the status of a particular property inaccurate. First choice for Wilcox and her team of top-selling Glastonbury-area associates is their company's site CBMoves.com, which connects users to more than 200,000 listings in the tri-state area and links to everything from school-district data and agent bios to support with financing and getting the phone and electricity connected. Other major real estate companies and agencies also have sites.

Wilcox said Zillow.com can be valuable but must be used with caution. Property values on the site rely on town assessment information and recent sales, which led to a mistake in the value of a property she was involved with.

"The property was located on the town line and [the site] didn't differentiate from the house in one town and a house a street over in the other town," Wilcox said. "It can just be very misleading."

Mobile Technology

Driving the rise in reliance on the Internet is the evolution of smart phone and other mobile technology, experts say. The Internet consumer "inhales information, often works on their own and demands timely responses," Spencer Raskoff, Zillow.com's chief operating officer, told attendees at a Pacific Northwest Housing Summit last week. There is no such thing as too much information for these users, who routinely want data on historical asking prices, days on the market, seller's mortgage amount, what the seller paid for the property, the value of nearby homes, he said.

"In the last six months, there has been a revolution of these devices," said Raskoff, whose company recently unveiled a GPS-enabled Zillow app for Google's Android smart phone. Using it, prospective buyers can call up information on a given property by tapping in the street address as they drive by.

"It's an information bonanza for home buyers," he said.

Such developments, of course, have radically transformed the way agents and brokers conduct business and their relationship with the buying and selling public. Cynthia Burke, an agent with Keller Williams Real Estate, pays for an upgraded version of Realtor.com that feeds any new listings she gets to dozens of real estate and social-networking sites, including Zillow.com, Trulia.com, Facebook, Twitter and even Craigslist.

"It's crucial to get information everywhere possible," she said.

Michael Marsden, an agent and broker with the River To Shore Group of Page Taft GMAC Real Estate, says he invests from $1,200 to $1,500 a month to maintain his presence on the Internet, which includes websites he created to reach home buyers (CTHomesByEmail.com) and sellers (ValueMyCThome.com) and an iPhone app.

"You have to spend a lot of money to get a bigger piece of a smaller pie," Marsden said.

CTReal.com is another option for consumers looking to purchase property in Connecticut, Marsden said. The site of the statewide multiple listing service, CTReal.com is essentially a free, public portal to the same database he as a Realtor uses, Marsden said.

Burke, of Keller Williams, notes that traditional means of marketing real estate, particularly newspapers, still play an important role.

"Not only for people not online but because people like to carry the paper with them when they go to open houses," she said. "It's nice to have the information all on one piece of paper and be able to look at the pictures."

Agents also remain an important part of the process, said Susan Brine, an agent with Coldwell Banker. "There is still a lot of hand-holding," Brine said. "Even with all the information on the Internet, buyers still need that personal touch they get with an agent."

• Contact Loretta Waldman at lorettafwaldman@gmail.com.


Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant