The tour starts outside the Georgian mansion in Guilford, with its stately stone facade and Palladian window, then moves into a grand entrance hall. Next you're in the living room, then the dining room. You scrutinize large windows, high ceilings, an elegant brick fireplace. Yet you haven't taken a step.
The tour actually takes place in a basement office on Mount Royal Avenue, the nerve center of the computerized list of homes for sale in metropolitan Baltimore run by Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies.
A single stroke on a keyboard fills a monitor with a color image of the home, on the market for $749,000. Several more key clicks reveal the interiors, room by room.
Real estate agents in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties soon will be able to lead buyers on similar tours. By early next year, buyers will be able to view homes from most real estate offices -- thanks to technological advances that, for the first time, make photographs part of the region's multiple list.
The new system, an option that has been offered to real estate agents for only a few weeks, could have implications for the way consumers buy and sell homes, officials of MARIT say.
For one thing, it should help speed the house-hunting process. It also could be used as a new way to market homes and help boost sales, agents say.
"If you think into the future and what this could lead to, this is like shopping for a house from a catalog, like we shop for a lot of things today -- because we're so busy," said Shelley Chinskey, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Westminster, one of the first offices MARIT trained in the new technology.
Until now, the multiple list has described homes by price, style, neighborhood, age and number of bedrooms and bathrooms. Computers have given real estate agents access to listings in metropolitan Baltimore and beyond for the past several years. Agents can do computer searches by location and price range and often print out information for potential buyers.
Exterior photos on the printouts will help buyers distinguish one home from another and help them better remember homes they've toured, agents said. The new feature also could cut down on time spent by buyers and agents alike driving from home to home -- given that some buyers reject homes based solely on exterior appearance, Ms. Chinskey said. The service might be especially useful to buyers who are relocating, she said.
"If you have an out-of-state or out-of-town buyer who has a day to find a house, it can save hours," she said.
It could save sellers time, too.
"It's frustrating for sellers when they spend hours cleaning the home, and someone pulls up and they don't like it from the outside," she said.
Agents will be charged $10 per exterior photo and more for additional shots. But they can capture and use the computer images in any way they choose, for instance, to help promote a particular listing.
Denise Hayes, another agent in the Long & Foster Westminster office, said she already has done so, producing fliers promoting a starter home and distributing them to an apartment complex. She expects photos will help agents keep on top of new homes as they come on the market.
"An agent could search by street or neighborhood and create a tour of the neighborhood without going there," said Frank J. Tuma, chief information officer for MARIT, who is setting up the system with Russ Schumann, senior research analyst, and Robert V. Klein Jr., network administrator.
Most of the region's 650 real estate brokers already have computers -- required by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors to access the multiple list. Some systems might require upgrades that could range in price from less than $100 to an estimated $1,800 to $2,500 for an entirely new system, Mr. Klein said.
To build the photo inventory initially, MARIT is incurring the cost of photographing all homes currently for sale in each county. MARIT started in Carroll County, taking 900 photos. MARIT photographers, using still video cameras, will move next to Harford County and hundreds more homes.
MARIT also has begun installing software in real estate offices and training agents to use it, which should be completed by the end of the year, Mr. Schumann said. Eventually, about 20 to 30 percent of listings will include photographs, he estimated.
Other boards of Realtors, including those in Ocean City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have included photos in their multiple lists for several years, Mr. Tuma said.