Phone service to offer sales, prices of homes


Washington -- So you're dying to know what the new neighbors down the street paid for their house, but you don't want to ask and you're certainly not taking a trip to the county courthouse to check?

Or maybe you're trying to figure what your own house is worth with an eye to refinancing or selling later this summer? You need what real estate agents call "comparables," but you have no access to computerized property sales databases, like local multiple listing services (MLS).

Or perhaps you're considering a job offer that would require you to relocate to a community 1,500 miles away. You'd like to get a sense of relative home values between your current and prospective neighborhood, but without doing a formal home search or involving local real estate professionals.

If you fit any of these descriptions, there's a new, nationwide resource heading your way that you can access 24 hours a day by Touch-Tone phone.

It's sponsored by nonprofit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, and is open to subscribers and nonsubscribers alike. By mid-July, the Consumer Reports Home Price Service should be operational in "most major metropolitan areas and many states," according to Jan Liss, senior planning director for Consumers Union.

The service will allow you to check the selling price of specific houses, the prices of all the homes sold on a specific street, or the addresses of all homes sold within price ranges you define.

Cost will be $10 for 10 minutes covering prices of up to 24 houses, plus a fax printout sent to you at no additional cost within a minute or two of hanging up.

Consumers Union's database -- assembled and managed by interactive phone technology pioneer INPHO Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. -- stretches back five to six years in most areas.

During standard 10-minute calls you'll be able to access multiple states and cities -- theoretically allowing you to find out the purchase price on that mansion your reclusive Aunt Tilly just bought in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., as well as all the recent selling prices of houses on Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair, N.J.

Consumers Union says its local databases will be even better than some you can access working directly with realty agents. The new service provides sales prices of FISBO's -- "For-Sale-By-Owner" homes sold with no agent involved as well as foreclosure sales of houses and condos.

INPHO provided access numbers for six test runs of the system this month, but had no control over where the preview calls were directed or what information was sought. The test runs showed it to be user-friendly, with easy-to-follow instructions. The national Consumer Reports number -- scheduled for debut on or about July 8 -- is 1-800-775-1212.

After entering your credit card number, a series of audio "prompts" directs you to pick the state you want to research, then the town.

At that point you can choose one of several research paths -- one to check out a specific address, a second for sales along an entire street, and a third to survey sales within some range of a maximum price.

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