House hunters in search of their ideal living space can hop on the Internet and explore listings at warp speed. www.realtor.com

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No need for home shoppers to grab the car keys and spend the weekend driving through neighborhoods in search of "For Sale" signs.

Certainly not in this day and age.

Now with a click of the mouse, they can be launched into cyberspace -- a galaxy filled with World Wide Web sites that promote new homes, existing homes, mortgages, title companies, associations and advice.

Comfortably dressed in slippers and bathrobe, shoppers can browse through a builder's model and check out floor plans and prices for new homes throughout the nation.

"The majority of houses that are listed for sale go on the Internet," said Layne Morrill, president of the National Association of Realtors. "The Internet is making it quicker for the homebuyer to make a selection. Homebuyers can pre-shop, narrowing down their housing choices before approaching a Realtor."

At any hour of the day, homebuyers can hop online to find a Realtor or builder, get advice about home inspections, pre-qualify for a loan, research a community and its schools, and gather detailed information about homeownership and loans.

They can shop for interest rates, find out when it's a good idea to refinance, learn about reverse mortgages and -- if they choose -- even apply for a mortgage.

"The Internet is literally reinventing the real estate business," said Laurie Moore-Moore, co-editor of REAL Trends, a real estate industry newsletter. "Basically, it means better service to consumers, time savings for everybody and a new promotional medium for the industry."

It also means information -- and lots of it. Growing numbers of real estate Web sites are providing consumers with quick and easy access to information about real estate transactions that wasn't so available before.

Of the 350 largest residential real estate firms in the country, 219 had Web sites one year ago, according to the results of a survey by REAL Trends. That number is believed to have grown substantially over the past year.

And as Realtors reach out to consumers, consumers are embracing the new technology. According to a Nielson survey done in December, one of every four adults is now using the Internet.

"There is a tremendous dissemination of information," said Ramsey "Bill" Flynn, president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA. "The Internet is educating the buying and selling public, and the consumer is able to make more intelligent and better decisions."

One of the more highly regarded real estate sites is HomePath.com, sponsored by Fannie Mae. The site aids consumers in determining if they are ready to buy a home or whether they should refinance. It also helps them through the home shopping and buying process, and offers tips on choosing a mortgage.

It has mortgage payment and housing affordability calculators, a glossary of terms and help in finding mortgage lenders.

"Fannie Mae is educating consumers so they can make informed choices from a place of knowledge rather than feel intimidated by the process," said Anne Ryals, HomePath specialist for Fannie Mae. "We're trying to make it easier for people by making information available to them at their fingertips."

Consumers can use the Internet to select a real estate company and agent from a growing number of Web sites that often showcase a company's services on a home page that links to individual Web sites with photos and information on agents.

Shoppers can evaluate a mortgage lender, look up the definition of a real estate term, read over a contract and keep in touch via e-mail messages with all parties in the transaction.

"People gathering information and being able to communicate is very, very helpful," said Tom Champion, senior loan officer for Norwest Mortgage Inc. "If someone is relocating, they don't have to wait until they get here to see homes. And if a client is traveling and you need to talk, you can send e-mail."

Answers to questions about local taxes and explanations about settlements may be found in Web sites such as the one created by Citizens Title Co. in Baltimore that also includes basic information about the firm and its officers.

And for shoppers interested in new construction, there are Web sites filled with information about builder's models and floor plans -- a marketing tool that is growing in importance for firms such as the Ryland Group Inc., said Robert Seeman, advertising manager.

This year has seen the launch by Baltimore-based Digital Marketing Concepts Ltd. of virtualhomes.net, which gives buyers room-by-room video tour that can be viewed either on their Web site or on compact disc. More than 25 Realtors have used this cyber technique to market their listings, according to Ginny King of Digital Marketing Concepts.

New Home Search, a Dallas firm, has a Web site featuring more than 100,000 builder models and plans offered by over 5,000 builders in 50 markets. Shoppers can conduct a search by price, area, city, county, minimum square footage, subdivision amenities, number of bedrooms and baths.

Likewise, NewHomeNetwork- .com was created by three media groups -- Times Mirror Co., the Washington Post and the Tribune Co., as another source of information on new homes.

"The Internet will make the public more astute in the buying process," said Dale Ross, chief executive officer of the 'u Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, or MRIS.

MRIS is the online real estate service that handles multiple listings for real estate agents in most of Maryland and some surrounding areas. Like most multiple-listing services around the country, MRIS posts information about houses for sale on national Web site listings of homes, Ross said.

The largest real estate Web site is realtor.com, which has more than a million properties or about 85 percent of the national inventory, according to Robert Goldberg, president and chief executive officer of the Realtors Information Network, a subsidiary of the National Association of Realtors and the company that operates the Web site.

According to the NAR, the site receives more than 91 million visits a month, representing 1 million consumers.

Consumers can look through these nationwide listings, keying in the neighborhood, home style, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and other specifications.

The realtor.com site also includes "decision support components" with information about taxes, home insurance rates, closing costs, moving expenses, mortgage rates and loans.

"It's a very complex process, and we're trying to make it a lot easier for the consumer," Goldberg said.

"In the future, I see a continued evolvement to the entire automation of the real estate process. We'll still call our Realtor on the phone and we'll still go out and look at houses. But the key elements will become automated and the automation of the loan application is the critical next step."

Real estate professionals differ about the role of the Internet.

"This is an evolving technology," said Ross, of MRIS. "We're in the middle of a revolution, and when it all shakes out I think the Internet will be a normal part of buying, selling and looking for information."

Theoretically, all the steps of a home purchase can be accomplished online. Some professionals believe that technology will lead to standardization and automation of the entire process.

It's already possible to make an online application for quick approval of loans through multiple lenders, although the practice is not widely embraced by mortgage companies or borrowers.

For example, FINET Holdings, parent company of Monument Mortgage, has developed the iQualify.com Web site, a fully automated mortgage underwriting system where browsers can

key in their financial data on a streamlined application. They find out in minutes if they are approved for a loan from participating lenders. The fee is $39.95.

"It's very exciting," said Lee Decker, president of iQualify, a wholly owned subsidiary of FINET Holdings. "It's a phenomenal tool. We're redefining the way mortgages are delivered through the Internet."

But there are others who believe that customers want to deal with people, not computers, when making one of the major purchases of a lifetime. They want to take tours of homes and meet with Realtors and lenders to talk about details of the loan agreement. And they may not want to put personal financial information on the Internet.

"We deal with a lot of first-time buyers, and electronic applications would probably not work for them," said Theodore E. "Chip" Reichhart Jr., president of MNC Mortgage and a board member of the Maryland Mortgage Bankers Association.

"I've been in this business 27 years, and I'm cautious," Reichhart said. "We want to wait and see if it is something the public really needs."

He is concerned that electronic applications might result in borrowers being rejected for loans that would have been accepted if a mortgage officer had taken took a closer look at their situation.

"The typical purchaser is going to be needing more of a relationship arrangement," Reichhart said.

SEARCHING THE HOME PAGES

Here is a partial list of local and national real estate Web sites by organization, Web address and comment.

Real estate brokers

Century 21, www.century21.com: Property searches, community descriptions, mortgage and credit information.

Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc., www.grempler.com: Mortgage rates, agent home pages, and home searches.

Homebuyer, www.homebuyer.com: Offers information on residential and commercial properties as well as loan, title, mortgage, home inspection and insurance information.

Long and Foster Realtors, www.longandfoster.com: Links to Long and Foster agents and homes for sale.

O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA, www.opf.com: Links to OPF agents and homes for sale.

Re/Max, www.remax.com: Provides information about agent's offices, mortgage financing and enables home searches.

The Prudential, www.prudential.com: Provides information for buyers/sellers about Realtors, and banking.

New homes

New Home Network, www.newhomenetwork.com; New Home Search, newhomesearch.com: Builders, floor plans, building product and appliance information.

Mortgage and financial sites

Mortgage Bankers Association of America, www.mbaa.org: Provides news on recent mortgage information, commercial finance, and updates changes in Washington affecting the housing industry.

HSH Associates, financial publishers, www.hsh.com: HSH Associates publishes mortgages and consumer loan information and reports on terms offered by lenders across the country.

Quicken, www.quicken.com: Mortgage calculations and financial information.

Industry associations

National Association of Home Builders, www.nab.com: State and local builders associations, catalog of building products and services, and daily news reports on the housing industry.

National Association of Realtors, www.realtor.com: Helps consumers locate Realtors and properties in their area, provides real estate news, and names of real estate associations.

Home Builders Association of Maryland, www.homebuilders.org: Provides homeowner referral services, performance guidelines and publications.

Government organizations

Fannie Mae, www.fanniemae.com and www.homepath.com: Provides information for homebuyers about Fannie Mae-owned properties, multifamily financing, and single-family mortgage financing.

Freddie Mac, www.freddiemac.com: Information about lenders, communities, new programs available to homebuyers.

Consumer associations

America Homeowners Association, www.ahahome.com: Various homeowner benefits, advice and services.

Consumer Reports, www.consumerreports.org: Evaluates home products and provides feature reports on homeowner concerns.

Real Trends, www.realtrends.com: Evaluates real estate companies, provides industry news, and supplies research and information-based services to the residential real estate industry.

The International Real Estate Digest, www.ired.com: Provides property listings, Realtor information and has more than 17,000 links to real estate-related sites.

United Homeowners Association, www.uha.org: Allows users to ask questions, gives information on what to look for when hiring contractors and building a home.

Next week: A growing numbers of Realtors are going high-tech, trading in typewriters, Rolodexes, file cabinets and copy machines for desk and laptop computers, printers, scanners, fax machines, modems, real estate software packages, cell phones and pagers.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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