Sunday, November 28, 2010 03:01 AM
By Jim Weiker
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
When Bob Barnes and Ryan Poirier headed out a few weeks ago to shop for homes, they made sure to bring Barnes' cell phone - but not to call people.
They wanted the phone to find homes.
With the help of their real-estate agent, Barnes and Poirier had placed a home-search tool called Smarter Agent on Barnes' Android phone. The service guided them to homes for sale in the Clintonville neighborhood they were searching.
"You don't have to lug around a computer or have tons of printouts," Barnes said. "When we drove into an area, the phone lists the closest homes for sale, and then you can see the homes and look at pictures."
Such mobile technology is changing the way many buyers search for real estate.
"It's the next generation of shopping for a home," said Barnes' agent, Terry Penrod, with Real Living HER. "What the Internet did for real estate, the mobile application will do for the search. It puts data into the buyers' hands where they want it when they want it."
Mobile devices have long had uses in real-estate searches, from simply texting an agent to sending a photo of a house.
But smart phones such as iPhones, Palms, BlackBerries and Androids dramatically changed the game by combining easy Web access with the GPS, allowing shoppers to browse a neighborhood and pull up information on homes for sale as they pass by.
No one tracks how many people use such services on smart phones or other mobile devices such as iPads, but agents and experts say use has leapt the past few years.
"There's definitely been growth," said Sarah Poston, e-marketing director for Coldwell Banker King Thompson. "Over 90 percent of homebuyers in general are using the Internet to search for homes, and 30 percent of the nation is accessing the Internet through mobile devices."
Some services focus on a portion of real-estate listings such as foreclosed properties or rentals.
But the most common combine real-estate listing information with mapping services. Among the most popular such applications are those produced by Realtor. com, Zillow, Coldwell Banker, Trulia and Homes.com.
All allow users to find homes for sale near their current location or near an address they enter. Most draw listings directly from local Multiple Listing Services, although a Dispatch sample found a wide variance in the number of listings the five applications pulled up.
The information can be refined by price range, type of property, number of bedrooms and so forth. Users can click on the homes to access the same details they would find online with, typically, several photos of the home.
Beyond that basic function, the services vary slightly in the way the information is presented:
• Realtor.com's service allows users to search neighborhood open houses, and in the Dispatch sample, appeared to offer the fullest lineup of listings.
• Coldwell Banker also allows a search of recent sales, open houses and listings that have appeared in the past seven days, although in a test, Coldwell Banker's listings were not as comprehensive as some others.
• Zillow presents both map and listing details on the same screen, allowing a user to see information about homes without losing the map. Zillow also adds an estimate of a home's worth (what it calls its "Zestimate") and, on the same screen, shows homes recently sold in addition to homes for sale.
• Trulia also offers open-house searches and searches for properties that are for sale, for rent or have been sold, though not on the same page. The listings were not as comprehensive as others, though the service offers one unusual feature: searching strictly homes that have dropped in price.
• Homes.com also failed to show many listings, although the service offers one potentially useful function: a mortgage calculator on each listing, allowing an immediate check of the monthly payment.
Such services are available on smart phones, but companies are now exploring ways to provide similar services to conventional cell phones. Coldwell Banker offers something called prtmobile, which allows users of any phone to call a number, punch in the code from a real-estate sign and learn about a house and request a showing from the agent.
Patrick Guanciale, a Coldwell Banker agent in Newark, has been using the service for some of his listings for more than a year.
A real-estate agent's sign in Newark includes signage for PRT, which allows potential buyers to search for homes using a mobile device.
"I was at the Quarter Horse Congress a few weeks ago and got a call about one of my listings," Guanciale said. "I was able to stand there and tell them about it, and send them more information. I sent them 22 pictures."
Real Living HER is exploring a similar service that uses a street address instead of a code from the sign.
Some companies are also exploring something called QR code, which skips the dialing part altogether. Shoppers with the phones that can read the codes can simply scan the code into a phone to access the information.
Such applications are useful, but they are basically extensions of what people can do from their personal computer, notes Mark Lesswing, the senior vice president and chief technology officer with the National Association of Realtors.
In the future, he said, look for services that are unique to mobile devices, such as phones that recognize images, allowing users to simply point the phone at the house and automatically download information.
A variation of this service that's potentially on the horizon would allow a home shopper to scan a neighborhood he likes with his phone, and the service would suggest similar neighborhoods he might consider.
"A lot of what we've seen so far is somewhat pedestrian," Lesswing said. "You'll see that change."