There are at least 10,000 real estate sites on the Internet, including one with more than 1.3 million property listings, according to Nick Karris of Gomez Advisors Inc., an Internet research firm in Lincoln, Mass.
Not only are there property listings, but many large sites also offer links to lenders, credit reporting agencies, house inspectors and surveyors. There are online loan calculators; sale-price histories; school district statistics; crime reports; tips for buying, selling and borrowing; and historical and social data on neighborhoods.
"It really puts the consumer in control," said Bradley Inman, founder of Inman News Features, a real estate news service, and Homegain.com, a Web site where buyers and sellers can bid for services from real estate agents, in Emeryville, Calif.
In the past, home buyers would get almost all of their information from brokers and from classified ads. But real estate experts say the Internet has helped shift the balance of power.
"Now consumers can say: 'I don't need you to drive me around the neighborhood, or pull listings off computers. I just want you there to negotiate the offer and facilitate the closing,' " Karris said.
He estimated that 40 percent of the five million home purchases nationally this year will be directly influenced by the Internet. And that adds up to potentially big savings in time and money for the consumer, he said.
After electronically culling the listings, buyers can take a virtual tour of some houses, "walking through" every room without leaving their living rooms.
Prudential Fox & Roach includes virtual tours on all of its listings, as long as the seller agrees, said Gary Mercer, an agent who works in the West Chester office.
"It makes life easier for everybody," he said. "It gives buyers a feel for the property. They are getting a 360-degree tour of the inside and outside."
Mercer said that buyers who come into his office after first scanning properties on the Internet now account for about 40 percent of his business.
"It's a very powerful marketing tool," he said, adding that it was a tremendous benefit for relocation buyers who can prescreen houses before making a house-buying trip.
"People will be able to see enough, not necessarily to purchase, but to eliminate the ones that are inappropriate for them," Mercer said.
Driving Internet house sales is this spring's bullish real estate market, said Steve Storti, Prudential's senior vice president of marketing. Traditional means of finding houses, such as classified listings, "tend to be perishable. Desirable houses are on the market for a very short time right now," he said.
That was one of the problems that Heather and Burt Mulford encountered when they started looking for a house. The West Chester first-time home buyers had no luck with classifieds, which featured too many new homes, or Realtors, who wanted them to sign exclusive contracts.
So they spent two days driving through Chester County neighborhoods looking for sale signs. They found three that she liked, but by the time they called, the houses had already been sold, Heather Mulford said.
That's when she turned to Realtor.com, whose 1.3 million listings are derived from Multiple Listing Services affiliated with the National Association of Realtors. After four hours of work, she had selected 35 possible homes.
Because the site does not list street addresses, she contacted Mercer to help with her search. Although Mercer gave her the addresses so she could drive by the homes, many Realtors wanted her to sign a contract first, she said.
The Internet put Mulford in the driver's seat.
"I can see a picture," she said. "I can read about the house without having to actually talk to somebody. It can be intimidating. Everyone wants me to get in touch with a [mortgage] broker before they'll even talk to me to see if I can even buy a house."
It would be a rare site that could not help her with that problem, too.
Karris said consumers can go to a mortgage Web site, "get preapproved instantly, lock in a rate, and shop for a home knowing they're preapproved, which improves their chances to win a potential bidding war."
That's where the online process ends, though, because banking laws still require that closing documents be signed by hand.
At PricelineMortage.com, consumers can even name their own mortgage rate, and get guaranteed closing costs in as little as 30 minutes.
"What we tell customers who ask 'What [rate] should I put in?' [is]: 'If you see a great rate out there, we can probably do that for less points or lower closing costs,' " Ben Ness, senior vice president of financial services, said.
As consumers take more of a lead in the transaction, they are able to negotiate fees for Realtors, who are doing less and less of the work. With Homegain.com, Realtors bid for business, which may translate into savings for consumers, who now pay about $50 billion in real estate commissions annually, Karris said.
Although the changes are empowering home buyers, real estate experts cautioned that the same care must be taken online as off-line. The real estate market has always been rife with predators, so it's important to "find out who the heck you're doing business with," Inman said.
And the Internet offers no protection against one of the oldest real estate scams: bait and switch. "The Web is just another medium to offer one thing and deliver on another," he said.
Kathy Boccella's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
REAL ESTATE SITES ON THE WEB There are hundreds of real estate sites on the Internet. Many offer tools for finding, evaluating and pricing homes, as well as links to mortgage lenders. Following are some of the most comprehensive:
A Web portal owned by Microsoft Corp., HomeAdvisor offers a guide to home buying, plus tools to research homes, neighborhoods and loans; it contains 750,000 listings. Users have the ability to make side-by-side comparisons, and access credit, school and crime reports.
It contains a database of 700,000 properties and 60,000 agents/brokers. It offers a range of relocation data, including city comparisons and cost-of-living analyses.
This site's offerings include property listings and information on financing and owning. iOwn's Homescout puts together listings from other sites, and includes "for sale by owner" listings. It contains financial and relocation calculators, school and crime reports, and recent sales data.
The site is affiliated with the American Homeowners Association, a leading organization for homeowners. Online courses walk first-time buyers through the process. Cyberhomes provides RealHome's listings. The site also offers recent sales data, and school and credit reports.
Found on the Philly.com Web site, Homehunter contains a searchable database of thousands of homes for sale in the Philadelphia region. It offers links to mortgage brokers and information on schools and neighborhoods, as well as local real estate news and advice.
YAHOO REAL ESTATE
This site, offered by the Internet company Yahoo Inc., lets sellers list "for sale by owner" properties, avoiding the 6 percent to 7 percent sales commission. The site also contains news and information related to home buying.