Tuesday, October 11, 2005

HouseValues launches new national Web site

HomePages maps real estate listings, neighborhood amenities
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
By Glenn Roberts Jr.
Inman News

You think you've found your dream home online. The photo on the Web site looks great – it has the proper amount of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the price is right.

But how close is it to the local pizza place, the city library, the post office, a cocktail lounge or a high-performing elementary school?

Mixing mapping with detailed property, neighborhood and community data, HouseValues has launched HomePages, a Web site that is designed to drum up more business for agents while supplying consumers with new house-hunting tools.

HouseValues is well known in the industry for its lead-generation and lead-management systems for real estate agents and brokers. The HomePages site will supply a huge database of online property listings through the company's network of agents while seeking to supply a new stream of leads to these agents.

Prospective buyers and sellers can search for-sale homes by city and state, address, intersection, ZIP code, school district, and neighborhood features. Information for recently sold homes also will be accessible.

When consumers want more information related to buying or selling a home, they are connected to a HomePages agent in their market area. Agents pay to have the HomePages site personally branded when site users enter search parameters in their market area. Consumers can choose to receive e-mail updates on new property listings.

Participating agents' listings are also featured more prominently than other listings displayed in consumers' searches.

The site's maps will allow views of school district boundaries, and users can find detailed information about schools, including test scores, student-to-teacher ratio and graduation rates.
"It's built around peoples' lifestyles," said Ian Morris, HouseValues CEO. "It is totally integrated, with thousands of data points – I think this is the site that consumers want delivered on behalf of real estate agents."

Assorted map icons help users to differentiate between various points of interest, and users can customize the map displays.

Morris, during a demonstration of the HomePages mapping technology, said the site engineers enjoyed creating a flyover map display that zooms out, scrolls the map and then zooms back in when users switch their search location.

Matt Heinz, senior director of marketing for HouseValues, said that most major markets are covered by HomePages, and consumers will have access to about two-thirds of all property listings nationwide. Most property listing sources will be updated twice daily.

Other real estate industry players, too, have embraced the "more is better" approach to supplying online property listings to consumers. Help-U-Sell, RE/MAX and Cendant Corp. are among the major real estate companies that are pooling national listings to give consumers access to a larger sample of online property listings.

Visual displays of property listings – in the form of rich, interactive maps, also are catching on like wildfire on the Web. Some of the new innovations in online real estate mapping are based on the popularity of mapping platforms launched by Google, Mapquest and other online mapping specialists.

HouseValues officials point to industry research that shows increasing consumer interest in online real estate tools, including interactive maps. And there is momentum building in online advertising. The Borrell Associates research firm has said that online media should become the main advertising expenditure for the real estate industry before 2009.

Also, there is a long window of opportunity to reach real estate consumers before they enter into a transaction, say HouseValues executives.

Agents who subscribe to HomePages can purchase marketing packages that will feature lawn signs and other marketing materials carrying the HomePages logo, and each for-sale home featured by a HomePages subscriber is assigned a unique number to ease online lookup. Heinz said HomePages helps agents build their own personal brand while guiding consumers to the information they are seeking.

HomePages relies on aerial imagery snapped by airplanes rather than satellites. Morris said the end result is higher resolution map images – you can see cars in driveways and greenbelts rather than blurry neighborhood images, he said.

HouseValues has an extensive ad campaign planned to support the launch of the HomePages destination. Morris said, "We think that HomePages is going to be the killer (application) in this space."

Lisa Lundt, a real estate agent since February 2004, was among the first group of HouseValues agents to sign up for HomePages. Lundt, a Realtor for Custom Realty and Marketing in Henderson, Nev., said she has built her business around leads from HouseValues, and she was drawn to the potential for new leads from the HomePages site. "The simplicity, the clean design, the actual visual mapping – I think it is just going to be extremely appealing," she said.

Information on schools and neighborhood amenities should be useful in drawing consumers to view the HomePages site, she added. "I think they're going to be amazed by the amount of information they can get in one place."

And Maureen Morell, a Realtor for RE/MAX 200 Realty's Winter Park office in Florida who is also an early adopter of HomePages, said she hopes the new Web service will increase the number of property listings she handles while driving more buyers to work with her directly. By working with both sellers and buyers directly, she can reduce her listing commission while saving money for buyers, too, she said.

"There are a lot more buyers floating around now who are not interested in representation. I see HomePages as increases more direct buyer contact and another way to reach them," she said. Also, Morell said that any tool that can add value to her services – and drive more traffic to her listings – is important.

"Sellers these days are pretty sophisticated. The only thing they want to know is how I bring buyers to my listings," she said. "I see this as an opportunity to demonstrate more service to listings. Having a strong online presence for me is also a marketable advantage."

There are a lot of out-of-town buyers in the local real estate market, Morell also said, and HomePages provides tools for prospective buyers that can save her and her clients a lot of time.

"When they are only here for a couple of days I don't have time to drive them in my car, getting them familiar with neighborhoods. HomePages, she said, should get prospective buyers comfortable with neighborhoods even before they can visit them in person.

"They get a good feel for the neighborhood without leaving their desktop," she said.

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