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Peruse home prices by phone

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. And you don't want to wait a few weeks to spot it in the property transfers that appear every Saturday in the Times' regional editions.

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 the local multiple listing service.

Or perhaps you're considering a job offer that would require you to move to a new community 1,500 miles away. You'd like to get a sense of relative home values between your current and prospective neighborhoods, but without doing a formal home search or involving 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 push-button phone. It's sponsored by the non-profit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, and is open to subscribers and non-subscribers 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.

In Florida, the service will cover Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Liss said, as well as Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. A year from now the service will add Manatee, Lee, Charlotte, Brevard, Duval, Orange and Osceola counties.

Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties are not scheduled for coverage yet.

The goal, Liss said, was to cover the largest population areas first. "We wanted to reach as many people as possible, but rather than wait to launch until we have the entire country, we figured we have enough so it's worth providing the service to those we could."

Analogous to Consumers Union's existing new- and used-car benchmark-pricing information services, the home line 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 of that information sent to you at no additional cost within a minute or two of hanging up. No need to have your own fax machine; you can direct that the fax be sent to a machine at work, at a local copy center, wherever you wish. The fax also includes two pages of information on buying and selling a house or condo, evaluating neighborhoods, and showing your home effectively.

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. So users not only will be able to research current prices, but create price-trend histories for entire streets or neighborhoods. 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 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 FSBOs _ "For-Sale-By-Owner" homes sold with no agent involved _ as well as foreclosure sales of houses and condos.

The information is derived from public records. "This is not unique information; it's unique delivery of the information," Liss said. The system provides price information and addresses only, not the names of buyers and sellers, the square footage of the house, its age, the number of rooms or the amount of land involved. "We're divulging less than if you went to your county office," Liss said.

The system also preserves the privacy of those who use it. "We don't keep a record of who asked for what information," Liss said, and Consumers Union "never gives the names of the users of any of our services for any commercial purpose whatsoever."

How will this intriguing new service work in practice? Here's a quick overview based on half a dozen test runs of the system in mid and late June. INPHO provided access numbers, but had no control over where the preview calls were directed or what information was sought.

To tap into the service's audiotext system you use a toll-free 800 number. The national Consumer Reports number _ scheduled for debut on or about July 8 _ is (800) 775-1212. (If you call before July 8 you'll get either a busy signal or a recorded message telling you the number will not be operational until July 8.)

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

Test runs of the system showed it to be user-friendly, with easy to follow instructions. The phone and fax research data, however, were not always complete. For example, on three tests of suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhoods _ Bethesda, Potomac and Chevy Chase, Md. _ the system did not provide all the recent sales on specific streets.

On one street, all the 1995 and 1994 homes sales were missing, but every other year back to 1990 was complete. A toll-free call to the customer service line, however, provided the missing information.

So by Consumer Reports' own famously rigorous standards is the Home Price Service a "best buy"? Well, the price seems reasonable. And the concept of 24-hour access to courthouse data via phone is highly attractive. Once the bugs get worked out it could indeed rate high marks as a consumer tool.

_ Times Homes Editor Judy Stark contributed to this report