Timmy Hyer helped his parents shop for real estate in Tampa _ while seated in front of his home computer back on Long Island.
Timmy, then 12, had signed up for the Prodigy on-line service. "We got 10 free hours, so I was trying everything," he said. He found a real estate database of homes for sale, one of dozens available on the Internet. His mother, Kathleen, encouraged him to look up Hillsborough Beach, on the East Coast, where the family owned another home they were trying to sell, to see if it was listed on-line.
What Timmy found, instead, was listings for Hillsborough County, where the Hyers were planning to move, and there he and his mom spotted a house they liked. "We had looked in Tampa for a long time, for years, and we never found that neighborhood in person, only on the computer," Kathleen recalled.
The Hyers came to Tampa to look at the house they had discovered on-line. Ultimately they decided to buy another home and have lived since August in the Sweetwater subdivision near Memorial Boulevard in Tampa.
But they enjoyed their online house-hunting experience. "It was so easy!" Kathleen said.
Timmy, now a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Incarnation Catholic School, represents the wave of the future in real estate. Sitting at your home computer looking at listings of houses for sale is about to become the way the business operates.
Last month the National Association of Realtors jumped on the online bandwagon and unveiled its Realtors Information Network, an online service that consumers can access via the Internet to look at real estate listings. (The address: http://www.realtor.com; see related story for details on how it works.)
"The consumer is going to rule the roost," said William Chee of Honolulu, a former president of NAR and now chairman of the board of RIN, a wholly owned NAR subsidiary. "Someone's going to provide this information. It's a recognition of consumer demand."
Strong words from an industry that, until a few years ago, dug in its heels to maintain tight control of the Multiple Listing Service, the listing of houses for sale. Now, that's computerized; a few years ago, the MLS took the form of a thick book of tiny pictures and descriptions of houses, but let consumers browse through it on their own? Never!
RIN is up and running now with listings from seven test sites around the nation. Miami is the only Florida location so far. Realtors in 25 cities have signed on to join RIN, with 100,000 listings; a year from now, RIN hopes to have 1.5-million listings. Several Tampa Bay area boards of Realtors, including those in Pinellas and Hillsborough, plan to place their listings on RIN, a move that should take place within the next month or so.
RIN is a two-part system. Part is accessible only to Realtors; that includes listings of houses for sale; school, tax and map data; and real estate news and information. This part enables agents to quickly compile data that might otherwise take hours of digging. The part that is accessible to consumers shows nationwide home listings (though probably without exact street addresses), often with photographs, and offers other information about buying and selling real estate. Homes for sale by owner (FSBOs) will not be listed.
RIN is not the only, or even the first, database of real estate listings. The big national franchises already have developed their own web sites and have put their listings out for public consumption.
"There are dozens and dozens of companies that offer MLS services," said Ed Evans, president and CEO of RIN. "The free market will determine where listings will go."
And Realtors want those listings to go to RIN. They want consumers to continue to think of Realtors as the source for real estate information. That's why it's important to them that these listings be available in a database bearing their name _ not on a database run by someone else. And there were plenty of "someone elses" among the hundreds of exhibitors at the trade show at NAR's convention last month in Atlanta.
"Competition will soon eliminate many of these companies, and the winner in this game will be the service that has the largest number of listings," said Alan N. Riley of Re/Max Affiliates in Seminole, 1996 president of the St. Petersburg Suncoast Association of Realtors. "Because of the impact and size of the National Association of Realtors and the value of the other services it provides, the Realtors Information Network has a good chance of being that surviving service."
The cost to develop RIN was about $6-million, a figure that would jump to $30-million to $40-million if the Realtors had had to pay for their partnerships with various companies that assisted in its creation, Chee said.
What does all this mean to you as a potential home buyer?
It means you'll be able to sit down at a computer and look at home listings, complete with pictures, in the comfort of your home at any hour you choose. You can become a better-informed consumer.
"Now, you eliminate listings house by house in the back seat of a car," driving around with an agent, said Gill Woods, NAR's 1995 president. "In the next year or two, that will go away. You'll go through thousands of pieces of property faster than you can go through two today."
Say you're moving out of the area. RIN or one of the other real estate databases will give you an idea of what's for sale in your price range and what homes look like before you ever set foot in your new city. Looking to rent a vacation home in another part of the country? You can find it.
If you can do some of the house-hunting work yourself, what role does that leave for the real estate agent? There was plenty of discussion of that topic at the Atlanta convention.
Some agents were invoking clouds of doom and gloom, predicting that public access to real estate listings means that no one will need an agent.
Not so, said Lyle Stander, 1996 president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors who heads Stander Brokerage, a commercial firm in Tampa. "The Internet is overhyped," he said. "Real estate is a people business. The Internet is just another advertising medium, and listings there are teasers, to get someone to call."
It's axiomatic in real estate that people seldom buy the house they call about after seeing a newspaper ad _ they end up buying something else _ and, since the RIN network won't give the exact street address of the property, you'll still have to call a real estate agent for that information.
The people looking at computerized real estate listings now, he said, are "nerds and tire-kickers. There are already 87 sources of Florida real estate on-line. Filtering out the clutter _ that's our purpose. We find out the buyers' needs, whittle down the possibilities."
Buyers don't like to negotiate face-to-face with sellers, Stander said: "They want us as intermediaries, to make the offer, and people have no idea what to do when they see a house they want." They'll still need Realtors, he said, to write the offer, negotiate the contract and make sure all the loose ends are gathered up and the sale comes to pass.
The Hyer family is an example of exactly that. Yes, they found one house that they looked at, but, when it turned out not to be right for them, they turned to their real estate agent, Mary Ann Richards of ERA Gulf Coast in Tampa, who found the house they eventually bought and worked to make a tough sale come together.
Said Jack Bowman, broker at Keller-Williams Realty in Seminole and a past president of the St. Petersburg-Suncoast Association of Realtors, "I'm still the information provider, and I can keep you from stubbing your toe. People depend on the Realtor to sort out" a huge amount of information and help them evaluate schools, neighborhoods and resale potential. Bowman added, "You can look at pictures of brain surgery online," but that doesn't mean you're ready to pick up a scalpel and do it yourself.
Joyce Geras of ERA Camelot Realtors in Clearwater is the 1996 president of the Greater Clearwater Association of Realtors. "For some people, it's an excellent opportunity," she said of the computer listings, "but people in the more moderate price ranges don't have computers."
For the two-thirds of American homes without them _ or for people who just don't want to let their fingers do the walking _ relax. There isn't a Realtor in the land who won't be happy to bring a portable computer to your home and show you listings or provide that information on paper or drive you around to look at houses in person.
"There's so much information and knowledge and confusion, people don't know what to think," said Roald Marth, CEO of Minnesota-based Superstar Computing, who frequently speaks on technology and change. As high-tech as we like to think we are, "our VCR blinks 12:00, we use the microwave just to heat water, and the schools close in summer as though we were still in an agrarian economy."
He pointed out that the Multiple Listing Service grew out of consumer demand for more information. Online access, he says, is "just another medium," along with newspaper ads, real estate magazines, radio or TV advertising, and signs in front of houses.
How much of an expert at searching for real estate will the average person be, he asked, since we move an average of once every 12 years (NAR says it's every seven)? That, Marth says, is why they'll still need agents but better agents _ those who are technologically adept as well as personable and helpful. People want "Realtors who provide timely, accurate information with sincerity and integrity and are interested in building a long-term relationship," Marth says.
"Technology is only a tool," Marth said. "We'll see fewer and better real estate agents who give more service and value."