House hunting hinges on Web

Just recently, a Connecticut man called Lila Delman Real Estate in Narragansett to get information on properties in the $2-million to $5-million price range. The company sent him an e-mail with video footage, virtual tours, photos and floor plans of qualified listings.
“Ten years ago, if I got a call from someone I would have to put together a cumbersome package and mail it to them,” said John Hodnett, vice president of Lila Delman. “Today, while I’m talking to them, I’m e-mailing them things about properties.”

The Internet has become a starting point for most home sales in Rhode Island, and real estate companies are responding by providing new features on their Web sites. Listing homes online has grown from a mere marketing tool to a matter of survival in today’s real estate market, industry executives say.

“Anybody who’s not on the Internet train … is going to be out of business,” Hodnett said, “because everybody from the first-time home buyer to someone purchasing a $20-million house is going online.”

More than 70 percent of recent home buyers said they used the Internet during their house hunts in the state, according to a Rhode Island Association of Realtors study.

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Real estate companies are pouring time and money into updating their Web sites and boosting their online presence.

Allen Gammons, president of Prudential Gammons Realty, said his company is about to launch a new Web site to keep pace with the demands of online shoppers.

“It’s extremely important,” Gammons said. “A good deal of the people buying homes today are shopping online prior to contacting a real estate agent. Basically, our Web presence has had to increase to capture both the buyers and sellers.”

Gammons pays companies like Google to appear high on its search results. At Gammon’s new site, a feature allows people to get e-mails about homes that meet their size, location and price specifications.

The Lila Delman Web site features the latest technology to enhance the online shopping experience.

The company recently purchased software from Seattle-based FloorPlanOnline that enables online visitors to click on icons in actual house floor plans to view photos of each room.

The site has photos, virtual tours and camera footage of the company’s listings. It also includes real-time video footage of beaches in Narragansett and Watch Hill.

“For the seller, it equates to a better showing, because their home has already passed one screening test,” Hodnett said. “It’s a quality showing, because the person has already examined the floor plan, they’ve already seen what the interior looks like, they’ve seen the exterior of the property, so they have a very good feel for what they are getting into.”
According to the Realtors’ association study, the Internet has surpassed traditional sources such as real estate agents, for-sale signs and daily newspaper ads as the No. 1 place where people find their homes in Rhode Island.

Michele Caprio, president of the association, said the growing use of the Internet has put pressure on real estate agents.

“We as Realtors have a challenge of maintaining our level of quality service, because we used to be the first point of information,” said Caprio. She added that the Internet gives consumers access to Multiple Listing Service (MLS) data, which had been available almost exclusively to real estate agents prior to the Internet age.

At RILiving.com, the state’s MLS site, people can access details about every home for sale in the state. About 51 percent of Internet shoppers reported using the site during their home search, according to the Realtors’ study.

Lila Delman has spent more than $100,000 within the past two years to improve the company’s Web site, Hodnett said.

Gammons said that earlier this year one of his staff members was assigned to sifting through the leads generated by the company’s Web site. Real estate agencies that fail to allocate resources toward Internet marketing, he said, will lose customers to those that do.