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Real Estate 2.0: Sites Allow Users to Exchange Information about Houses

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RISMEDIA, Sept. 18, 2007-(MCT)-It used to be you went to online real estate sites in search of pictures and information about homes for sale. Then came virtual tours, aerial maps, and easy access to data about comparable sales. Now comes a slew of sites encouraging you to chat about real estate online.

New sites encourage visitors to bring the real estate conversations they have with their office-cube mates or drinking buddies to the Internet, allowing them to pose questions to strangers about housing values in a specific part of the country, or debate the merits of a certain street in San Jose.

“Americans are obsessed with real estate, whether they own it, aspire to own it or are remodeling it,” said Brian Boero of 1000 Watt Consulting, an Oakland company that works with both real estate firms and companies trying to create online communities. So sites like Trulia and Zillow, which both feature real estate content enhanced by users’ questions, answers and discussions, are trying to take that public fascination and channel it into a new medium.

A real estate site is a natural place for “user-generated content” to proliferate, said Pete Flint, chief executive of Trulia, at www.trulia.com. The 2-year-old San Francisco company’s main offering is listings of homes for sale and information about previous sales, but in May it added “Trulia Voices” to its menu, allowing registered users to post and answer questions on any real estate topic they choose.

“Consumers clearly have real estate questions, and they’re looking for answers, but perhaps nervous about getting in touch with an over-enthusiastic agent who might persistently contact them,” Flint said. The benefit he sees for consumers in using Trulia Voices is “it’s anonymous, it’s free, it’s personal and it’s fast and they get answers back from enthusiasts, residents and agents.”

One recent question from a Trulia user, for example, asked: “How long to sell a starter home in Sunnyvale?” The first answer came 12 minutes later.

Other big names in online real estate are in on the social media fervor. Among them:
–Zillow, at www.zillow.com., which catapulted into household-word status last year by offering value estimates and aerial mapping of about 70 million homes nationwide, now includes a Q&A feature and online discussions. Last fall, the site launched its user-generated content by allowing users to add updated information about their own homes to Zillow’s database. The company’s new, well-visited “discussions” feature is full of timely debates.
–Last summer, brokerage ZipRealty, at www.ziprealty.com., began allowing registered users to rate homes for sale on a variety of criteria; the ratings can be viewed by other registered users.
–Realtor.com. a few months ago began offering consumers access to Realtors’ blogs from all over the country at talk.realtor.com. Realtor.com.’s parent company, Move, sees this as a way for consumers to use the blogs as “a search and evaluation tool to select an agent that best fits their needs.”

Cautious users

At StreetAdvisor, a site launched in the United States this summer by Australian brothers Jason and Adam Spencer, the mission is to get users to rate the street they live on, and provide commentary about it. In three months, 1.5 million streets have been added, Jason Spencer said, but he admitted it’s hard to get users to add content as fast as the company would like. Out of every 10 people who sign up for the site, perhaps three write a review straight away, he said.

“They don’t want to be the first to interact. People are very cautious about what they put online,” he said.

Another surprise for him was that people regularly write about what they dislike about their streets. “I thought a lot more people would rate their street perfectly. . . . They’re being very honest.” A site user in New York, for example, recently wrote of his street, “all the big trucks coming into Manhattan early in the morning from Brooklyn use it as a short cut. . . . From 4 a.m.-6 a.m. it sounds like a heard of elephants.”

How much honesty?

That brings up the question of how much honesty online real estate sites can take when many depend on income from real estate agents, some of whom might prefer that commentary about particular streets or homes stays positive?

Spencer said StreetAdvisor will remove clearly inappropriate or racist comments, “but if they are talking about the kids down the street having parties at 3 a.m., we don’t take that off.” Realty agents have not complained, he said.

Many sites delving into social media feature real estate agents prominently, and in some cases sell prime advertising space to real estate professionals. The agents hope to position themselves as local experts and ultimately generate business leads through their involvement.

Amy Bohutinsky, director of corporate communications at Zillow, said users seem to tolerate that many answers to their questions come from real estate agents, as long as the responses are not too overtly commercial and self-promoting.

“If it’s very salesy, it’s not as useful,” she said.
The new fondness for social media or user-generated content owes much to online dating sites and the popularity of networking sites like Facebook, said Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting company.

“It’s a fashion trend on some level,” he said. Users may not expect real estate sites to have discussion and Q&A features, he said, but venture capitalists currently do. Early in Internet history, the preference was for professional content creation, he said, but “now conventional wisdom is we do this cheaply by letting the community fill out the content.”

Boero said it’s still not clear whether consumers will form long-term communities built around their interest in real estate ownership. Privacy concerns remain, he said, including consumers’ discomfort with finding bird’s eye photos of their homes online, or chatting about their neighbors and streets with strangers.

“Homeowners view the home as the sanctuary,” he said. “You may talk about bands online, but you may not want to talk about your neighborhood or home.”

Copyright © 2007, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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