SALEM, Ore. (CNN/Money) – When friends of mine recently started shopping for a house, they did what many buyers do: They asked acquaintances to recommend a good real estate agent.
"It was like a bad date," said my friend, describing the first and only meeting with the agent, who spent more than an hour questioning the couple about their relationship, their goals -- everything but real estate. "At the end of the meeting he closed his notebook and said, 'I think we're going to be a great match.'"
The feeling wasn't mutual.
My friends could have skipped the blind date and instead gone online to find an agent. At the same time singles are turning to the likes of Match.com and eHarmony.com to find their soul mates, homebuyers and sellers are logging on to HomeGain.com, House.com, ServiceMagic.com and a dozen other referral sites that have sprung up to help track down real estate agents.
"It's still a sliver of the market," said Rebecca Anderson, spokesperson for RealEstate.com, which is owned by LendingTree. Yet, she said, customer volume in 2004 is projected to be double what it was in 2003.
"At this point we're getting about 50,000 consumer requests a month for real estate," said Payam Zamani, CEO of Reply.com, which works with about 20,000 agents in 50 states. Zamani predicts that Reply.com's service will match 170,000 buyers and sellers with agents this year, resulting in 25,000 actual transactions.
Consumers pay nothing for these services, and incentives are not uncommon. RealEstate.com, for one, entices buyers and sellers with Home Depot and American Express gift cards worth up to $2,000 -- awarded after customers actually buy or sell their house through an affiliated agent.
Aviva.com woos customers with frequent flyer miles, in some cases enough for two tickets to Europe. HomeGain.com promises cash and savings worth up to $1,500 to those who buy, sell and finance with its partners.
While national sites tout large networks of real estate agents and one-stop-shopping for relocation services, smaller sites are carving out regional and demographic niches. Shalom Home, for example, caters to buyers looking to be near synagogues, Kosher markets and Jewish community centers.
Crossroads Real Estate Referral network, meanwhile, connects consumers with gay and lesbian real estate agents.
SWF seeks 2000 SF, AC and WBF
So is online networking better than good old-fashioned word of mouth recommendations?
|Site ||Overview |
|HomeGain.com ||Sends your profile to agents, who send you proposals. Incentive: Up to $1,500 for closing a deal with one of its partners. |
|House.com ||Site calls you before passing on your profile. As many as three agents contact you directly. |
|RealEstate.com ||Choose from one of four real estate firms. Only one will contact you. Incentive: Score up to $2,000 in gift cards when transaction closes. |
|Reply.com ||As many as three agents contact you directly. Site connects consumers with a laundry list of other services. |
|ServiceMagic.com ||One of the oldest of its kind (all of two years), site connects consumers with up to three agents. |
It's especially useful if you're moving to a new area or have exhausted recommendations from friends and family.
But using such services doesn't excuse you from making sure agents know the area, have experience and understand what you're looking for. As with dating, you may not know for sure until you meet with them in person.
Though every referral site is slightly different, most ask would-be buyers and sellers to fill out a profile with information on their timeframe, location and price range, as well as their contact information.
"We're getting about a thousand forms a day but screen out about half of them,"said Dan Parisi, CEO of House.com.
The company calls each and every customer who sends in a profile. Often times, buyers or sellers aren't that serious or have unrealistic ideas about what they'll get or pay for a house. Reply.com and ServiceMagic.com also screen profiles before sending them out to agents. (I got a call from Reply.com less than an hour after submitting my profile.)
Assuming the profiles are deemed legitimate, House.com, Reply.com and ServiceMagic.com send customer profiles -- sans names and contact information -- to agents in the area. Agents interested in contacting customers pay a fee for their full profiles, though no more than three agents can respond.
|More on agents
HomeGain.com, meanwhile, sends customer profiles, also without name and contact info, to agents who in turn send proposals via e-mail. I've gotten five (generic) proposals from local agents since filling out a form about a month ago, which include agents' photos, credentials, experience and contact information. It's up to me to make the next move.
RealEstate.com has a slightly different approach. After customers fill out their profile, they're shown up to four different firms that seem like a good match. Customers choose just one firm and wait for a call.
I heard from a local agent the day after pressing the send button. He wasn't surprised when I told him that I wasn't really interested in selling my house.
"A lot of the folks I talk to aren't serious," said the agent, John Kuhlmann, with Century 21 in Redmond, Ore. "I would say that 80 percent don't answer my calls or don't return my messages."
"My real connections are still through word of mouth," he added. But, he's not giving up on technology just yet. "I'm calling three more people after I hang up with you."