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But nothing will ever take the place of getting on the ground and physically looking at houses

Internet proving to be gold mine for house hunters

Historically, real estate agents have fished at the mouth of the river. Thanks to the popularity of online house hunting, they are now fishing upstream.

“Like everyone else, we were a little slow getting into computers, but once Realtors figured out this was a new source of revenue, they really got interested,” said John Phillips, vice president of professional development for the 5,000-member Mississippi Association of Realtors (MAR), the state’s largest trade organization, and a licensed broker with 35 years of real estate experience. “We just had to change our fishing habits.”

MAR CEO Angela Cain said prospective buyers are definitely using the Internet as a first stop in their search for a home.

“The Mississippi association has a great free consumer web site (411.msrealtors.org) that features tips, tools and information about the home buying and selling process,” she said. “For example, home buyers can learn how much house they can afford, financing options, questions to ask when choosing a Realtor, mistakes to avoid, budgeting and more.”

According to the 2007 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 84 percent of buyers use the Internet to search for a new home. But adapting to this trend isn’t all bad, said Phillips.

“When we start with the people who are already at the mouth of the river, we sometimes have to show them 15, 20, 30 or 40 houses,” he said. “When you start dealing with them way upstream and build their trust, you’re just feeding them information anytime something comes up within the parameters of their interest.”

Realtors are investing an ever-increasing portion of their marketing dollars in web-based advertising and new technologies, said Cain.

“Many are learning, for example, how to use social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace that are all frequented by younger generations of home buyers,” she said.

DeLois Smith, broker/owner of The DeLois Smith All-Star Team/Keller Williams in Hattiesburg, has fully embraced Internet marketing. She routinely dispatches e-mail blasts to her client base with new listings and develops individual web sites for listings, in addition to maintaining an interactive web site with rotating featured listings and a monthly market report.

“Our web sites have been producing more new buyers who haven’t previously done business with us than any other single marketing source,” she said. “Even local buyers rely very heavily on the Internet.”

One notable change in the trend: Internet-savvy home buyers demand to be treated differently, Phillips said. For one thing, if real estate agents make it too difficult for them to access the information they want online, “it only takes one click and they’re gone.”

“When I talk to my classrooms, I ask Realtors if they’ve ever gone to an automobile dealership, parked to get out and look around, and by the time they took three steps, a sales person appeared from nowhere. I always ask ‘did you want to see that person just yet?’ and the answer’s always ‘no!’ They say they wanted a chance to look around first,” explained Phillips, “and then when they get to a certain point of interest, they’re ready to talk to someone who can give them details.”

Once home buyers who have done their research online get serious, they usually only want to see two to four houses, Phillips said.

“They know what they want, and once they develop a rapport with someone who’ll work with them the way they want, they’re extremely loyal,” he said. “They’ll do repeat business, send referrals your way and become a very good life-long client.”

MAR president Lynette Magee-Praytor, also general manager of Crye-Leike Realtors’ Mississippi region, said MAR members have not been fazed by the recent wave of web sites offering owner financing and private seller deals.

“Over the past few years, we’ve dealt with every imaginable business model,” she said. “We’ve found that people always want the experience and the knowledge of a Realtor, and assurance that they have someone knowledgeable to walk them through the experience.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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