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San Francisco Chronicle

Agents can't help but succumb to Web's charms
Written by: Susan Fornoff
Heidi Mueller had ranked among Prudential's elite agents since she started in San Francisco real estate in 1988, and she was quite certain she didn't need any ride on the information super-highway to get her to the top.

In fact, she steadfastly disdained surfing and e-mailing for more traditional methods of drumming up business - such as referrals and, always dreaded but still familiar, cold-calling.

"About two years ago, I was still gripped by fear, but on a spur of the moment I went to a seminar in New York," said Mueller, who has sold more than $400 million in real estate over the years. "I was so worried that all we were going to become was order takers. But I saw how we could use the Internet rather than it using us. . . . It's a fabulous tool."

Mueller has since joined the ranks of some 50,000 agents who are enrolled at HomeGain, an Internet site that links agents with buyers and sellers - and the ranks of millions of agents who are joining their customers in using the Web to their advantage in buying and selling homes.

Now what's scary to Mueller and her like is that National Association of Realtor's figures show nearly half of their agents aren't generating any business via the Web yet, and more than one in 10 isn't using the computer at all.

They seem to have every reason to, and only one reason not to. We'll come back to that glaring one in a moment.

The biggest reason to cozy up to the Internet is that's where the customers are. Figures on buyers and sellers expecting to use the computer for their transaction start at 70 percent and rise into the 90s, depending on whom you ask.

In raw numbers, the stats are much noisier: As many as 55 million consumers are going online for real estate information, according to Gomez Inc., four times as many as there were six months ago.

Another reason is that's where the real deals are. Mueller did one deal with someone who had already scouted an $850,000 house off one of the Internet home-listing sites and was ready to make an offer. Easy work, if you can get it.

Derek Kirk, a Sacramento-area Century 21 agent who has already closed 16 deals through HomeGain contacts, said, "Internet clients are much more serious.

A lot of times, you don't have to show them as many homes - you can cut your showing time from 13 or 14 houses to three or four."

Those Internet clients should also be more knowledgeable and realistic. In a California Association of Realtor's survey, 100 percent of the Internet home buyers polled agreed that "using the Internet helped me understand home values better" and 97 percent said it helped them "better understand the home-buying process."

Said John Burns, vice-president of the research-analysis firm Meyers Group, "Twenty years ago, one of the big uncertainties for young families was, 'How do I go about buying a home?' Now they can learn it all on the Internet."

And on their own time. For both agents and clients, the convenience factor of the Internet is immeasurable. E-mails from agents can be received and/or returned at midnight, and clients can take more responsibility for home searching by checking in with those big listing sites at leisure.

Do I sound like a fan? When my husband and I were home-shopping, our agent sent us nightly e-mails with the newest MLS leads in our favored areas and price ranges. This let us get a jump on the market - and also gave us the scoop when a price was slashed on a listing we'd liked.

Why would any real estate agent shun e-mail and the Internet in 2001, as apparently at least one in 10 is doing?

Says Mueller, who has closed seven deals for Internet clients, "They're afraid. Afraid of being replaced."

Well, fear not. We still need our agents - to show us houses, hold our hands and guide us through the myriad of paperwork that's to come. The Internet can't do those things and probably never will. It just makes it all a little easier.





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