Virtual realty

Real-estate agents face extinction in an information-rich century 21

Any real-estate agent worth his listings knows staying ahead in the business these days means getting a piece of the hottest property around, cyberspace. But just how to go about getting a presence on the Internet has caused a schism among Realtors. Nationwide, agents are bickering and even competing among themselves over the avenues onto the world's computer superhighway.

Underlying the squabbling is the very real specter that the information-laden Internet and World Wide Web could replace much of the public's need for agents' traditional house-hunting services. The fearmongers' theory is simple: If buyers and sellers can sit at their PCs and Macs and gather enough information about each other's offerings--and even make offers--why should they pay agents?

To avoid this agent's-nightmare scenario, Realtors are considering different ways of banding together to create a critical and controlling mass on the Internet that home buyers and sellers couldn't ignore.

The Greater Dallas Board of Realtors stirred up the controversy locally when it opted last month to begin charging the members of its Multiple Listing Service (MLS) $7.50 quarterly just for Internet access. The Dallas board has decided to go with a World Wide Web site and a separate agents-only network that the National Association of Realtors (NAR) recently unveiled.

NAR has named its service the Realtors Information Network (RIN). It is designed to keep agents in control of property-listing information and consumers, to a large degree, out of the loop.

With the network, NAR is offering brokers a chance to put consumer listings on a home page on the Internet that is available to all surfers. On the NAR home page (http://www.realtor.com), an Internet browser can learn about a house's dimensions, location, and listed sale price. The home page has more than 60,000 listings and NAR officials have forecasted that will grow to 500,000 by year's end.

But in order to get more-detailed information about a home on the market, including school information and environmental studies of the area, a network user needs a broker's license. The broker has to pay the NAR network an additional hefty $15.95-a-month fee for two hours of surfing and a charge of $8 per hour thereafter to access the more-detailed data. All this is on top of the Dallas board's access charge.

Dallas brokers are not happy with the arrangement. They are griping that elsewhere on the Web they can put their listings on for much less--even nothing. Meanwhile, they are still waiting to get access to NAR's network and have no idea if it's as useful as it's touted to be.

"Now, if my board said to me, 'You are going to pay $30 a year for the Realtors' charity fund for the poor and needy and homeless,'" says Charles Reuben, a broker in Dallas, "I would say, 'Great, can I give more if I ever sell a house again?' But to assess and assume that everyone is technically ignorant and will lie down and do what they are told is not going to cut it."

A similar storm of complaints has delayed the Greater Fort Worth Board of Realtors from signing its members up for the NAR Web site. "Why do we have to pay for RIN when we can put stuff on for free?" asked Pete Nelson, the MLS director for the Greater Fort Worth Board of Realtors.

Nelson, Reuben, and others contend that NAR had to hike the charges to agents for Internet access because the association miscalculated and fell behind the technology curve. Specifically, NAR paid out more than $10 million in the past three years to consultants from Electronic Data Services, Inc. and Booz, Allen & Hamilton, Inc. for studies on building a nationwide network.

"The industry is close to imploding," EDS consultants told NAR officials in a summary of their report. "The older order is collapsing and a new order is emerging. Moreover, the Realtor control of the business is on the verge of being lost."

As it has turned out, any high school-aged Net surfer could have given the same prognostication to the Realtors--and providers of any kind of other consumer information--for the price of an E-mail.

There are Internet sites where brokers and sellers can list homes for very little or nothing. An MLS in Orange County, California, that has established its own home page, carries brokers' listings for free, and a Milwaukee-based Internet venture named Real Direct (http://www.realdirect.com) plans to make its property database available as part of Microsoft's Network. Real Direct will charge the MLS organization only 15 cents a listing, while NAR charges $1 a listing.

The Greater Dallas Board of Realtors defends its decision to go with the more-expensive NAR proposal, arguing that it will unify agents' offerings in one place. "The leadership was looking to establish a critical mass," says board spokeswoman Susan Brooks. "The other services on the Internet are very fractionalized.

 
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