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Hands-On House Hunting : Computer Replacing 'the Book' as Tool to Find Right Home

January 23, 1994|ELLEN MELINKOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Melinkoff is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

Ain't technology grand? Never grander than in the new, computerized MLS (multiple list ing service) systems that are making their way into real estate offices across the country.

Looking for a house? Got your list of requirements? Price range, area, number of bedrooms? Maybe you want to be in a specific school's boundaries. Or you insist on hardwood floors.

Just sit down in front of your real estate agent's computer screen and you're just a few keystrokes away from seeing every property on the market that meets your needs. A complete listing, even a color photo, a map, the tax records.

Ain't technology grand?

Maybe you have your heart set on a Monterey Colonial? Or something high-tech? Easy. Hit a few keys. And you'd like a covered patio, a breakfast room, a detached garage, a city view? Voila! The matches appear.

MLS is the centralized listing service run by local and regional realty boards to notify agents of all properties for sale (except those offered by private parties). The computerization of real estate information began around 1980, gathering momentum as data bases expanded, modems got faster and photo capabilities were incorporated.

The MLS for the Westside (or CLAW, for Combined Los Angeles-Westside, which includes the realty boards of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu, Culver City and the Southwest area) uses the Boris Systems computer program.

Boris has almost 300 ways to categorize a listing: 26 architectural styles, eight flooring types, 13 kinds of fireplaces, 17 possible parking situations, etc.

Don't like old houses? Tell Boris to show you only homes built after 1980. Or looking for a small condo complex? Instruct Boris to show you complexes with less than 10 units. Or, if you'd rather have a high-rise condo, that's fine with Boris. It's got a list of them too.

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If you've got an unusual request, something beyond the basic 300 categories, shady landscaping, for example, type in the key words and Boris will search the remarks section of every listing. If there's any house on the market with lots of shade trees (that the agent has bothered to note, of course), you'll know in seconds.

The old way--and it took more than seconds--was to consult "the book." The MLS for each area has always published a thick book listing all the properties on the market. Most MLS's still publish their books--usually every two weeks (although some parts of Orange County have dropped the book and are solely on computer)--with small, fuzzy black-and-white pictures, 12 to a page. For example, the Westside of Los Angeles is in one book, 18,000-20,000 listings arranged into 30 areas and then broken down by price.

Using the book, the only way to find all the homes with hardwood floors, a fireplace in the master bedroom or a three-car garage is to scan the fine print page after page. And then keep track of them with little bits of paper wedged in the right pages. Doesn't it sound archaic?

Some agents are clinging to the book, however, refusing to learn on the computer. But Ron Lepp, of Beaumont/Lepp Realty in Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills, thinks "the book is a thing of the past."

Most agents do keep the books in their cars for quick reference out in the field. But even quicker, the computer data can be downloaded to a palm-top, the newest rage among computer-savvy agents. Drive by a new "For Sale" sign, punch up the address and the latest info appears on the tiny screen.

Agents can also access the systems on their home computers. This greater accessibility at home and at every office desk (rather than one terminal for an entire office) is "the most dramatic change in the Greater South Bay MLS," according to Vince DeLuca of Re/Max Realty in Redondo Beach.

"By the time the book comes out, it's already outdated," said Dennis Briley, general manager of CLAW's Boris system. Miss the deadline by a day and information an agent is using could be almost a month old.

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The computer is updated 24 hours a day, every day, with three times the information that's given in the book. New listings, price reductions areavailable almost instantly.

"I got a new listing at 4 one afternoon, it was in the computer by 5 and I had an offer by 6," said Barbara Gardner, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Beverly Hills.

And there's more:

Maybe you're interested in buying a condo in Century Hill in Century City. You've seen a unit you like but don't know what to offer. An agent can hit a few keys and a list of every condo in Century Hill that's been offered for sale in the past six months appears on the screen: 28 units for sale, sold or in escrow.

Scanning the screen you see how many bedrooms, baths, the asking price, the selling price. Agents could always do this comparative market analysis by hand but this is on the screen instantly.

And more:

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