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'Clicky-Loos Welcome'

Microsoft's new HomeAdvisor site offers house hunters a look--a very slow one--at homes, neighborhoods, schools and more.

November 01, 1998|CARON GOLDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First, it was Windows; now, it's the whole house.

This summer Microsoft launched HomeAdvisor (http://www.homeadvisor.com), a Web site that the software giant has designed as one-stop shopping for house hunters.

With HomeAdvisor, Microsoft is challenging a host of existing real estate sites like Realtor.com and ListingLink and may have upped the ante.

Enter HomeAdvisor and you'll find a variety of home-buying tools and a property listing database.

You can get the skinny on a neighborhood, run calculations on how much you can afford to spend, identify homes to consider based on your defined preferences and even get a loan through participating mortgage lenders.

If you creatively navigate this site, you can even take advantage of Microsoft's extensive Sidewalk Yellow Pages database to find out where the nearest deli or dry cleaner is in your neighborhood of choice.

Microsoft's HomeAdvisor site is the biggest and newest among a burgeoning group of realty-related Web sites that are estimated by real estate and technology expert Bradley Inman to number several hundred thousand.

Many of them are produced by real estate agents or offices, and others provide only minimal consumer information.

Inman's company, Inman News Features, provides editorial content to HomeAdvisor as well as to several other realty sites and to newspapers.

Inman estimated that there are probably a dozen nationally significant realty Web sites, including HomeAdvisor, Realtor.com, Cyberhomes.com and Homes.com.

"Plus there are regional sites that are significant, including the newspaper sites," Inman said.

The Times' Homesource (http://www.latimes.com/homesource), for example, lists resale houses, information about newly built homes, home price data, mortgage information and school and community profiles.

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Microsoft hopes to distinguish its HomeAdvisor site from its competitors.

"We're not just providing listings online," HomeAdvisor product manager Sara Narbaitz said. "We're providing the thought behind the process of buying a house, the tools to help you decide and extensive neighborhood information.

"We have the typical tools that other sites have to help find a home, but we take it further."

Narbaitz said that the advice and tips provided by Inman News Features (which syndicates several columnists used by The Times' Real Estate section) can help buyers figure out, among other things, how to find a loan and what kind of expenses are associated with it.

And Microsoft's software allows you to do side-by-side comparisons of loans and computes monthly mortgage payments for each property listing that you download.

There are neighborhood school test scores and crime statistics. You can input your work address and get a map to detail the route and distance between it and the property you're looking at. And you can sign up to receive e-mail updates of relevant listings as they appear.

But, at this point, be prepared to wait--and wait.

After nine months of actual product development, the new site, launched on Aug. 12, still has some kinks to be worked out.

One of them, Narbaitz admitted, is speed, or the lack of it.

"We're working on the download time," she said.

In the meantime, even a high-speed cable modem user endured frustratingly long minutes of inactivity until connections were made and pages finally loaded.

Also, some design features seem distinctly user-unfriendly, such as long lists of properties in the form of a grid that, even using the site's print button instead of the browser's, leaves out columns of information--even if it is printed in landscape mode.

Also inconvenient: Many neighborhoods are listed by ZIP Code instead of by name, requiring users to have a Thomas Guide available to see where the properties are.

The number of home listings available on HomeAdvisor also has some catching up to do with established real estate sites, most notably RealSelect Inc.'s Realtor.com (http://www.realtor.com).

Affiliated with the National Assn. of Realtors, Realtor.com has about 95% of available listings in the country, estimated at 1.2 million.

Cyberhomes, another prominent site, has an estimated 75% of the nation's home listings.

According to Narbaitz, HomeAdvisor has between 400,000 and 500,000 listings online.

And in Southern California, there are big gaps in HomeAdvisor's listings. Of the half a dozen multiple listing service organizations in Los Angeles and Orange counties, only two have signed up with HomeAdvisor: the Southern California service, representing Orange County and Southeast Los Angeles County, and the Newport Beach service.

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The Southland Regional Assn. of Realtors, which covers the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita, Simi Valley, Moorpark and Antelope Valley, has rejected an affiliation with HomeAdvisor.

"We had already executed an agreement with Realtor.com, and our MLS board of directors felt that for now, that's where they choose to stay," said Jim Link, the group's executive vice president.

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