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The Nation's Housing

A One-Stop Shop on the Web for New Homes

September 20, 1998|KENNETH R. HARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — An important new interactive shopping tool for consumers has sprung to life with the official launch last week of the Internet's biggest Web site for buyers of newly built homes: Homebuilder.com.

The Web site (at http://www.homebuilder.com) combines the new home production, floor plans and site elevations of more than 7,000 builders in 63 markets with the sophisticated software and graphics of RealSelect Inc., the company that runs the largest resale homes listing site, Realtor.com (http://www.realtor.com).

Homebuilder.com blows away the competition with its sheer size, in part because it absorbed NewHome Search Systems (http://www.newhomesearch.com), which had been the largest Web site providing builder offerings and plans in multiple markets. RealSelect bought NewHome Search in August.

The builders participating in Homebuilder.com are members of the largest trade group representing the industry, the 185,000-member National Assn. of Home Builders.

Other than NewHomeSearch.com, most shoppers using the Internet until now have been limited to visiting the home pages of individual builders.

Those Web sites typically show current models and prices but give the shopper only minimal information that's useful to make comparisons with new homes by other builders.

A visit to Homebuilder.com allows the shopper to approach the new home market in a given area and line up builders' product characteristics side by side.

Shoppers can search a new suburban development by price range, minimum number of bathrooms, square footage, garage size, number of floors, bedrooms, location of master bedroom and desired move-in date, among other criteria.

Say you know you're going to be transferred to the Dallas area. You're not sure exactly where you want to buy, but you're certain that you want a newly built house. You visit Homebuilder.com, select Dallas and start shopping.

The site's mapping graphics allow you to see the entire metropolitan area and the location of all the participating new home developments.

Once at the Dallas home page, you can search by any one of five major headings--the type of home (price, bedrooms, etc.), the individual builder, the community, available building lots if you want to go custom or by Realtor if you want direct guidance by a new home broker.

Depending on your criteria, the search pulls up dozens--or a handful--of candidates for you to check out. You can then virtually visit every home by looking at floor plans, elevations, community amenity profiles (pools, tennis courts, etc.).

A particularly helpful feature of the Web site is the ability to create a "shopping basket" of homes you're interested in knowing more about.

Say you find eight to 10 models you especially like as you click through the search. One by one you save your favorites in your shopping basket. Then you fill out a profile with your name, address, phone number and home buying objectives and moving timetable.

With a click, all the builders whose plans or models you like instantly hear from you and can follow up with additional information.

From the home builders' perspective, the key to the Web site is the potential marketing oomph that results from including most new home offerings in every market.

Tulsa, Okla., builder Ken Klein, who headed NAHB's builder advisory group for the project, said, "This is not only comprehensive, but it levels the playing field for builders," especially smaller ones with excellent products "who can't afford a big marketing program on radio, TV and in newspapers."

Bigger builders can still hyperlink shoppers to their own fancy Web home pages, which smaller builders don't necessarily have.

Fees to builder participants are modest enough to allow even the smallest builder to afford them--from about $75 per month per subdivision for a builder active in several subdivisions, down to $10 to $25 a month for a small-volume builder with few homes to sell. The service is free to home shoppers.

One caveat about Homebuilder.com: Although officially launched Wednesday, it is still "under construction" in cyberspeak. That means complete builder listings may not be posted for the next month or so for some markets.

At a minimum to start, according to Homebuilder.com sponsors, the Web site will offer more than 100,000 new homes for sale, covering most of the largest home buying markets in the country.

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Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.

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