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Virtual Realty

Builders' Web Sites Give Buyers More Custom Options

October 01, 2000|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Internet start-ups occupied a few lonely booths several years ago at the International Builders Show. Next year, dot-coms catering to builders will fill an entire arena at the event.

This change hammers home a growing awareness among builders that home buyers are increasingly using the Internet. Many builders' sites, or hubs that provide new home listings, already offer floor plans, 3-D home tours and links to community information.

But like sites that sell cars and other big-ticket items, builders and new-home portals are finding that what consumers really want is to design products and services to meet their individual needs.

"All this is moving in the direction of the consumer being able to build their home from scratch online," said Ward Wight, director of business development at NewHomesDirect.com, an Atlanta-based portal that offers 80,000 new home listings. The company plans to introduce a redesigned site with expanded features next spring.

Here's what to expect from new home sites: Options that let homeowners "dish" baby-sitters with their neighbors, and personalized Web pages that help a new homeowner remember the original color of paint used in the bathroom and when it's time to clip the shrubbery.

Builders are also constructing technology that will allow home buyers to choose the floor plan they're interested in, along with the counter tops and flooring they want, on the Internet before they visit the subdivision's design center.

Austin-based Builder Homesite, founded by five of the nation's largest builders, is a prime example of the new home industry's push to build its Internet presence.

"There's been a proliferation of rifle-shot solutions to the real estate debate," said Tim Costello, the company's president and chief executive officer. "There are companies that will help you pick blinds . . . or pick a couch or carpeting or sell you 3-D tours.

"But that's not a compelling experience for you or me. We don't want to go to 80 different sites when we're looking for a house--we want to go to one."

The firm's founders hope that by combining their resources, they will save money on pricey technology that already plays a large part in how the new-home industry advertises its subdivisions.

Builder Homesite, which added five additional builders to its roster since its debut this spring, plans to have a site up next year that will let home buyers design their dream floor plan by choosing the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage and other amenities.

The site will then search its database of new homes to come up with a match. Eventually, home buyers will be able to use the site to choose their home's amenities, along with the theme they want, like Southwestern or Mediterranean, in different rooms.

Costello also sees a day when a consumer will be able to take digital photos of their furniture, and drag them into rooms that they're decorating online.

"This will give consumers an ability to really be able to experience the home prior to moving into it," Costello said.

Builder Homesite will also provide new home buyers with a personalized Web page that will allow them to monitor their home's construction, and will contain information such as serial numbers and warranties for appliances.

Other builders and Web portals that cater to new home buyers are planning similar upgrades.

HomeBuilder.com, a subsidiary of the Internet's largest real estate portal, Homestore.com, hopes to develop a service that will allow home shoppers to place floor plans on different lots in a subdivision and customize them. HomeBuilder offers 134,222 new home listings.

After designing a floor plan, the home shopper will be able to ask the builder for an estimated price, said Allan Merrill, president of Dallas-based HomeBuilder.com. The site hopes to have the service available in next year.

"The consumer wants to do more configuration of their home or lot online before they have to show up in the model service center," Merrill said.

NewHomeNetwork.com, a new home portal backed by Classified Ventures--a network of seven major media companies that includes the Los Angeles Times and its parent company, Tribune Co.--plans to provide "electronic sales centers" on its site by the middle of next year. The portal offers about 100,000 new home listings.

These electronic centers will allow home buyers to speak to sales agents in chat rooms about what they're looking for in a new home, said Matt Wise, vice president and general manager of HomeScape.com, the real estate hub that hosts NewHomeNetwork.com.

Eventually, home buyers will be able to see the sales agent's face on a split screen and work with that person to design their home, Wise said. This technology is still a few years off because of limitations in the amount of data that today's phone and cable lines can handle.

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