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Agents no longer shun the Internet

December 23, 2007|Mary Umberger | Chicago Tribune

LAS VEGAS -- Google executive Justin McCarthy smiled, looked out upon a vast room packed with Realtors and said, "My, my, how times have changed."

Just four years earlier, he said, he had spoken to a real estate industry conference on technology trends and got the message that Google was viewed with suspicion.

"There was this notion of a lion coming over the hill," he said, evoking a phrase widely heard in the industry at the time. It was shorthand for any number of developments -- particularly the emergence of technology -- that were rumored to be positioning themselves to take away real estate agents' livelihood.

But you never sensed that wariness at the convention of the National Assn. of Realtors last month in Las Vegas. Not only did McCarthy and founder Richard Barton fill the room, but there was also a line snaking down a hallway, where people waited for someone to leave so they could enter.

"Maybe a year ago, I felt this change in the industry's attitude," McCarthy said. "Maybe it's the economy."

Whatever the reason, there does seem to be an understanding now that technology can be a real estate agent's friend.

Barton, in particular, seemed to evoke a reaction from the crowd. The Zillow chief executive said his company's huge home-valuation website, just two years after its launch, has about 4 million visitors a month. In an apparent understatement, he said things had "happened a lot faster than we expected."

At another convention venue, was touting its new features. The online behemoth -- it claims 4 million listings -- is the Realtor association's official site, run by Move Inc. "Neighborhood" is a hot word at the site: House hunters can search for data about schools, crime and more on 50,000 neighborhoods in 34 metro areas.

There, too, interactivity is key. Visitors can add information about their neighborhoods or upload videos about them. Sure, everybody searches neighborhoods by school data and demographics, but the site can now search for listings based on an area's vaguely defined "family friendliness" or "hipness."

Clearly, these and dozens of other sites are trying to outdo one another: One-upmanship is the word of the day.

As fun as these sites are to play with, at the end of the day, my gut tells me buyers really just want to know how to find homes for sale and how much they cost.

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