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New housing-related websites aimed at buyers

These websites include HouseTipper, which offers group coupons; BuildFax, which details a home's history; and MortgageMarvel, which provides up-to-date mortgage rates from hundreds of lenders.

October 02, 2011|By Lew Sichelman

Reporting from Washington — Would you pay $51 to get a $1,699 stainless-steel refrigerator when you buy a house from a major builder in Tampa, Fla.?

How about paying $30 to receive $1,000 cash back at closing when you purchase a home through Prudential Carolina Sun Real Estate in Charleston, S.C.? Or $48 for $1,200 toward the design and installation of solar panels in Metairie, La.?

All of these are real-life examples of group coupons offered through HouseTipper, a collective buying platform aimed at the housing and home-and-garden sectors.

Launched in 2010 but only becoming fully operational at the first of this year, the website works much like Groupon, LivingSocial and others that negotiate deep discounts with restaurants, merchants and other businesses and then sell vouchers to people wanting to take advantage of the deals.

In HouseTipper's case, it works with home builders, real estate brokers, lenders, residential and commercial property managers, nurseries and other housing-related businesses. If enough people purchase the vouchers, the deal "tips," meaning it is on.

The site is one of a number of housing-related, Internet-based undertakings that have popped up recently, including one that details a home's history and another that offers up-to-date mortgage rates from hundreds of lenders.

There probably isn't an existing house in the land that hasn't had work done to it — if not a major remodeling, then perhaps some plumbing or electrical work. Either way, how do would-be buyers know if the job was done properly? Or if it was cleared by a local building inspector?

Enter BuildFax, the construction industry's version of a Carfax vehicle history report. The site collects and organizes the construction records of millions of properties to create what amounts to a background check on the properties buyers might be considering.

BuildFax's proprietary property intelligence engine contains building and permitting information from more than 4,000 cities and counties, covering about 63% of the country. The database covers more than 72 million residential and commercial properties. Information from urban areas, or places where there is a lot of construction, is updated monthly, other places less frequently.

The service can tell you, among other things, whether the remodeled kitchen meets code, when the roof was replaced and who did the work. It can tell you whether the electrical upgrade was done by a licensed electrician or by someone's uncle. And if the furnace should go on the fritz after you move in, it can tell you who installed it so you'll know whom to call to find out whether it is still under warranty.

Right now, lenders, insurance companies, home inspectors and appraisers are BuildFax's principal customers. But President Holly Tachovsky says the goal is to provide consumers with the property's "life story" so buyers can use it as a bargaining chip.

"Ultimately, we want to be the source of factual information that helps home buyers make more informed decisions," she says. "If the seller says he put on a new roof two years ago, you can find out if that's true or not."

The price is $89.95 for three months of unlimited use.

For prospective buyers shopping for a mortgage, the home loan comparison website allows borrowers to obtain interest rate quotes based on the loan amount, the property's value and the ZIP Code, all while remaining anonymous. Pricing is updated as quickly as it changes — usually daily, but sometimes more frequently, says Rick Allen, director of strategic initiatives.

The quote is based on certain preselected assumptions, such as a 30-year mortgage. But you can change the assumptions to fit your requirements. There's also a rate-watch feature that automatically notifies users when rates change. Another tab estimates closing costs.

More than 230 lenders are actively quoting their charges on the site, which is owned by Mortgagebot, the company that operates all of the participating lenders' individual websites. If you apply, you are taken directly to that lender's site. But until that point, your identity remains unknown.

Meanwhile, HouseTipper is growing slowly but surely, says one of its co-founders, real estate broker Tigue Bonneval of Baton Rouge, La. So far, it has run deals in about 20 cities.

"We're not going to catch on like wildfire overnight," Bonneval says. "But we're seeing a lot of interest, and we're finally gaining some traction."

The site's most successful deal to date has been one of its most recent. Van Metre Homes, a Northern Virginia builder, offered to cover $5,000 in closing costs for anyone who bought one of its houses if the buyer also purchased a $50 coupon. The site sold 13 coupons, and, according to Bonneval, at least half the coupon buyers have already signed contracts for Van Metre homes.

Typically, group coupon deals are available for 24 to 48 hours. But real estate is a big-ticket item, so the deals last much longer. In Van Metre's case, the 99% off deal went live in July and ended Aug. 17. It tipped when three people bought a coupon, and, to be valid, a contract to buy a house must be signed by Oct. 8. The company builds in nearly a dozen Northern Virginia locations, with prices ranging from the $200,000s to more than $1 million.

Some examples of other recent HouseTipper deals: In Los Angeles, pay $40 and get $4,000 back at closing if you buy or sell a house through broker Herb Leary. And in Houston, pay $30 and get $1,000 back at closing when you buy or sell through the Chris Wylie Team at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate.

Distributed by Universal Uclick for United Feature Syndicate.

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