Today's smart home buyers are doing all the ground work on the world wide web, writes Stephen Pritchard
Two months ago Wayne Curry, a support worker for the deaf in London, put in an offer on a house in Cambridgeshire he found over the Net. He had never visited the estate agent; he was not on its list. But Mr Curry found five properties that suited his requirements on a Web site. He did visit the house before he agreed to buy it, but he would never have found it without the Internet.

Property hunting is one of the fastest-growing areas of Internet commerce. And it makes sense for anyone who, like Mr Curry, plans to move to an unfamiliar area. "The Internet probably saved me three or four days' work in terms of day trips," Mr Curry points out. "I searched the Net from home in an hour."

The problem for buyers is that searching for relevant estate agents' home pages can be very time-consuming. And not all agencies have moved on to the Internet. Whole areas of major cities, including London, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh are without an on-line agency.

You can short-cut this process by looking at several Internet property sites with links to agents in most parts of the country (see box). The problem is that the coverage is patchy and can be out of date.

The National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) has a central site called "Property Live", which lets Internet users search for a house or flat by price and area. The NAEA hopes that "Property Live", together with Government attempts to reform the house-buying system, will make the process much quicker and more efficient for buyers and sellers alike. Agents doubt that it will replace the traditional process of viewings and surveys altogether - most people want to see a house before committing themselves and making an offer - but it could remove much of the paperwork and phoning round that most people go through before making a shortlist. "We see the Web as a way to provide people with a fast way to research the market," says Marcus Balderstone, past president of NAEA and the co-ordinator for Property Live. But it's still no substitute for making good contacts. "Buyers have to make themselves known to every agent. Properties may go before they see them."

If you don't have access to the Web, there are other ways to check on property outside your area. NAEA member agencies have shared computer networks so that offices in one area can print off details of houses for sale in another branch. So it's worth speaking to the agent who is selling your property about whether he or she can link up with an agent in the area where you hope to buy.


First Choice: Properties from estate agents, by area

Halifax: Listings for upmarket, distinctive and country homes

Internet Property Finder: UK property sales with national coverage

London Property News: London property listings

Property Live: NAEA site with national coverage and links to member agents

RICS: Information from the surveyors' professional body

Stern Studios: Descriptions of studio and one-bedroom flats in London, with floor plans

UK Property Sales: Site with private advertisements

Winkworth: London agency group

Woolwich: Comprehensive site from a large agency chain