Buying a property on the Internet is becoming more popular, but there are still snags. By Penny Jackson
IT WAS at six o'clock in the morning that Jayne Mitchell came across a flat in an old canal-side factory she knew well. By the end of breakfast, she and her husband had collected more details, done their sums and were on the phone to the agents the moment they opened. Another Internet sale was about to be clocked up.

"I was looking for the right person to sell our Hampstead flat and was reviewing the estate agents' websites. This flat tweaked my interest because I had been aware of the conversion a few years ago. We were idly thinking of buying something smaller that we could lock up and leave, but we hadn't made up our minds. As it is, we have been sold a flat we didn't know we wanted," says Jayne Mitchell.

In the past two years, since properties first started to appear on the Internet, long-distance purchase is a major selling point. The browser from San Francisco who spots a cottage in Farnham generates more publicity than the buyer who moves a mile down the road. But increasingly, those using the Internet are local to the estate agents. They visit a website just as they might pop into a sales office.

Jayne Mitchell runs a head-hunting business and, like many people, regards the prospect of looking for a new home as time-consuming and stressful. "That is why it is wonderful to have come across our flat by chance. But I doubt it would have happened if I hadn't chosen an agent from the area." Her chosen location formed a triangle that cut through at least five different London postcodes. "That would have meant a slow and complicated search, because I did not have a clearly identifiable area. I would never have found the flat if I had started the search from scratch."

As it was, she chose the Goldschmidt & Howland site for its search facility, and after having seen pictures and printed details of the flat, she was certain that it was worth viewing. "I knew the building, and that was important. There was no way I could have found it by asking for flats on a canal with a terrace. As a seller, though, I still have my doubts. Maybe there's a price barrier. I know too many people in top jobs who never even switch on their own computers, let alone surf the Internet. I think that anyone with a lot of money to spend is more likely to choose a more personal approach."

At Knight Frank, where they are used to secretaries asking for details on behalf of their bosses, deals of up to pounds 2m have nevertheless been done on the Internet. A man who bought a Surrey house at that price lived two miles away, but spotted it while in the Middle East. Richard Crosthwaite says all properties go on to the Internet unless a client has a strong aversion to it. "But it is certainly noticeable that nearly all the correspondence in our Canary Wharf office is done by e-mail from people who spend the best part of the day on their computers."

The pleasure buyers derive from tracking down a home for themselves is not unconnected to the frustration of wading through unsuitable details and a suspicion they might not be at the top of an agent's list. The growth of homefinding services is testimony to that. It is of particular help for anyone trying to track down new developments where regional information can be notoriously difficult to come by at the head office.

The Internet does not necessarily make things simpler. Only as agents upgrade their websites are browsers able to refine their searches. Agents would rather cover a wide area thinly than be excluded from somewhere quite specific. In London, for instance, Winkworth, which has some 2,500 properties on its Internet site, is able to give precise locations, with virtual viewings in some cases, whereas a company with only a few properties in London would appear on a search, but not in useful detail. It is the duplication of material and numerous red herrings that put off the less persistent.

Nicholas Leeming, sales director of the Internet Property Finder, an "umbrella" site, finds that, with some notable exceptions, estate agents are not good at making the most of new technology. "People come into sites to find a property - not to read corporate guff. They want a prominent search facility with varying layers of detail, not just one level of information."

Apparently, most of us do our searching on Mondays and Tuesdays, reaching a peak on Wednesdays. Searches on the IPF system are running at an all- time high at about 12,000 a day, double December's figures. Two thousand visitors a day are now visiting the database, up from 900 last month.

Despite the figures, some may need more convincing. Robert Wayne, of agents Wayne & Silver who are selling Jayne Mitchell's three bedroom flat, is not a believer. "I have yet to find anything I am looking for. Our properties do appear on the Internet, but I've only sold one. Personal recommendation and service still count for more. But I could change my mind." Maybe if Jayne Mitchell's flat becomes his second Internet success.

Wayne & Silver: 0171 431 2258;;;