Estate agents face a continuing lack of consumer confidence and a rise of alternative sales methods. Some are slowly emerging from the Dark Ages and claim house-hunting on the Internet offers salvation. Felicity Cannell investigates if this is really the case.

Estate agents have been notoriously slow to incorporate the latest in new technology, primarily in order to keep costs down. But whereas, once upon a time, reams of badly photocopied details proved adequate, those who want to sell our home and persuade us to buy another are now having to work harder to improve their service.

Some have alighted on the World Wide Web as the way forward. Marcus Balderston, from the Internet working party set up by the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA), says: "The Internet is set to influence the commercial world with the same impact as electricity, the telephone and television.

"The pace of change in information technology is such that estate agents could be left behind in business terms if they do not get to grips with the Internet now."

According to statistics, one in 10 households can already accesses the Internet and the number is growing.

A search of the Net for properties to buy initially looks promising, but up to now there is little national coverage, with many sites devoid of instructions on how to use them. More can presently be gained from national or local press or even through the phone book.

In the United States, by contrast, 70 per cent of residential homes are advertised on the Internet. While UK estate agents have so far been reluctant to invest in a system which is still in its infancy, and to which the majority of potential customers do not have access, huge investment is being made by the computer and television industries to bring the Internet out of the study and into the living room.

Stephen Forshaw, of Imaginative Technology - one such company - says: "Most people won't be interested until they can access the Internet via the TV remote control." By Christmas this will be possible.

A box to connect televisions to the Internet is already available at around pounds 300, but will soon be marketed like a mobile phone, at a fraction of its cost with the profits coming from usage. When this system becomes integral with television, Mr Forshaw predicts that Internet use will explode.

The NAEA has recently set up an Internet service, PropertyLive. Although not the first of its kind, its ultimate goal is to reduce the house-buying process from several weeks to a matter of hours.

PropertyLive is based on the NAEA's existing HomeLink service, designed to help people move from one area of the country to another. It provides access to properties offered for sale through 850 independent estate agents nationwide, via a visit to a local participating estate agent. Now, this information will be available from the home, via the Internet.

In addition, through integration with government databases, customers will soon be able to find out essential property-related information - local schools, hospitals and leisure and transport facilities. New access to information will allow estate agents to speed up the sales process - to check title, carry out local searches and deal with land registry. As the service develops, online mortgages, conveyancing, insurance and other services may be made available, as the NAEA tries to turn the estate agent into a one-stop property shop.

The speed at which homes are presently selling means property details mailed to customers may be out of date even before the package reaches the postbox. With an up-to-the-minute computerised system, properties can be wiped off, or temporarily blocked, in a matter of seconds once an offer has been accepted.

On the Internet, one of the largest residential property sites is ITL Home Search. ITL charges estate agents pounds 100 per month to advertise all their properties, with colour pictures of exteriors and interiors. Consumers can access ITL's Homelocator service. A customer taps in his demands, for a three-bedroomed detached period house with garage on the outskirts of Cambridge, priced under pounds 180,000. Every day the company will e-mail details of any new property meeting those criteria.

PropertyLive's charges to its estate agents are similar. "My personal view is that within the next five years estate agency will change almost beyond recognition," Marcus Balderston says.

Ultimately, the truth of such a claim depends on how clients take to the system. So far, sales success has been mixed. In one recent case, a vendor who advertised his property on the Internet soon found a buyer - living just round the corner.

Property Live : www.propertylive.co.uk; ITL Home Search: www.itlhomesearch.com)

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