Screen test for the perfect property

In theory the Internet could change the entire way we buy and sell houses. But how effective is it today, asks David Bowen
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The Independent Online
Heard the one about the man who spent pounds 1m on a house without ever seeing it? Well, it's true. Thanks to the Internet it is possible to find a house, examine it, put in an offer and exchange the documentation - all without stirring from a chair on the other side of the world.

The property world swirls with stories of such "cybersales" - and a handful have indeed been completed (mostly by wealthy Asians buying in central London). According to Peter Callaghan of Prestige Properties International, his Internet site has led to a Canadian finding a pounds 1m property in Britain, a German buying a house near Cork, and a Yorkshireman finding a place in the Scillies. In each case the buyer came and saw before he bought - but the initial contact was in cyberspace.

A few deals do not make a trend, however. The question the property world is asking is whether the Internet will transform the way houses are bought and sold en masse. In theory, it could. The World Wide Web - the graphical part of the Internet - is like an enormous estate agent's window: anyone with a computer and a telephone line can dial into it, look for suitable properties and examine their details.

With the increasing sophistication of Internet software, it is already possible to display rooms in three dimensions, and even to offer a "virtual tour" of a property. Add to this e-mail (the bit of the Internet that carries messages) and you have a mechanism that covers the entire purchase process.

"I think it will change the nature of our business," says David Taylor, director of Chestertons Residential. "If you had a choice of walking around 15 estate agents or looking at all the properties from your home, which would you choose?" Buyers would still want to talk to people on the ground, but, he points out, such assistance need not be located in expensive High Street offices.

The same argument can be applied to other intermediaries - travel agents, retailers, banks. And it is the experience of banks (where tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost to technology) that has persuaded many estate agents that they cannot rest on their commissions. A few dozen have their own Web sites, while others have put properties on sites that group several portfolios together.

It is early days. Only a small percentage of the British population has ever used the Internet, and few of the sites yet have the critical mass to make much difference to the way houses are bought and sold. One that does belongs to Chancellors, an Ascot-based group with offices along the hi-tech M4 corridor. Ian Simpson, a director, says that the Internet has already become "an inherent part of our business". When Chancellors attributed its first sale to the site last autumn, it issued an excited press release. Now, he says, "we've stopped monitoring it - we have instructions and introductions coming in all the time."

Chancellors has a system that automatically puts every property for which the company get instructions on to the Web site (www.chancellors.co.uk). "If you say you want to sell your property today, it will be displayed on the Internet at 8am tomorrow," Mr Simpson says.

Though the group has several thousand properties on its site, it has also started a site called Homefile (www.homefile.co.uk), which includes houses offered by agents in other areas. It will thus be going head to head with a number of specialist sites, all trying to become the place where potential buyers look for their new homes.

The point is that the World Wide Web is a big and unruly place. It has tens of millions of sites on it, but only a few hundred get more than a thousand or so visitors. To make an electronic property operation work effectively, it must be easy to find, and offer the buyer the same sort of choice as he would get in the High Street. One mega-site might not be healthy, because there would be no competition. But if, say, there were two or three well-known ones, each with tens of thousands of properties, the Web really would be a viable alternative to those Saturday morning jaunts.

Right now, a number of sites are jockeying to belong to that profitable elite. Two front-runners, Net Estate (netestate.dsres.com) and InternetProperty Finder (www. propertyfinder.co.uk) are battling for the loyalty of the big national agents. IPF has Savills, John D Wood, Knight Frank, Strutt & Parker, Humberts, and Cluttons, while Net Estate has Chestertons and is expected to sign up Hamptons and Foxtons. All these agents have been testing the sites out with a limited number of properties displayed - but are now moving to full-scale commitment.

These sites have a distinctly upmarket flavour. That is unsurprising, not only because the Internet is still mainly the preserve of AB types, but also because it overcomes distance. Prestige Properties International (www.zynet.co.uk) specialises in selling UK properties to foreigners, while all the big estate agents report a high proportion of enquiries coming from abroad - particularly from Asia.

Will the Internet ever cut the ground from beneath estate agents' feet? PPI collects and advertises properties directly - and users avoid paying those annoyingly chunky commissions. The agents hope that by joining the revolution they will not be swept away by it, and it will certainly be a while before most of us turn to the Internet for our next house. The trouble is, "a while" in the fast-forward Internet world, could mean no more than a couple of years.

David Bowen edits Net Profit, a non-technical newsletter on the business uses of the Internet (for more information call 0181-355 6836; E-mail info@net-profit. co. uk)

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