Armchair house-hunters

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The Independent Online
It is Saturday, and house-hunters everywhere are embarking on another weekend tour of estate agents' offices and showhomes. They can't find anywhere to park the car, the children are becoming bored and irritable, and everyone complains that this is no way to spend a weekend.

Soon no one will have to. Instead, they will be able to buy a house from the comfort of their own home. The information technology systems which have transformed so many other businesses are at long last being applied to the property industry. One of the first software packages to arrive via the Internet is The Property Wave, developed by Mike Lane.

He launched his service in the London market this month offering properties from Savills, and Spyer & Dove in Hampstead. Potential buyers who are on the Internet can call up the areas they are interested in, receive a list of properties available and access details and pictures of those which interest them. They then send an e-mail message to the agent to fix up appointments to view.

The service is particularly useful for overseas buyers. Some Russian purchasers, who have been known to buy without viewing a property,were among the first to use the service.

So far only Savills and Spyer & Dove are on The Property Wave. It needs to attract sufficient numbers of users to turn it into an essential outlet for agents. In the United States there are about 150 such services, with a new one opening every week.

Mike Lane, who is an IT expert rather than an estate agent, said: "In five years' time people will buy housesfrom their homes. They will access some sort of service, probably through their cable TV system. They will browse through the details and when they see something they like they will get a full multi-media package of sound, text and pictures. That's what we are aiming for."

Mr Lane is also talking to banks and building societies about putting mortgages on the Internet. Each company would advertise its financial packages. Prospective borrowers would decide which they preferred, fill out a form on the screen and receive a reply via the system.

Such computer systems seem unlikely to replace estate agents, who will still be needed to value property, draw up details and negotiate sales. But they will replace their shop windows. And private individuals will be able to use the system to sell direct. The Property Wave: 0181-224 9006.

Estate agents will go the way of the dinosaurs if they decide this information technology business is not for them, according to Christopher Jonas, senior partner of Drivers Jonas, the chartered surveyors. In a punchy speech entitled "Property in the Year 2000" he said: "Property people have a long way to go to get up to speed in IT. They had better get their skates on before they are overtaken by brighter people from outside the sector."

Mr Jonas warned that the property industry was fragmented, over-manned and under-skilled. He said a fundamental change of attitude was needed to adapt to low inflation and low turnover.

One result would be fewer, larger property companies, offering more professional and cheaper services, he said. Which is good news for buyers, sellers and tenants, but bad news for estate agents.