Get a head start with e-mail and text property alerts

Finding the right home has never been such a rat race. So can estate agents' e-mail alerts or texts give you a head start? Helen Brown finds out
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The Independent Online

"Barrroing!" tinkles my whizzy new mobile phone, and I raise a foamy arm from my bath and lift the device from the soap dish. Flicking the screen into life, I open a text message from Mal Dads, an estate agent at Ludlow Thomson in Finsbury Park, north London. The message contains details of a new property on the market. There's an address, a price and the basic specs.

Then there are three options: I can click for "full details" or "book a viewing" or select "call me". Leaning back into the warm water, I hit the "full details" link. The small screen of my Sidekick 3 initially gives the impression that I've just come through to the agents' website, but a quick thumb on the rollerball mouse whirls me down to an external photograph of the property and the full info.

I click on "more photos" and find myself on a virtual tour of the interior without having to wash the conditioner from my hair. If I like what I see, I can book a viewing without having to find a towel. I simply click on the option where I key in a couple of times and dates when I'm free to poke around the place, and a number on which I'd like Dads to contact me.

Pretty neat, I think, as I slip back beneath the bubbles, wishing I'd known about this sort of thing when I was househunting for real last month.

This month, I'm just testing out a new service. T-Mobile has launched it and supplied it to me with the very flashy Sidekick 4 (it's the phone all the celebs have, they tell me, and Paris Hilton gets mentioned a lot, although I can't image the hotel heiress is ever short of a place to stay) and I'm signed up for property updates in my area from Ludlow Thomson and Foxtons, which both aim to send out mass SMS messages as soon as new properties are uploaded to their websites.

T-Mobile calls this a "web'n'walk" service but - whatever phone you have and whatever network you're on - you'll be able to receive these services from estate agents. The point is that the property market now moves so fast, particularly in the South-east of England, that if we all wait till we get a spare minute at the office to trawl the web, we're likely to miss out on homes we want.

I remember my parents spending leisurely weekends gazing into estate agents' windows, but today only 4 per cent of respondents in a survey of 1,000 people say they'd use window displays to learn about new properties, while 62 per cent rely on their mobile phones. Meanwhile, 73 per cent want to use their mobiles to view proper details of new properties online, and 61 per cent of us want estate agents to be able to send images of new homes direct to their mobile phones.

I'm not alone in being prepared to pick up texts in the bath - 40 per cent of those surveyed wanted to see details of a new property immediately, the second it comes on the market, and an additional 20 per cent want details within two hours.

That said, only 29 per cent would take an estate agent's call while watching their favourite football team, 24 per cent while on holiday, 9 per cent during their child's birthday party and 7 per cent on a first date - and a troubling 5 per cent during sex. Finally, a freaky 1 per cent want to get details during their own wedding - presumably those who haven't thought past the honeymoon.

I must admit that I found the house I bought on rightmove.com, and I sold my current flat via a local estate agent who simply called a woman whose purchase in my area had recently fallen through. She came straight round and offered the asking price. There was no need for anyone to mass-text or e-mail anybody, and because of the ease of this process I was able to knock down my agent's commission.

But Dads says that internet-linked SMS is a hugely useful tool. "We were the first agents to use it," he says. "Foxtons and a couple of the other big agents just copied us. We also send the SMS as soon as the web posting goes up. With something as desirable as a two-bedroom garden flat at under £330,000 in Finsbury Park, I get an average of 10 calls in 10 minutes, all from the SMS mail-out. We'll always have sold a property like that before it gets to a website like Rightmove or Propertyfinder."

Dads says that people prefer texts, and especially these more detailed and informative web-linked messages, to phone calls. "People get sick of calls from estate agents. They probably press delete on estate agent voicemails, too."

This is true. I do. The main reason is that about one in four calls from the home sharks is nothing to do with new properties. They're all trying to flog financial services, and it doesn't matter how many times you tell them you're not interested. Some perky-voiced Karen or Darren will still call you the next day to wonder: "Have you thought about how you'll be financing your new home at all?" I'm always tempted to squeak back: "Yikes! That hadn't occurred to me at all! What was I thinking!?"

As I write these words, a perky-voiced lady from Foxtons does indeed call and offer to fix me up with a mortgage adviser. I tell her I'm not interested. She advises that I should be interested in her advice. I am too polite to hang up. I much prefer deleting advice that comes by text. It's therapeutic.

The final advantage of the web'n'walk thing is that if your phone hooks up to the internet, you can use online cartography services like Streetmap to guide you to viewings. Admittedly, the itsy bitsy screens make this a squinty process, but it does spare you from lugging an A-Z about. I explain this to my boyfriend as we're pottering to a friend's house. I key in the address and the phone makes a serious of zany xylophone noises like Tom and Jerry, and I chuckle with glee as the map zips on to my screen.

"Are you insane?" queries my co-house hunter, "waving that expensive gadget around out here and not looking around you?" I blink up at him. He was mugged for a far less desirable phone on a neighbouring street not so long ago. "The only property acquisition you'll be seeking if you carry on like that is somehow getting your phone back."

E-mail alerts

Pros: Just as fast as mobile phone alerts, and if you've got a WAP phone you can also pick up these messages while on the move. E-mails generally contain more information than the more basic level texts, as well as photographs of the property and weblinks. If you're online, you can also search out other information about the area, such as details of schools, local services and other amenities.

Cons: Most of us are far too busy at work to keep track of and read e-mails from estate agents. Also, you will have to inform each agent when you have found your dream home, or they will be pummelling your in-box for ever. Sometimes, even telling them to stop won't work.

Phone calls and personal contact

Pros: Still the fastest way to find out about a property before anybody has had time to sit at a keyboard and type in details or send a photographer. If you're really serious, you should probably call your agent first thing each morning. If you build up a personal relationship with an agent, you're less likely to be bombarded with inappropriate properties. Showing up in person can up the pressure and increase the personal levels of contact, and you may even bump into vendors.

Cons: The incessant phone badgering over financial services. You call them, don't let them call you. If you show up in the agent's offices too often you may start to feel like a stalker - and it can all be very time-consuming.

Text and multimedia messages

Pros: You can check your mobile phone at times when you can't check e-mails, and it is less irritating to spend time deleting unwanted texts when you're waiting for a train than when you've got 101 other things to do at work. Plus, at a time when there are an estimated 27 househunters for every property on the market, instant messaging ensures that you'll find out about a property as quickly as possible.

Cons: New properties are never going to be texted out before they have been popped on to the agents' websites. At best, you'll get a simultaneous service - and in other cases you could well be texted days after a web posting. Plus, your phone will never be set free.

Web hunting

Pros: Most properties will be listed on the web before they are texted out to buyers, or at best they will appear simultaneously. The big screen of a computer conveys a much better impression of the property, and it's easier to flick between agents. You can take virtual tours on sites like Foxtons and on multi-agent portals, while sites like rightmove.co.uk and primelocation.com save time by allowing you to search an area without trawling though each individual agent site.

Cons: Many estate agents are slow about uploading new properties, and they can really drag their feet about removing sold properties from the internet. In hot areas, the most desirable properties will be snapped up before they reach the multi-agent sites.

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