Just click on your dream home

Estate agents are experimenting with the Internet. Anne Spackman assesses the possibilities
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Which do you hate most, computers or estate agents? Many people regard both as a necessary evil. Estate agents have been no fans of new technology, insisting theirs is a people rather than a processing business. But now the two are reluctantly coming together with the launch of the first cohesive attempts to sell houses on screen.

The first UK company to launch a property service on the Internet earlier this year was Nationwide Property Selection, already operating a computer- based service matching buyers to sellers. Then came the launch of Videotron's Home Finder channel on cable television. The Nationwide this month followed Bradford & Bingley in putting a mortgage and savings "shop" on the Internet. Next month sees the start of the biggest operation yet when the Conde Nast magazine empire launches its property service on the Internet. Initially, it will show about 300 of the properties advertised in four of its titles - GQ, Vogue, House and Garden and Tatler. Prospective clients choose from a number of options - London or country, rental or purchase - and can then see pictures of various properties, inside and out, as they would do in a glossy brochure.

There will be mortgage information as well, giving the e-mail number of financial advertisers so viewers can get further information on screen. Ultimately, Conde Nast hopes buyers will be able to do local authority searches and land registry checks on screen from the comfort of their homes or offices.

As yet, the new technology is more relevant to the buyers and sellers of expensive London properties or homes abroad than to the regular British home-owner. The profile of Internet users is predominantly young and international. If you are selling a semi in Swindon, the chances of finding a buyer this way are pretty remote.

The age profile has prompted Conde Nast to put some of its less expensive property on-line to begin with. For the estate agents who advertise through Conde Nast, this is a toe-dipping exercise; most are doing it because they feel they ought to, rather than through any conviction that it will sell more houses.

Colin Lansley, the man behind the Conde Nast programme, thinks it is inevitable that the shop-window function of estate agency will soon be performed on screens in people's homes because it cuts out the time spent dragging around offices. "Time is so precious these days that if you offer someone a short cut they will take it," he says. "Also, you can save money by not having to put ink on paper and post things."

With housing turnover low and printing costs rising fast, this is a bonus for agents. But it comes at a time when profits and confidence are low - not conditions that encourage experimentation.

Simon Agace is chairman of Winkworth, which has offices across London. The company recently launched a register of all its properties in book form. He thinks the register will have far more impact than the Internet, though he is trying it out through Conde Nast. If it takes off, he says the London agents will do it themselves.

"I'm not terribly excited by the Internet, because it's mostly used by people under 30 and the buying power is with people over 30," he says. "In five years' time it may be different, but it will never supplant picking up a telephone."

The first big agency to try out Videotron's Home Finder cable channel was Savills. For the past few months, cable customers in central London have been able to see details of houses for sale, using their remote control. The service has generated about 40 serious inquiries so far.

Charles Phillpot, Savills' marketing director, thinks television is more user-friendly than the Internet. But he does not see it transforming the property business. "It is a shop window only," he says. "Behind that window you still have to have people. Buying a house is not like buying groceries. You need to talk to someone about it."

John Barratt lives in Wimbledon, south London, and is not connected to the Internet. He is selling a two-bedroom villa in Minorca. With the British market so dead, his buyer is most likely to come from elsewhere in Europe. Using a traditional estate agent, that is an expensive audience for him to reach.

Mr Barratt is using Nationwide Property Selections. He pays pounds 113.13 for six months on the firm's database and three months on the Internet. "I have had some replies from Germany and Italy," he says. "It's a good way to appeal to the international market."

For buyers, the advantages of house-hunting on cable and computer are clear. But will your home sound as appealing on a screen as it might do when described by an estate agent?

Nationwide Property Selections: 0181-567 6500