One click and the wallpaper's history

Felicity Cannell surfs around the home pages and flat screens of the 21st-century estate agent
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The Independent Online
Does the Internet spell the end of the estate agent as we know him? Far from it. There has been much talk of how to sell properties without using an agent, but although we balk at paying his hefty commission a good agent may almost be worth it for the service he provides.

Estate agents are clamouring for more instructions and better properties to keep on top of the competition. Technology is racing ahead in all industries, but many British estate agents are stuck in the dark ages. In the United States they are far in advance in their use of the available technology.

London's status as a world city is at an all-time high, and other parts of the country are seeing an influx of foreigners, particularly Americans with company postings. An estate agent who can offer your property particulars to the widest possible market place, and in the most efficient and convenient way, will win the instruction.

Centurion Property Company in Essex grabbed modern technology with both hands. "Ninety per cent of customers visiting us have never seen anything like it," says Andrew Clack, of his branches' fully computerised and networked system. All their homes - including interior photographs - are displayed on colour screens enabling applicants to "view" properties without leaving their seats, using the mouse to take a "virtual walk-through" on screen. No need to browse through reams of written details; with this technology clients can eliminate unsuitable homes, and equally can be tempted to visit properties with particularly appealing interiors which they would have otherwise dismissed. "There are estate agents across the country with this sort of system but many shy away from it because of the danger of crashing. When the system goes down, all communication goes with it, but for us the benefits far outweigh the dangers," says Clack.

Imaginative Technologies Ltd (ITL) in Preston, Lancashire, sells a similar system to estate agents - Touch TV. At the touch of a button photographs and details of each property are displayed on screen. And the company is also developing a facility which enables the system to be accessed, via a front-window display, 24 hours a day.

Despite running what is probably the largest UK residential site on the Internet, ITL currently regards it as a sideline. The Internet has been touted as an alternative to many mediums, but in this country it is still in embryonic form. A search of the net for properties to buy initially looks promising, but many sites are still empty of information, awaiting advertisers. There are sites for private advertisers, but most information comes from estate agents. In theory it's the perfect system for finding a property in Cheltenham if you live in Manchester, but as yet there is no national coverage and relatively few agents are advertising.

But selling on the Internet is on the up. ITL charges each estate agent around pounds 100 per month to put all its properties on line. Cheap, but fully comprehensive.

Visit Centurion Property's Internet site (www.centurion-property.co.uk) to sample a "surround video", a 360-degree view inside and outside a property. With the help of a mouse you can "stand in the middle of a room" and spin through 360 degrees. Click on the door of another room and do the same thing. "This is quite impressive, but is only a prelude to on- line video, which will be the ultimate in customer convenience," says Andrew Clack.

He is, however, unwilling to throw vast sums of money into this sort of advertising until the price of PCs falls and "every home has got one". And the future for house buying? With cable connections entering many homes, the transmission of videos down the telephone line begins to look feasible. Says Clack: "In the future, people will turn on their computers, log on to a property database which will bring up a map of the UK (or the world); they will then click on a particular county and type in their buying (or renting) requirements and a complete search will then be carried out with the results displayed in list form. Customers will then reject all unsuitable properties and download the videos of those which remain."

"No one knows where the Internet is going, and how people are going to react to it," says Stephen Forshaw at ITL. "Most people won't be interested until they can access it via their television remote control." This is Net TV, a little black box connected to the television set, being developed by British Interactive Broadcasting.

Also in developmental stage is a virtual reality system for "changing" the property's interior to suit particular customers. If you want to see the property with a different kitchen or without the flock wallpaper or purple bathroom tiles, this system will show you.

"Many house-hunters find it hard to see the potential of a property with ugly features, or decor," says Forshaw. "Estate agents who can offer this service could not fail to sell more properties, and indeed attract more listings." The system could also prove invaluable to house builders who could show alternative decors for kitchens and bathrooms in a show home. And we've all brought home a carpet or wallpaper sample which looks perfect, only to find it appears a completely different shade when installed.

Meanwhile, the National Internet Property Register (www.property-sight.co.uk) is waiting for your visit. With the current boom causing good properties to be snapped up instantly, it's another way of keeping ahead of the competition.

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