When my wife and I shopped for our first home outside Boston nearly a decade ago, we relied on the hottest technology of the time: Our agent sent us listings by fax machine. I'm sure there were Web sites that contained listings back in those dial-up days, but we never thought to use them. Like most buyers, we relied on our agent to find suitable houses for us. After all, that's a prime part of how he was earning his commission. And when it came time to visit properties, we didn't worry about directions—we just hopped into the agent's backseat and let him do the driving.
When my 30-year-old, tech-savvy brother-in-law bought his first home in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, he went about the process totally differently. He located most of the properties he wanted to see by himself, using real-estate Web sites and Google Maps. And instead of printing out listings to take on his house-hunting excursions, he put his laptop (equipped with a wireless card) in his passenger seat and drove around his preferred neighborhoods. When he found a for sale sign, he'd search for details online.
Just when I thought using a wireless card to engage in on-the-go house hunting was a clever strategy, now, a host of real-estate Web sites are offering an even easier way to do it. They're creating special applications designed for smartphones like the iPhone or BlackBerry that will help house hunters find properties when they're far from a PC.
And there are signs that there may be more buyers ready to use them. This week's housing data, while hardly a cause for celebration, did contain some hints of good news for observers wondering how much longer the housing slump might last. Sales of both new and existing homes rose slightly in July, as prices fell—a sign that more sellers are willing to accept more realistic offers for their homes. On Tuesday, the S&P released the latest data from its Case-Shiller index of home prices; while it showed national prices dropping by 15 percent in the last year, the rate of the fall has decelerated lately, and a few cities (including Boston) showed slight upticks in home prices. While economists note that a housing recovery still faces stiff challenges, due to the credit crunch and soft economy, this week's data has ignited talk that the housing market may soon bottom out, and some brokers are optimistic. Says Glenn Kelman, founder of the real-estate Web site RedFin, "We're starting to see buyers emerge from their caves, hungry for deals."
When it comes to mobile tools to help these buyers, the latest offering is from Trulia, a real-estate Web site. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Manhattan last week, Trulia co-founder Peter Flint touched the screen of his iPhone and a map of New York's Upper East Side popped onto the screen. Red flags appeared on properties for sale, and when he clicked another button, he saw a list of all the nearby apartments that would host open houses on Sunday. (The company's iPhone application, which launched this week, has a companion offering, for users of BlackBerry, which functions in much the same way.)
But as you'd expect on a mobile screen, the information given on each listing isn't as rich as you'd find on a full-sized PC screen: If you're hoping for a dozen photos of a home's interior or a 360-degree virtual tour, you'll be disappointed. But with the new iPhone's GPS functionality, the slick interface allows users to dispense with carrying around printouts of listings; provides directions to listings; and makes it easy to call or e-mail the listing agent. This is a case where convenience trumps detail.
Like its chief competitors, Realtor.com and Zillow.com, Trulia makes money by selling ads on its site, so its business depends on attracting more eyeballs by coming up with new features that appeal to house hunters. "Our goal is to produce compelling, useful tools to support [buyers] with what's the most important financial decision of their lives," Flint says. Sites such as Trulia and Zillow are drawing millions of visitors a month and have steadily lured real-estate ads away from their traditional home in newspaper classified sections, which has further hurt the already beleaguered newspaper industry. As a result of declining ad sales, the Los Angeles Times, in July, stopped printing its Sunday real-estate section altogether.
Zillow, too, has launched mobile browser-versions that are accessible via iPhone or BlackBerry. For cell phone users who aren't into Web browsing, Zillow also has a service that allows you to text or email an address to firstname.lastname@example.org and instantly receive basic property information, such as: the number of bedrooms, the number of bathrooms, the square footage, and Zillow's estimate of the home's value. In July, Realtor.com introduced an application for use on cell phones running Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system; the site already offers iphone.realtor.com, a special URL tailored to the iPhone's browser.
Saul Klein, the CEO of InternetCrusade, a company that offers technology training to real-estate agents, says it's not only home buyers who will find these new mobile applications compelling. "Even if I'm not in the market for a home, if I drive through a neighborhood and see a property for sale, I'd like to be able to pull out my smartphone and see what they're asking for that house," Klein says. "That's what people want today: speed, convenience and choice."
And it sure beats pulling listings out of the fax machine.
Daniel McGinn is a NEWSWEEK national correspondent and the author of "HOUSE LUST: Americas Obsession with Our Homes."