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Buying an Apartment the '90s Way Searching for a Home on the Information Highway

The electronic age has reached the New York real estate market, bringing new ways of buying and selling

apartments. Instead of spending weekends and evenings visiting real estate brokers and traipsing through neighborhoods looking for the right apartment, buyers can scan a variety of new on-line services that offer real estate listings that can be accessed from their home or office simply by using a computer and modem.

With colorful graphics and an easy-to-use interface, these services allow buyers to locate and examine apartments they're interested in, without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes. Photographs, floor plans and prices are just some of the features that can be accessed from on-line listing services such as HIA/Virtual Village, City-Wire's New York State Real Estate Guide and HomeNet. Helping to change the future of the real estate market, these services are sure to become essential aids for busy buyers hunting for homes and the brokers who want to meet their needs.

Fast and Easy

One of the first services in Manhattan to go on-line was HIA/Virtual Village. The brainchild of Roberta Benzilio and Michael Sarfatti, HIA went on-line last January, offering real estate listings as well as a directory of other informational services. Benzilio worked with William B. May, a real estate brokerage firm, for 12 years before moving on to her new business. Sarfatti did work with a firm that developed software for trading commodities and has been using the Internet since 1977.

Like most on-line offerings, HIA (which has offices in San Francisco and Manhattan) utilizes a point-and-click environment that makes maneuvering around the program easy and fast. With most of the listings, photographs inside and outside the apartment are shown, as well as floor plans and information concerning the history of the building or even its surrounding area.

Another advantage to on-line services is the quick interchanges that pass between broker and client. If someone's interested in the apartment, they can send an E-mail message to Benzilio's office who will then fax it to the broker handling the sale. It's that easy and very quick, says Benzilio. We help ensure that the buyer gets in contact with brokers in no time, she says.

We want HIA to become a valuable resource for buyers, says Benzilio. On-line browsers can now learn about the Real Estate Board of New York or peruse the cover story and table of contents of the latest Cooperator, all from their comM-puter's desktop. Right now, HIA carries listings from only one real estate brokerage firm, William B. May, but participants also include a public relations firm, mortgage companies and developers.

At first I was skeptical of the whole medium, admits Peter Marra, president of William B. May. But once I saw a demonstration of what the listings and photographs next to them would look like I thought it was great and knew we had to sign up. A lot of our brokers are excited about the fact that we're on this service.

In addition to real estate listings, HIA will soon offer interactive mortgage applications. We are now creating a mortgage form with Fannie Mae, Benzilio explains. We will offer mortgage applications by which someone can fill it out, have it sent by E-mail and get a response 24 hours later from the organizat ffb ion.

City-Wire's New York City Real Estate Guide has been on-line since November 1994. Like HIA, City-Wire sells space on its electronic pages to brokers who can offer listings along with photos and detailed plans. It also uses graphics and icons to create a user-friendly environment that enhances the potential buyer's trip through the program. City-Wire already has a number of brokerage firms signed up, including The Corcoran Group, Charles H. Greenthal & Co., Fox Residential Group and Gumley-Haft.

Broad Coverage

For the future, says City-Wire president Daniel Levy, We intend to offer more information sources and even a forum by which users can discuss issues affecting the real estate industry. Levy, prior to forming City-Wire, worked on an interactive teleM-vision project for AT&T.

City Wire's Guide also has the capability to narrow the search down for people looking for apartM-ments. We are expanding in many ways, explains Levy. There will be a more strict relational dataM-base format which will allow the user to do various searches of data. For examM-ple, if someone is interested in a two-bedroom co-op between 72nd and 79th Streets with a Central Park view in a specific price range, the user can enter those parameters and view only the listings that come close to them. A user can search under a specific part of Brooklyn or Manhattan or even a particular neighborhood without being overwhelmed with a ton of listings from all over, adds Levy.

New York-based HomeNet, begun in mid-March, goes one step further in promoting real estate brokers. We can include, along with the buildings they're representing, a home page setup that can give someone a sense of the broker and have a photograph of them there, too. It can include a bio or whatever. It's a way for the broker to say, M-This is me,' says David M. Harris, president of HomeNet, who is using his background as a software developer in his new venture. Of course, HomeNet also includes the same advantages that have become expected from on-line real estate services: photographs, floor plans, E-mail from buyers to brokers and more. HomeNet also gives users the chance to browse through a section called Product & Service Providers.

We want HomeNet to be not just a place for listings, says Harris. If someone is looking for an interior designer or accountant or mortgage broker, they can also visit our site and see who's listed under which category and contact them. Once again, all without leaving their homes.

Knowledgeable Buyers

What has been nice is the level of seriousness in the calls we're getting, Marra says. These potential buyers have seen what the property looks like and what the price is; they know a lot before ever sending us an E-mail message. Marra says he's surprised at the number of calls he's been getting since the company signed on last February. We're getting the calls and they're only from serious buyers. After that, it's up to us to bring them to the next step: a sale, he says.

Carol Miller, a salesperson for Charles Greenthal, says of her experience with City-Wire, I'm delighted with the quality of calls. It's nice having these buyers call us who already have a feel for the apartment before we even show it to them.

This is a medium that cannot be ignored, declares Anita Peron, a spokesperson for The Corcoran Group. The Corcoran Group is on a number of different services including New York State Real Estate Guide and HomeNet. People can browse and scan through the locations they're interested in. These services are really a learning tool for potential buyers who want to know more than a classified ad will tell them, she says. And, of course, they're more fun to use. Peron also feels that people are more eager to use E-mail messages than phones: It's a lot easier for them and they're almost guaranteed a response.

An On-Line Onslaught

If you're wondering why there's a sudden swell in on-line listing services the answer is rather simple. According to Michael Sarfatti, managing partner/vice f18 president of HIA, the virtual tirade of on-line services that is now flooding the Internet wouldn't have been possible only a short time ago. The Internet, the oldest world-wide electronic network, allows file transfers, electronic mail, news and other offerings. The World Wide Web, the system where most information providers can be found on the Internet, was not capable of carrying graphic images until very recently. Two years ago, a group of university graduates from Illinois developed the program Mosaic, which allows graphics and photos to be used on the Web. Last November, the commercial version of Mosaic hit the market, enabling on-line services to offer detailed floor plans, photographs and other graphics to help buyers research an apartment with a computer and modem.

Both HIA and City-Wire's Guide are accessible by modem through IBM and Macintosh interfaces. Sarfatti recommends that your modem have a minimum 14.4 orfor faster performance28.8 baud rate. In order for you to access either HIA or the Guide, you must be sure your on-line service provides access to them. Currently, Prodigy, PSI and Netcom offer entry to programs utilizing the Web, and America Online will be following shortly. Subscribers to these services pay a monthly fee plus an hourly use fee, much like a phone bill. They can also download to your computerfor a feethe software necessary to run World Wide Web. Rates and prices depend on the company you sign up with, ranging from $9 to $12 a month for a specified amount of time spent on the line.

City-Wire's on-line address is http://www.innobits.com/innobits, HIA/Virtual Village is at htpp://www.hia.com/hia and HomeNet is http://www.netprop.com.

Mr. Serken is Associate Editor of The New York Cooperator.

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