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Idaho Statesman

New Web sites give detailed info to house-hunters

Web sites strive to offer details that only real-estate agents provide

Joe Estrella       The Idaho Statesman | Edition Date: 03-26-2006

Bill Clark
Katherine Jones / The Idaho Statesman

Bill Clark has developed software that combines Google Earth, county property files and MLS data. You can see land, lots, homes, businesses, and farms for sale -- color coded by price range -- with pinpoint accuracy and photographs. "We're visual people," says Clark.

Two new real-estate related Web sites may soon alter the house-hunting habits of Treasure Valley homebuyers.

Created by local real estate professionals, both sites give consumers access to the kind of detailed information on available residential housing that potential buyers have historically depended on their agents to provide.

The two, http://www.earthpoint.us/ and genius realty.com, are part of a nationwide trend that uses the Web to create better-informed consumers.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it replaces real estate agents," says Frank Taylor, whose Earth Goggle Blog reviewed the earthpoint.us site created by Kuna resident Bill Clark. "But it definitely empowers the real estate buyer to do more searching on their own, and it enhances the information available to a buyer."

Alex LaBeau, chief executive officer of the Idaho Association of Realtors, says much of the same information was already available to consumers on realtors.com, or on any real estate broker's Web site.

However, both new sites offer more than just price, square footage and number of bedrooms. They also include everything from the exact location of a home to the number of homes available in that specific area to property boundary lines.

The result: Perspective homebuyers and investors can choose which properties they want to visit from the comfort of their own homes, rather that spending days driving from one location to the next with a real estate agent.

A global view

Bill Clark, a real estate agent with Holland Realty in Boise and developer of http://www.earthpoint.us/, knew he had hit on a better way to distribute real estate data when he discovered Goggle Earth.

Clark spent eight months developing Earth Point, a software that allows consumers to go to his site and download Treasure Valley real estate listings compiled by the Intermountain Multiple Listing Service. The service is free.

The data is delivered in the format created for Goggle Earth, a product launched by Goggle last summer that uses satellite photos to allow a computer user sitting at home to travel the world and get a close-up view of any spot on Earth, whether it's the Pyramids in Egypt or the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

"When I saw Goggle Earth, I realized there was great potential for mapping real estate data," Clark says.

Using the Earth Point software, the potential homebuyer can download Clark's daily updates, then use Goggle Earth software to zoom in on the exact location of any home in the Valley.

Clark says that's what differentiates his software from other real estate-related offerings.

"Most mapping programs find the right street, but the wrong house," he says.

By clicking on one of Clark's icons, the homebuyer gets all the specific MLS information on a listing, including address, price, square footage, specifics on number of bedrooms and bathrooms, acreage and location of the subdivision.

It can also display all the homes in the surrounding area that are in the consumer's price range.

Each home is color-coded by price, with icons that denote whether it is a new listing.

Another facet of the site is the use of information obtained from county assessors to outline the exact boundaries of the property.

This allows the viewer to know which side of the street the house sits on, whether it has a northern or southern exposure, whether the yard is large or small, Clark says.

"Which would you rather do: know this before you left the house, or drive all the way across town, not sure about what you are going to find when you get there?"

Another example, he says, would be the person coming from out of town to work at Hewlett-Packard.

"Online, they can see if the house they're looking at is near HP, which is not possible with a paper-based system," Clark said.

In addition to residential real estate, earthpoint.us also downloads data on land, farms, ranches and commercial property for sale in the Valley.

In the review for his Goggle Earth Blog, Taylor said Clark's site "shows more information, and with more accuracy, than any other real estate listing service I've seen to date." He said the site allows buyers "to make better choices about location, and helps them discover new information about the real estate they are evaluating."

Clark entered the real estate business eight months ago after a career that included 11 years using computer software to monitor the manufacturing process at the J.R. Simplot Co., and a stint at HP Germany spent developing a way to test 300,000 financial transactions a day.

Holding data hostage

Henrich Wiebe and Matt Newbill
Darin Oswald / The Idaho Statesman

Henrich Wiebe and Matt Newbill embrace mobile technology in their recent start-up venture Genius Realty in Boise. Their truck is outfitted with wireless broadband allowing them to access an Internet-based network of properties for clients on the road. With a fax and printer in the truck and the two take their office with them while showing clients a new property.

Heinrich Wiebe, co-founder of Genius Realty, says the real estate industry has held consumers "hostage" long enough.

Wiebe believes consumers would take more responsibility for finding a new home if they did not have to depend on an agent for access to information.

"Real estate is all about data," he says. "But the real estate industry wants to hold on to the old business model, which requires that you choose a real estate agent in order to gain access to the data."

Wiebe says leaving all the information with the agent is not always in the consumer's best interest.

For example, an agent might choose to withhold certain listings from the customers.

"Suppose the seller is only offering a 3 percent commission, of which 1.5 percent would go to your agent. He might not let you see that listing," Wiebe said.

The geniusrealty.com site he and partner Matt Newbill launched earlier this week offers all the same information available on the local MSL site that is currently only provided to local real estate agents.

"We don't require that somebody be a member," Wiebe says. "They don't have to log on or have a password."

Greg Manship, director of the Intermountain MLS, says posting area home listings on a Web site is not new, but concedes that Web sites like earthpoint.us and geniusrealty.com are offering consumers more through the use of new mapping technology.

"The concept of putting listings on Web sites has been around for a while, but these sites are adding a lot," Manship said.

Wiebe says consumers can use listings on geniusrealty.com to do the preliminary legwork involved with finding a home, which means an agent is only required to gain entrance to a house the customer wants to tour and for the subsequent paperwork involved in a sale.

Hailey McKnight, a mother of two whose husband spends most of his time on the road installing ATM machines at banks, had been entrusted with the job of finding the couple a new home during one of Bill McKnight's road trips.

Using geniusrealty.com, she pinpointed four homes she was interested in visiting, and had a bid down on a 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom home in Meridian in less than two weeks.

"All the information I needed was right there on the site, including a map of the area and details about schools, which was very important," McKnight says.

Weibe says in today's market, where a home can be listed and sold the same day, it's critical that an agent be able to meet a customer at a home.

To speed the process, he and Newbill operate out of a van equipped with high-speed Internet access, wireless communication, fax, copying and printing capabilities.

When a customer calls with a request to see a house, they try to be there within minutes with all the necessary information to strike a deal.

"The buyer can be ready to make an offer right away," he says.

In cases where the buyer has done most of the legwork in finding a home, and only needed to visit one location, Genius Realty is willing to rebate a percentage of its commission to the client.

"Say the seller is offering a 6 percent commission, which we would get 3 percent. We would be willing to give 1 percent back to the client," Weibe says.

Fighting the system

Wiebe believes the real estate industry is trying to undermine companies that use the Internet to sell homes.

"The old guard is desperately trying to protect the old system," he says. "It knows that otherwise agents will have to work harder in order to justify their commissions."

The U.S. Justice Department apparently agrees.

Last September, the DOJ filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors, alleging that group was restraining competition by "requiring NAR-affiliated MLSs to adopt rules that will allow brokers to withhold their clients' listings from other brokers' Web sites by means of an opt out."

Wiebe says the Intermountain MLS gives area real estate agents the option of refusing to have one of their listings transmitted to a third party that will share the information with the public. Because of that, not all of the available listings in the Valley can be found on geniusrealty.com, Wiebe said.

The federal lawsuit said the opt-out provision prevents Web-based brokers from providing all MLS listings that correspond to a customer's search, effectively inhibiting the new technology.

LaBeau, head of the Ada County Association of Realtors, dismisses the notion that the industry has withheld information from the public in order to maintain control of the market.

"We've embraced the Internet because we believe that an informed consumer is a good consumer."

Even with more and more real estate information available to the public, LaBaeu says the process of buying a home "is more than just information" and that real estate professionals are needed to help guide prospective homebuyers.

"You're talking about a substantial investment that is extremely complicated legally," he said. "You need somebody to help you navigate the process.

"For example, a lot of people don't know how to approach the offer process. That's when you need an experienced agent to help you determine what's a fair offer, and what to ask for. Because of the legal complexities involved with buying a home, there were will always be a role for the local Treasure Valley real estate professional."