Thursday, April 06, 2006

Fixer realty sites, million-dollar potential

Several widely celebrated new web sites are out to bring the miracle of frictionless commerce to the daunting task of shopping for a new home.

Some day, these sites, or something quite like them, will revolutionize the real estate business by completely eliminating the need for agents – or at least squeezing their commissions to a few hundred bucks from the 5% they cheerfully collect for peddling million-dollar fixers here in San Francisco, the Bubble by the Bay.

While agents ought to be concerned about the long-term threat to what must be the world's second-oldest profession, they can rest easy for now. The quality of the consumer experience at the online realty sites is so sketchy, so incomplete and often so utterly wrong as to make them nearly useless. If the operators of these "services" don't fix them, they will be squandering a most excellent opportunity.

Since I, like everyone else, am in the market for a million-dollar fixer I can turn into a $1.5 million showplace with a few tasteful touch-ups, I was motivated by an article in today’s Wall Street Journal to take a look at Propsmart.Com, Oodle.Com, Trulia.Com and Zillow.Com.

Of the group, Propsmart is the most worthless. Listings for nonexistent San Francisco addresses showed up in Marin County on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. A click on a link sent me to a listing on Craig's List that expired in February, which is equivalent to a prehistoric epoch in Internet and real estate time.

Data at Oodle is so thin that there's no point in consulting it. Next.

Trulia seems to be the best of a mediocre breed. Although the data seems limited to a few sources, at least the houses are in the right county and links actually worked. Pictures and selling prices of previously sold houses are archived; that's a great feature.

Zillow is nifty if you are lucky enough to stumble onto a listing that's in its database. The problem is that this has happened only once out of perhaps a dozen times in my experience.

I understand the urgency that entrepreneurs feel to grab land quickly in the online real estate rush. But these creaking fixers are going to need a lot more than a fresh coat of paint.