Editor’s note: Ten years ago, the first home listings were put on the Internet. In this special Inman News series, our editorial team explores the implications of this decade of online experimenting, investing and haggling.

Ten years have passed since real estate debuted on the Internet. Much has been gained and much has been improved during this decade in cyberspace, but just as much has been lost or has yet to be accomplished. The Internet provides vast quantities of information and accelerates communication, but it also provokes controversy, creates anxiety, violates privacy and deadens interpersonal relationships.

The most radical change from the perspective of real estate has been the display of for-sale homes information on Web sites. That has been beneficial for home buyers and sellers in the abstract, but too much of the information is still inaccurate, incomplete or outdated. And the unseemly in-fighting among brokers over the display of listings data on Web sites has resulted in more than mere embarrassment for the industry in the public eye. It’s also indirectly led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the National Association of Realtors’ virtual office Web site policy, the outcome of which may well be another black mark against Realtors.

The Web also contains a lot of information about real estate services and the process of buying and selling a home. Again, that’s beneficial, but also again, too much of the information is very badly flawed. Consumers are deceived by questionable real estate advice, inundated with supposed “facts” about home-buying and selling and flooded with cleverly disguised sales pitches. Straight talk, full and clear disclosure and hard truth are in short supply. The Web offers too much information that is deliberately misleading, unfortunately confusing or just plain wrong.

Has the Web revolutionized your business? Take a survey.

The greatest promise of the Web was that it would simplify real estate transactions and create efficiencies that would lower transaction costs.

Web-based transaction management systems have made some progress toward those objectives and the Internet has contributed in various direct and indirect ways to the downward pressure on realty commissions, but real gains toward a simpler and less costly process have been pitifully small compared with the enormity of the task and the greatness of the need.

Nor has the promise of the Internet as a vast new space for real estate-related e-commerce been fulfilled. Some of the new online business models have thrived and some of them provide worthwhile new business processes and opportunities.

But overall, Web-based real estate businesses have attracted more controversy and created more angst than they actually merit. Their modest successes haven’t lived up to the hype or generated large enough returns to justify the huge sums of money, large amounts of time, big quantities of innovative ideas and extraordinary entrepreneurial effort that have been invested in the online real estate space.

Other dismal failures of the Internet in general include the sad lack of privacy protections and the truly horrifying explosion of junk e-mail.

Reputable Web site operators have posted privacy policies on their Web sites, but the protections such policies typically afford Internet users are woefully slim. Personal information is rarely secured or safeguarded and more likely is reused for other undisclosed purposes or even packaged and sold to other companies for whatever use they might design. Consumers have lost control of their own names, addresses, telephone numbers and other personal data. Identity theft, a nefarious crime that hardly existed before the Internet, is now a very serious threat.

Then there’s spam, the Black Plague of the Internet age. Legitimate e-mail messages have been drowned like a few raindrops in a vast ocean of unwanted messages. Filters can’t keep up with the thousands of spam solicitations, and sorting e-mail is now so time-consuming that the efficiencies of electronic communication have essentially evaporated. Real estate companies and businesspeople aren’t pushing cheap pharmaceuticals, pirated software applications or online dating services, but they generate at least their fair share of junk e-mail. When it comes to spam, it’s all bad.

The Internet allows people to get information–and lots of it–almost instantaneously, but much of the information could be found just as easily elsewhere or is in fact unnecessary. The bad jokes and heavy-handed commentaries that are forwarded again and again until everyone on the ‘Net has received them a dozen times are just one example of this burdensome information overload.

But perhaps the most glaring failure of the Internet is that it has pushed aside the common courtesies that used to grease the wheels of daily life and smooth over the roughness of interpersonal communication. That failure extends well beyond the boundaries of real estate, but it’s nonetheless equally evident in the personal and professional dealings of people who are involved in real estate businesses and transactions.

The Internet enables people to communicate with one another much faster and much more easily than they could with older technologies. But too much of this informal communication is ill conceived, ineffective and even boorish or rude.

It’s a sad side effect of technology when communication disintegrates into one-sentence or even one-word messages that lack any personal warmth, not to mention the barest politeness of the now seemingly old-fashioned salutation and signature.

The Internet has transformed not only real estate, but also the wider realms of information and communication. Much has been gained, but did we really want a world in which next-door neighbors send one another e-mail messages instead of chatting pleasantly over the backyard fence?


What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to opinion@inman.com.

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