Editor’s note: The hottest housing boom in U.S. history has resulted in a newfound obsession with real estate. Home listings information is everywhere, home television shows have exploded, and everyone’s talking about the sale price of their neighbor’s house. This three-part series examines the trend, what is behind it and what it all means.

Editor’s note: The hottest housing boom in U.S. history has resulted in a newfound obsession with real estate. Home listings information is everywhere, home television shows have exploded, and everyone’s talking about the sale price of their neighbor’s house. This three-part series examines the trend, what is behind it and what it all means. (See Part 1:There’s no escape from real estate and Part 3: Hot housing market draws opera singers, engineers.)

Kristin Wall is obsessed with keeping her eyes peeled for that perfect real estate “steal.” The Florida resident habitually surfs and clicks home listings on the Web even though she’s admittedly happy in the house she bought just two years ago.

Wall’s obsession for online real estate stems from her experience with Buyowner.com, the for-sale-by-owner Web site where she found her home. She still surfs the site to satisfy her curiosity about what’s on the market, and prefers to browse those listings with virtual tours first.

In 1994, there were no home listings available online. Today, there are more than 2 million for-sale listings available on Realtor.com alone. And home shoppers don’t have to wait until the local real estate office opens to check them out. They can log on to the Internet in their homes to see what’s new on the block.They can even take a virtual peak inside some of these homes in just a few clicks of the mouse.

The pervasiveness of real estate information on the Internet has created a phenomenon in which now about 20 million people are browsing home listings each month. By comparison, about 29 million people watched the last episode of Fox reality TV show, “American Idol.” Before listings came online, real estate offices would never have been able to handle such volume of inquiries.

With multiple digital photos and virtual tours, home listings are much more interesting to look at than the old black-and-white newspaper ads and MLS printout sheets that could be viewed onlyinside a real estate office. Realty agents have taken advantage of the craze by beefing up listings on their Web sites and offering free MLS searches on their home pages.

What are people saying about real estate in your market? Take a survey.

Given the hot housing market, everyone wants to know how much their home is worth, how much the house down the street sold for and what its kitchen and bedrooms look like. The Internet makes it easier than ever to do that.

Some companies have even built successful business models around people’s obsession with real estate. For example, HouseValues’ Web site attracts prospective home sellers with the promise of a free estimate of their home’s value. Sellers must fill out a request form, which is forwarded to a real estate agent who will later contact them. HouseValues’ JustListed.com Web site lures prospective buyers by offering free e-mail updates to alert them when homes matching their criteria come on the market.

That real-time availability of new listings information has made real estate less of an insider business and more of a common sport. Bill Grady, an independent broker with Grady Realty in the San Francisco Bay Area, remembers a time when only brokers had the inside track on a hot property about to go on the market.

And back then, it was first-come, first-served. Now, it’s common for sellers to hold out on accepting offers for a week or two because they’ll end up getting 12 competing offers, Grady said.

“There are so many eyeballs on each piece of property for sale on the Internet. It used to be just brokers and agents were aware of listings, but now there are very few secrets,” he said.

Deals on real estate properties used to be much more exclusive. People from title companies or lenders often would tip off brokers about upcoming forced sales, but since the Internet that’s not happening as often.

“Now the client, if he’s Internet educated, is going to know what’s going on or even more,” Grady said.

And with the Internet, more people can be voyeurs–and buyers–of real estate in other countries. Imagine the time and travel costs it would take to purchase real estate across oceans without first being able to browse properties online. Grady mentioned a friend who was selling a house in Phuket, Thailand. He marketed the property online and sold it to a couple from the Greek island Cypress in just a few weeks.

People are talking about real estate as much they are researching it online. Joe Breckner, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Studio City in Southern California, has noticed the real estate buzz intensify in his market.

“I’ve always joked that if you went to a restaurant and eavesdropped on five tables, at least one would be talking about the value of their homes. Nowadays, it’s two,” he said.

Breckner is impressed with the amount of Web research relocation clients do before moving to a new city. He once had a client relocating from New York to California who’d done such thorough research before he arrived that he immediately recognized the houses he was interested in as they were driving around.

With such reliance on online listings, real estate agents’ Web sites are now as vital to their business as their car or professional appearance. Bonnie Russell, a publicist with 1st-Pick.com who works with realty agents, thinks the quality of a Web site also is important to lure prospective clients.

“People have to have great Web sites. They can’t have bad Web sites, because if they do they aren’t paying attention to market realities,” she said.

Tomorrow: New sales agents from other professions flood real estate industry.  

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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