First there was and hundreds of start-ups. In 1998, Microsoft entered the fray, and the two-man face-off got bloody. In the end, both were injured beyond recognition. Microsoft went home and Homestore has been licking its wounds since.

In the gap, a few heads-down start-ups began to show form: ServiceMagic, ZipRealty, HomeGain and HouseValues. But generally speaking, the identity of the online industry was muddled.

Last year, Barry Diller jumped in through LendingTree and began buying up tired dot-com assets. His sheer presence put online real estate back in the spotlight.

Friday, the field got more crowded with news about mortgage giant Bank of America and real estate powerhouse Cendant. Both are investing in online real estate enterprises through consumer portals.

Last week, CompleteHome began offering a cash rebate of up to $3,600 to consumers who use a referred agent to sell their existing home and buy a new home – a call from the playbook of Zip and LendingTree.

After a year of development and considerable churn in its online real estate leadership ranks, Bank of America has come out of the closet with a Web-based real estate offer. Ultimately more cautious and guarded in its final rendition under Steve Ozonian’s leadership, Bank of America now lets consumers search local MLS listings in select markets.

The Bank of America Real Estate Center provides access to Multiple Listing Service properties in Las Vegas, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The bank plans to expand the listings to include other cities, including those in other states.

Ozonian’s adeptness at handling industry politics is evident. Just three years ago with listings, Bank of America was vilified and forced to shrink its online offering considerably under pressure from the National Association of Realtors. This time around, the bank is not even using listings.

One thing we know: the real estate market is turning just as the Internet space is heating up. Competition for the hearts and minds of the online consumer should be fierce with the share game among the growing field likely to begin next year.

More consolidation is likely as the new entrants snatch up or partner with the winning business models, where the experience and the grit of converting Web users to transactions goes much deeper.

But in the end, there is no exact formula for real estate success online. If travel is an example of an industry that has figured it out, real estate is an example of one that has not.

We still have lots of questions: like where is RE/MAX’s Dave Liniger? He is rarely a man to miss opportunity.


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