Bank of America’s new Real Estate Center Web site, which features a map where consumers can click through to local for-sale home listings, to some people might look a lot like a bank cuddling closer to the real estate brokerage business.

Bank of America’s new Real Estate Center Web site, which features a map where consumers can click through to local for-sale home listings, to some people might look a lot like a bank cuddling closer to the real estate brokerage business. But BofA refutes that idea, describing what it’s doing as partnering with brokerages.

“None of this is an attempt to acquire or own a brokerage company,” said Steve Ozonian, BofA’s national home-ownership services executive.

Ozonian believes BofA’s new Real Estate Center doesn’t add any punches to the debate over whether banks should be allowed to enter the real estate brokerage business. But it places the bank a little closer to that coveted first point of contact in a real estate transaction.

A disclaimer at the bottom of the Real Estate Center Web site attempts to make the bank’s position clear. It reads: “Bank of America does not engage in the brokerage of real estate properties.” The disclaimer, which Ozonian said is meant to alert consumers that BofA doesn’t own the real estate brokerage companies, shows up again throughout the site.

The Real Estate Center’s listings are provided through the bank’s preferred network of real estate brokers. So far, the bank has partnered with RE/MAX Premier Realty in Tucson, Ariz., Century 21 Award in San Diego and RE/MAX Advantage in Las Vegas. The bank plans to expand the listings to include other cities, including those in other states, and eventually aims to have a national presence, Ozonian said.

In selecting partners, BofA looks for brokerages that are well recognized in their local areas for providing high-quality services, that can effectively handle Internet real estate activities and don’t get into litigation trouble. The brokerages also should have a history of maintaining and growing market share, Ozonian said.

The bank isn’t just targeting large brokerages, Ozonian said, but is looking for those that have the resources to partner.

Bank of America doesn’t pay brokerages to be partners, nor does the bank receive any money from the partners, according to Ozonian. There are no referral fees attached to the Real Estate Center. With 16 million unique visitors to its Web site each month, BofA doesn’t need to attract more consumers.

“We don’t have to go out and buy eyeballs–we already have them,” Ozonian said.

The new feature also puts BofA closer to the point of purchase, a fact pointed out in the company’s announcement of the new Web site last week. The bank has millions of customers who move every year, Ozonian said, and they visit banking centers and the Web site in search of more information and help with the home ownership process.

Lenders spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get as close as possible to the point of purchase in the real estate transaction. Many large banks attempt to access the consumer by leveraging their brand, rather than referrals from real estate agents. Many have branches throughout the country where borrowers can apply for mortgages, or set up their Web sites so people can apply for mortgages online.

Companies other than banks also are getting in on the action. Smarter Agent, for example, launched its “First Access for Banks” service this summer. Through the service, bank customers can shop for houses through a link to a Smarter Agent Web site that includes all homes on the Multiple Listing Service.

Bank of America’s new Real Estate Center is the bank’s second attempt to offer its borrowers access to home listings. In 2001, BofA launched the Home Solutions Web site, and had a multi-year marketing agreement with online real estate giant Homestore. Under the agreement, Homestore was to provide property listings and other information for the Home Solutions Web site, but Homestore pulled its listings a week after the announcement.

Things are different this time around, Ozonian said. In 2001, the controversy centered around Homestore making the entire MLS database available on BofA’s Web site. Now, the bank is working directly with brokers rather than going through a centralized source like Homestore.

Consumers can access home listings through broker Web sites, which either use Internet data exchange or a virtual office Web site format. The bank doesn’t meddle in that part at all; it only directs consumers toward those sites, Ozonian said.

“We’re just saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Consumer, if you want to look at listings we know a broker who is a partner of ours,'” Ozonian said.

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