Millions of people are clicking on real estate URLs and searching millions of homes on the Internet. The number of Web sites offering direct access to the MLS has proliferated nearly as fast as the number of people searching the Web for houses. The MLS genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back.

Millions of people are clicking on real estate URLs and searching millions of homes on the Internet. The number of Web sites offering direct access to the MLS has proliferated nearly as fast as the number of people searching the Web for houses. The MLS genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back. This four-part series looks at how the event will forever change the real estate industry. (See Part 1: Listings on the Web: From radical idea to ubiquity.)

The three founders of Katabat were frustrated home buyers in Chicago who found it difficult to access for-sale listings. One of the founders obtained a real estate license, and they built a tool that sent out e-mail updates about new listings to friends.

Other realty agents quickly heard about the service and wanted to know if the group could build something similar for their companies. After researching the market, Katabat launched about three and a half years ago, marketing to brokerages.

“Our focus has been how can real estate companies do a better job using their Web sites as a tool for business development,” CEO Eric Antonow said.

The MLS genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back. It has created a real estate marketing explosion and also a quagmire for an industry that for 100 years held listing data with a tight grip. But for firms that innovate, the Internet listings phenomenon has brought about a horde of opportunities developing applications and technologies that use MLS data in innovative ways.

Some companies have focused on using listing information to help brokers and agents perform more efficiently. Others have used listings to create new ways for consumers to access the information. And yet others have taken the accessibility to a whole new level.

Katabat focuses on real estate brokerages, and pulls data from the MLS and then provides it to broker Web sites where consumers can access the information.

Although listings are what drew the company into the real estate technology field, it now provides a range of services including building, managing and maintaining broker Web sites. The company also provides back-end lead management tools.

Much of the initial Web site traffic comes from home buyers who want to see listings, Antonow said, but the company’s challenge is to help brokers convert that interest into a viable customer. That comes by adding features beyond listings since consumers now expect that data to be available everywhere, he said.

ScreenDreamer also initially started by providing access to listings. The New Jersey-based company began as an IDX (Internet data exchange) and broker reciprocity service provider, and now also creates the consumer Web interface and offers marketing for real estate firms.

The company announced a new feature that will help agents and brokers capture, convert and close Web leads, said Billy Martin, VP of marketing. In short, the company tries to drive traffic to the agent and broker Web sites and then manages the lead process.

Marin County, Calif.-based CleanOffer gathers its homes-for-sale information directly from the local MLS and takes it to a new level. Only authorized subscribers to the local MLS and acknowledged clients of those subscribers can access the information via CleanOffer. Consumers who can access the MLS data also can receive e-mail alerts when new listings that meet their criteria become available, and when price or status changes on properties they are interested in are updated.

Agents who use CleanOffer also can receive e-mail notifications of properties matching their clients’ criteria. Agents can view their clients’ home search activity, look at what searches their clients have performed and saved, their favorite properties and how many times they’ve logged onto the system. The company offers agents reports showing activity for properties they have listed.

CleanOffer bills itself as a password-protected client-relationship management tool, not a public Web site. Still, the company’s ability to make information accessible to select consumers is a result of listings being more widely available than in the past.

Philadelphia-based Smarter Agent is another company that makes listings more accessible to consumers. But with Smarter Agent, consumers don’t have to be clients of agents who use the company, and they aren’t limited to MLS information via the Internet. The company offers listings information via handheld devices and cell phones.

The idea is that buyers will spot for-sale homes while driving around various neighborhoods, then connect to the Smarter Agent service using a Web-enabled cell phone or PDA device while in front of the property. The service detects the caller’s location via satellite-based Global Positioning System, then relays the property information back to the caller in real time.

Real estate shoppers can find out the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, most recent sale price and year the home was last sold. The service is available in the Philadelphia region, and the company plans to expand into a dozen more states.

Another company innovating on the listings front is Just Snooping, which offers virtual tours for brokers and agents to display on their Web sites or a CD-ROM. Visitors to Just Snooping’s Web site can enter the type of property they’re interested in, as well as location, price range and other details, and the site displays all properties with virtual tours that meet those criteria. Consumers also can view those virtual tours on agents’ Web sites.

The company was founded in 2001 by a Realtor, and now provides its virtual tours and Web site services to more than 30,000 real estate agents in the United States and Canada. Just Snooping’s next move is to offer 360-degree virtual tours.

Another innovation spawned from home listings online is the ability to search properties using maps. Real estate brokerage company Windermere this year launched a feature that enables consumers to search listings using map coordinates and visual landmarks. With the PropertyPoint feature, home shoppers can “click and zoom” to identify listings in a favorite region, neighborhood or one single block. Users also can take a virtual drive through selected search areas and view homes that match their personal criteria on a map. This map can be zoomed in and out to reveal landmarks, bodies of water and even parks and schools in proximity to a particular home.

A free service to real estate agents, Realbird from DonationChannel, also lets visitors view aerial photos and topographic maps of any U.S. location or point of interest. Maps are provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, and DonationChannel organizes them in a Web-clickable form that allows users to map any U.S. area, and zoom in, zoom out and pan to navigate the map.

For a fee, DonationChannel also will incorporate listings, lead-collection data and other Java and Flash visualization tools on an agent’s Web site.

RedFin is another company revolutionizing the way consumer shop for homes. The company uses aerial imaging to enable home shoppers to start high and zoom in on particular regions. Consumers can perform basic searches for resale properties, new construction and condos or look by specific MLS numbers.

In addition to the new generation of technology companies, all of the online real estate companies are finding their greatest successes with listings solutions. Central to IPO-ready ZipRealty’s success is its ability to process buyers through its home listing technology. The fastest growing product for HouseValues is its Just Listed product, and HomeGain’s Buyer Link accounts for most of its growth.

In addition, the big portals and search engines are maximizing the proliferation of listing solutions available to the consumers.

Bart Allen Wilson, chief marketing officer for Voyager 360, a real estate marketing company, said that while some consumers use Realtor.com to find homes, other search sites such as Google, Yahoo!, AOL and MSN are popular with prospective home buyers who are searching for properties and agents. He cited Web page referral statistics for one of his clients, which showed that more than 40 percent of visitors to the client’s real estate site came from Google searches, while Realtor.com referrals did not show up on the top 10 list. Wilson said that high visibility on search engine sites is important to driving consumers to view homes online.

Voyager 360 recently launched a new real estate listings marketing system for agent and broker Web sites that enables them to syndicate their listings on real estate-related Web sites in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. The Listings Syndicator lets brokers using the Voyager 360 Web site service select any listing they want to be pushed out to the company’s network of more than 1,000 Web sites. In return, brokers can display listings from other markets on their Web sites.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to samantha@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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