Don’t count newspapers out of the online property listings market.

Chicago-based Classified Ventures LLC, which is owned by six major media companies, is working to establish a stronger Web presence for newspapers’ home listings.

Homescape, a division of Classified Ventures, has been tinkering for the past year with Homescape.com, a site that functions as a national portal for newspapers’ property listings. There are mirror sites at HomeHunter.com and NewHomeNetwork.com.

“There has been a lot of growth over the last several years in the traffic and the usage on the real estate side, and a lot of growth recently,” said Sam Sebastian, senior vice president and general manager for Homescape. “In my opinion, newspapers haven’t really been focused as closely on this segment as they should have been.”

He added, “Increasingly, it appears 2005 is going to be the year we really focus on real estate. Our newspapers are right in the fray – when the time is right, they will be right where they need to be.”

Homescape has a focus on improving listings content for its affiliated newspapers across the country, he said, though Homescape is keeping its options open “to see if we want to reconnect this network of disconnected sites.”

A group of about 110 newspapers in about 40 states are affiliated with Homescape through a handful of media companies: Belo Corp., Gannett Co., Knight Ridder, The McClatchy Company, Tribune Company and The Washington Post Co.

Each newspaper now operates a separate database for property listings, and Homescape works to support content for those disconnected databases. Homescape works to consolidate listings for new homes, existing homes, for-sale-by-owner homes, open houses and MLS listings in each local newspaper market. In some cases the local newspapers have relationships with local brokers and MLSs.

“Our newspapers are responsible for working with local MLSs and local brokers and procuring listings, and we take over and manage all that data,” Sebastian said. Some of the newspaper companies have standardized listings so that the listings are displayed in the same format at various newspapers’ Web sites, he said.

Classified Ventures also operates national listing sites for rental units and autos at Apartments.com and Cars.com, though for-sale home listings are more fragmented and local by nature, Sebastian said.

During the dot-com boom, Classified Ventures did push toward a national home listings model but later pulled back – “we got out of it because it was way too expensive,” he said.

“The question is: What is the listings play going forward at the national level and how will newspapers play in it? I don’t think we have the answer. I think we are well positioned to jump in the game quickly if it makes sense,” Sebastian said. “A lot will depend upon how the market goes.”

The Homescape.com home page offers a national home search through a clickable map, mortgage rates, real estate news articles, and links to pre-qualified buyer’s agents, a home valuation tool, mortgage pre-qualification tools, a moving-company search, and special offers from advertisers.

Real estate and brokers are asked whether they want to join the Web site to receive leads from home buyers and sellers, get listings exposure through the site’s map, and place state-targeted text ads on the site.

While the Web site is a live site, there hasn’t been a huge marketing campaign to back up the effort, he said. “We don’t have a big message going out to brokers. We don’t really know what it’s going to become,” Sebastian said.

There are no immediate plans to consolidate all of the individual newspaper sites’ property listings at a single site, as with the National Association of Realtors-affiliated Realtor.com model, Sebastian said.

Homescape manages about 500,000 to 600,000 listings for its affiliates at any given time, and about 40 percent to 50 percent of the company’s affiliates have deals to display some or all of the local MLS property listings.

If local brokers and MLSs resist sharing of their property listings, that could be a barrier to any consolidation of listings in some markets, Sebastian said. “Until that all shakes out and everyone is convinced, ‘Hey, get the listings out there — it’s good for everyone,’ there is really going to be this quandary.”

He said that online property listings are not yet a major source of advertising revenue for newspapers. “Could it be? Yes.”

Homescape is not alone in growing its online property listings business. The New York Times, which handles about 150,000 to 200,000 property listings, “has seen a significant increase in online listings” said Ken Green, group director of real estate advertising sales for The New York Times Co.

The New York Times’ real estate Web site features listings in the New York City area, the Tri-State area, which includes New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and other locations across the country, including Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wyoming.

Data maps are available for some areas that detail median house prices, income levels, population density and other community features. Consumers can review news articles as they peruse the property listings.

“The tools are pretty strong. What we’ve seen is a growth in the use of all of our tools,” Green said. There are an estimated 1 million unique visitors a month to the New York Times’ real estate site, he added. The company works directly with real estate brokers, agents and agencies to provide online property listings content. “We have about 150 individual agency relationships,” he said.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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