Consumers appreciate public property-search Web sites set up by multiple listing services, though such sites remain a divisive issue for industry professionals, according to a report released today by WAV Group, a real estate consulting company.

The "MLS Consumer Website Effectiveness Study" highlighted HAR.com, a popular real estate search site created by the Houston Association of Realtors, and gathered consumer and Realtor input about public MLS sites.

Consumers appreciate public property-search Web sites set up by multiple listing services, though such sites remain a divisive issue for industry professionals, according to a report released today by WAV Group, a real estate consulting company.

The "MLS Consumer Website Effectiveness Study" highlighted HAR.com, a popular real estate search site created by the Houston Association of Realtors, and gathered consumer and Realtor input about public MLS sites.

Citing a 2007 MLS Technology Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors trade group’s Center for Real Estate Technology, the WAV Group study noted that there has been a shift of Realtor sentiment in favor of public MLS Web sites.

While 34 percent of Realtors in the center’s 2006 survey said they supported MLS public Web sites, that share grew to 52 percent in the 2007 survey.

Realtors opposed to public MLS sites have complained that MLS Web sites compete with Realtor Web sites, diminish the value of a Realtor and don’t supply many leads, for example, and the study offers a counterpoint to these worries.

The group’s research shows that consumers "do not agree that MLS consumer Web sites decrease the value of a Realtor. They felt just the opposite."

About 92 percent of respondents in the consumer survey said they appreciated the opportunity to narrow down a search at an MLS site before working with a Realtor, and 30 percent said they used HAR.com to help find an agent that they ultimately chose to work with.

That survey was based on responses from 403 consumers who registered at the HAR.com site within the past six months of the survey’s distribution in October 2007.

Unlike some MLSs, the Houston association markets and invests heavily in its public MLS portal at HAR.com.

HAR.com had 1 million unique visitors in January 2008 and about 1.2 billion total hits, according to the report, and the site receives an estimated 130,000 visitors to the site each day, on average.

Also, the average visitor viewed 21 detailed listing pages and spent nine minutes on the site during each visit. In 2006, the site generated about 566,000 leads for HAR members, or about 22 leads per member for the year.

And a major real estate broker in the region received about 160,000 leads in one year, according to the report.

ComScore Media Metrix, a company that provides Web metrics data, reported that HAR.com attracted 57 percent of the total real estate Web traffic in that region in January, followed by Yahoo Real Estate at 12 percent and Realtor.com at 7 percent.

In Dallas, meanwhile, a market without a dominant public MLS Web site, the traffic was widely divided: Realtor.com had 14 percent of the traffic, followed by Yahoo Real Estate with 11 percent, Homes.com with 10 percent, Ebby.com (a broker site) at 9 percent, and Trulia.com with 9 percent.

Bob Hale, president and CEO for the Houston Association of Realtors and an outspoken advocate of public MLS sites, said he is encouraged by the study, particularly the finding that such sites allow consumers to do their own research while facilitating a connection with Realtors when they are ready.

He said some of the largest MLSs in the country are investing more in their public search sites. He noted that SoCal MLS in Southern California has a public Web site. And Washington, D.C.-area MRIS, the largest MLS in the country, "is in the process of upgrading tremendously their public Web site."

He added, "We’re starting to see brokers buy into the idea." The WAV Group report states that about 350 MLSs, or 40 percent of all MLSs, operate consumer Web sites.

While Hale said major MLS public sites can grow in popularity and consolidate just as MLSs have consolidated, he believes there will still be room for Realtor.com. That site, operated by Move Inc. through an agreement with the National Association of Realtors, aggregates property data from MLSs across the country. "I think there’s room for both — I don’t see it as Realtor.com or HAR.com," he said.

About 93 percent of HAR.com registered users said the site was the primary site they use to look for Houston-area properties, and most respondents said they prefer that site because it "has all Houston listings," according to the WAV Group survey.

Among the improvements that consumers said they wanted to see at the site, mapping topped the list. "They want to map everything — active listings, sold listings, open houses, schools, other points of interest," according to the survey.

They also asked for data on foreclosures, recently and past sales, and property details such as tax information and homeowners association costs, among other recommendations.

The report recommends that the most important feature "by far is property search" for public MLS search sites. "The property-search feature needs to be the key focal point of the site."

The group also recommends the overuse of Realtor branding to differentiate the sites from third-party Web sites, to avoid user-registration requirements, and to include auto-e-mail functionality, such as alerts. Also, the group recommends that these sites allow consumers to connect easily with Realtors.

"WAV Group believes that MLS consumer Web sites are a meaningful and relevant tool that can serve the needs of the Realtor by increasing exposure to listings and creating a direct connection with consumers interested in buying and selling homes," the report concludes.

The consulting group, which works with MLSs, Realtor associations, brokerage firms and technology vendors, lists the National Association of Realtors Center for Realtor Technology, MRIS, Fidelity National Information Systems, Threewide Corp. and Rapattoni among its clients.


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