By NANCY GARCIA

Shopping for homes can be recreational.

A lot of organizing by party-planners, a little spontaneity on the part of shoppers, and games to inspire good-old-fashioned mingling may be a win-win-win combination for real estate.

That’s what Homefinder.com CEO Tim Fagan found when his online listing service teamed with an Atlanta brokerage and local businesses to create a competition for a $20,000 downpayment.

The Sept. 25 "Race for the Home" event, planned and executed by gaming platform SCVNGR, essentially converted 50 open houses into a virtual game board. Competitors downloaded challenges at each location.

Simple challenges included asking a question of the open-house agent, counting amenities, or snapping a photo of tea in a sunroom.

After three hours, the nearly 500 contestants gathered in a brewpub to cool down and learn who achieved winning scores. Runners-up received prizes, such as T-shirts or sports tickets.

The winning couple, newlyweds Adam and Erin Jones, had been referred by their agent at Prudential Georgia Realty. The brokerage provided the listings and served as one of the local promoters.

"We’re doing it for mindshare and brand awareness," said Fagan. Sellers benefited by having more people see their homes at the tail end of the open-house season. Agents met qualified prospective customers and gained contact information. Participants scoured the metro area, learning its neighborhoods a little better.

For the younger shoppers and agents, using the technology is simply a part of normal everyday functioning. With one-third of homebuyers in the market for a first home, Fagan figures he’s targeted the young adults who may have grown up gaming and who respond to the concept of making the great challenge of seeking a home purchase a little bit of a fun and a lot of adventure.

Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research said such activities reflect a growing mobile economy in which, he says, "Customers are more empowered than they ever have been before."

Fagan agrees. "The walls to gardens of information have come down," he says. "It makes a Realtor’s job tougher." Not only do real estate professionals have to know the local market, they also have to act as a consultative partner to clients, encouraging them to make decisions.

More and more, Bernoff says, influential customers in all sectors will be the ones employing mobile technology. For that reason, Fagan is factoring mobile access into site and product development.

Bernoff’s snapshot of the most influential customer is someone whose average age is 32, who earns almost $100,000 annually, and who is twice as likely as the general public to use the mobile Internet. About 50 percent of these influencers use mobile devices, compared to just 25 percent of the general public.

Nancy Garcia is a freelance writer in California.

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