Visits to real estate websites have jumped 27 percent in the past year, with much of that increase driven by consumer interest in rentals, according to a webinar by Web metrics firm Experian Hitwise.

"Folks are looking for rental properties quite a bit. (There is) not as much activity, unfortunately, around houses for sale," said Heather Dougherty, research director at Hitwise.

Hitwise reported a 27 percent rise in traffic to real estate-related websites in February, to a 0.48 percent market share among all websites tracked — the highest level since the first half of 2009.

Searches including the phrase "houses for rent" have been surpassing searches of "houses for sale" for about a year, Dougherty said. Visits to sites that specialize in home and apartment rentals climbed 33 percent last month compared to February 2010.

Visits to real estate websites have jumped 27 percent in the past year, with much of that increase driven by consumer interest in rentals, according to a webinar by Web metrics firm Experian Hitwise.

"Folks are looking for rental properties quite a bit. (There is) not as much activity, unfortunately, around houses for sale," said Heather Dougherty, research director at Hitwise.

Hitwise reported a 27 percent rise in traffic to real estate-related websites in February, to a 0.48 percent market share among all websites tracked — the highest level since the first half of 2009.

Searches including the phrase "houses for rent" have been surpassing searches of "houses for sale" for about a year, Dougherty said. Visits to sites that specialize in home and apartment rentals climbed 33 percent last month compared to February 2010.

Of all real estate-related websites, traffic to FrontDoor Real Estate jumped the most year-over-year in February, from 0.38 percent market share in February 2010 to 4.49 percent last month. That jump was largely due to a sweepstakes, the HGTV Dream Home Giveaway, which ended in mid-February.

"It definitely goes to show what a contest can do for you," Dougherty said.

Yahoo Real Estate saw the second-highest traffic jump among real estate sites in February, a 2.85 percentage-point increase, to 6.24 percent. The site has been the most popular real estate site on the Web since November in the monthly Hitwise rankings.

Trulia and Zillow followed with year-over-year increases of 1.76 percentage points and 1.51 percentage points, respectively.

Of the 16 sites to see the biggest jumps in year-over-year market share, almost half were sites devoted to rental or rent-to-own listings. Of those seven sites, five had zero market share a year ago. Rent to Own Central, for example, saw the seventh-highest traffic increase among real estate sites, to 0.41 percent, from zero percent in February 2010.

Interest in rent-to-own properties is becoming more prevalent among consumers, and real estate companies would do well to include rent-to-own content on their sites, Dougherty said.

"A lot of the rental market is characterized by folks who have poor credit, who don’t have access to credit — so a rent-to-own opportunity might be a better chance for them to end up with home or apartment ownership," she said.

Visitors to home and apartment rental sites tend to be younger, less affluent, and less creditworthy than visitors to for-sale property sites. According to Hitwise data, almost two-thirds (61 percent) are female. More than half (58 percent) have a household income of less than $60,000. Nearly half (47 percent) are between 18-34. And 58 percent have VantageScore credit ratings of D and F, the lowest grades on the company’s scale.

Many such visitors live in metro areas where home values have dropped sharply, such as Detroit, Phoenix, and Florida areas including Tampa, Orlando and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale.

When real estate-related search terms for the 12 weeks ending on March 19 are filtered to include "credit," the most popular terms were, in order: "first time home buyer tax credit," "no credit check apartments," "how to buy a house with bad credit," "solar power federal tax credit," and "first time home buyer credit."

Real estate companies should promote content that is relevant to those searches, Dougherty said.

Search engines drove 31 percent of traffic to real estate websites in February — more than any other source. Nearly 20 percent of traffic came from Google alone. Direct visits to real estate sites accounted for 18 percent of traffic, followed by 7 percent from entertainment sites, 6 percent each from lifestyle sites and email services, and 5 percent each from shopping and classifieds sites and portal front pages.

"It really highlights the fact that people don’t just use one source when they’re looking to buy or rent a home," Dougherty said.

Key sources of traffic to real estate websites, February 2011:

hitwise real estate traffic sources 

Source: Hitwise

Traffic from social networks to real estate sites jumped 61 percent year-over-year in February, to account for 4 percent of overall traffic. The 10 sites to see the biggest year-over-year increases in social media traffic last month were Yahoo Real Estate, Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com, MSN Real Estate, FrontDoor Real Estate, Apartment Guide, Homes.com, MyNewPlace, and AOL Real Estate.

Traffic to real estate sites from Facebook alone jumped 42 percent. There, the top 10 sites to see the biggest increases in traffic were Yahoo Real Estate, Trulia, Zillow, FrontDoor Real Estate, Apartment Guide, MSN Real Estate, Homes.com, Realtor.com, MyNewPlace and Weichert.com.

Other sites could take the opportunity to see what these sites are doing on the social network to get those traffic increases, Dougherty advised.

Of the top 10 generic search terms to see the biggest jumps in popularity from a year ago, most reference rentals:

1. "rent to own homes";

2. "rent to own";

3. "foreclosure";

4. "for rent by owner";

5. "puerto rico real estate";

6. "houses for rent in orlando";

7. "apartments for rent in michigan";

8. "low income apartments";

9. "houses for rent by owner"; and

10. "reverse mortgage."

Searches for rent-to-own homes tend to include city or state locations, Dougherty said. Such queries also tend to have high success rates, meaning people are finding what they’re looking for and clicking on an actual Web page. For example, searches for "rent to own homes in nj" and "rent to own homes in houston tx" had a 100 percent success rate in the 12 weeks before March 19.

Real estate sites will want to make sure to capitalize on that trend in terms of search engine optimization or paid clicks, Dougherty said.

Much of the traffic to rental sites comes from search ads. For example, 80 percent of the traffic to Rent To Own Central is paid.

"If you are operating in this space, be aware there are a lot of new players," Dougherty said, referring to those sites that had seen growth from zero percent market share a year ago. "If you’re moving into this space you might want to consider those paid search opportunities."

Paid activity is also high among searches for "MLS" property information, foreclosures and mortgage calculators. About 38 percent of traffic to MLS.com (a website operated by a real estate advertising and marketing services company, not a multiple listing service) is paid, Hitwise reported.

Among foreclosure-related terms driving traffic to real estate search sites, between 10 to 45 percent of that traffic was paid.

Bankrate.com got one-third of the traffic from searches for "mortgage calculator," and 60 percent of that traffic was paid. Though search queries for mortgage calculators have declined significantly since a peak around January 2009, the term is still "very targeted" toward likely homebuyers, Dougherty said.

"If you’re looking to buy a home, you’re probably looking for a mortgage calculator," she said.

Visits to websites of homebuilders are down 51 percent from February 2009. Search queries for the keywords "new homes" and "homebuilders" are also down. New-home sales have declined for the past three months and hit an all-time low in February, sinking 28 percent year-over-year. The median price of a new, single-family home dropped to $202,100, the lowest level since December 2003.

Nevertheless, a drop in the median price of existing homes means "new-home prices are now 30 percent higher than of those being resold. So if you’re trying to sell a new home, it’s going to be very challenging because there’s already a lot of lower-priced homes out there on the market," Dougherty said.

"The good news is that if you can find people searching for new homes … these are the folks with higher incomes and credit," she added.

Nearly 60 percent of visitors to homebuilder sites had household incomes of $60,000 or higher; 31 percent had incomes of $100,000 or higher. The majority (65 percent) had VantageScore credit ratings of either A or B. And 43 percent had an A rating.

The key for real estate companies will be finding out "what websites these people visit, and advertising there," Dougherty said.

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