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Virtual realty

With the Internet, homebuyers
can click from house to house
instead of driving from house to house
Tuesday, April 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

MU freshman Lisa Zirk cautiously walks up the driveway to her potential home. Her parents have agreed to buy a condominium for her and her sister. After walking through two condos and snapping a few pictures, Zirk has made her decision.

“I think I like the first one better. It sits lower, and it has a spot for a garden,” Zirk said.

Twenty minutes later, Zirk is back at the RE/MAX office filling out papers for her condo. The college freshman is signing for a condo that her parents in Chicago have not seen in person. While many parents might be wary of such an arrangement, the Zirks are not. They have thoroughly researched real estate in Columbia for weeks online. They narrowed down their picks to two condos and sent their daughter for a final inspection.

With advances in digital photography and the Internet, virtual realty has become a reality. Instead of driving from house to house with a real estate agent breathing down their necks, buyers can search real estate and view hundreds of houses from the comfort of their own homes. For those buyers on a time constraint, the Internet has become a valuable ally.

Larry Ross had six weeks to move from Omaha to Columbia after leaving his job at the University of Nebraska for a new position at Lincoln University. Ross searched Internet real estate sites for houses in Columbia, and when he found a house he was interested in, he e-mailed the agent. Once he made contact with Dave Miller of RE/MAX Boone County, he had an agent in Columbia to help him with his search.

“I had Dave going around looking at 20 different properties for me,” Ross said. “He was my eyes and ears in the real world while I was doing research in the virtual world.”

There are two types of real estate Web sites, according to Monica Hunt, an agent with Century 21 Lifestyles. One is for the real estate agent and usually contains more comprehensive information on listed properties. When a buyer contacts an agent, the agent searches the site for the buyer’s specifications and e-mails the buyer the listings.

Paragon is an online database for real estate agents. It lists room sizes, location, directions, cross streets, schools, if the heating is electric or gas, whether the houses have brick or siding, the topography, whether it’s level or rolling, if it is heavily wooded, the septic system and what kind of water the home has.

Realtor.com is a big tool for the buyer; anyone can get on realtor.com,” Hunt said.

Ross used the Internet for the entire process of purchasing his home.

“Compared to buying a house the conventional way and through conventional financing, it was a rapid process,” Ross said.

The first time Ross actually met his real estate agent was at the closing.

“I met him when I went to the title company and signed the documents, and that was it,” Ross said. “The first time I physically saw the house was the day I came in to do the signing. I had not seen it other than pictures on the Internet.”

Besides saving time, the Internet also saves buyers money. Jeremy and Katie Woodall had to move from Washington state to Columbia.

The Woodalls first saw their new home on the day they signed, and they were pleased with their purchase.

Miller is one of the few agents to consummate a property sale via the Internet. The client was obtained using the Internet, as were property selection and financial arrangements. The contract was also offered and finalized on the Internet. The client never saw the property in person.

Miller has his clients sign a disclaimer that says he recommended the buyer do an in-person visual examination of the home before they bought it.

“Just in case someone would try to tell you ‘you told me this,’ it would be in my defense that they should look at this personally,” Miller said. “I make no guarantees. I take pictures and send it to them and report what I see. If there’s a three-inch crack in the basement that we didn’t tell them that’s one thing. But if there’s a little crack in the wall that’s another. You have to make the responsibility theirs.”

If the seller agrees to a condition of “final approval by the buyer” and the buyer comes to look at the house at closing and doesn’t want to buy the house, there is a way out of the contract, Miller says.

“They could simply say, ‘I don’t like this’ and sign a mutual release,” said Miller. “We would refund their earnest money deposit, and they could go find another house.”

Ross said he thinks the liability disclaimer is fair, and the buyer has the right of recision: the right to cancel a few days after making the purchase.

“That’s his safeguard, plus I have the right of recision,” Ross said. “Everything you need to purchase has safeguards either way so that nobody is forced to do anything that they really don’t want to do.”

Ross said he sees the Internet as an intermediary in making a purchase. He has been buying large purchases off the Internet since 1995, including two cars: a Jaguar and a Chrysler PT Crusier.

“We are in the information age now, and the old-style purchasing that we used to do where you have to physically go somewhere, physically kick the tires or see the place, is no longer necessary. Everything that you need to purchase, you will get a better selection and probably a better price on your product by looking online,” he said.


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