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Banker & Tradesman Article

Real estate agents throughout the region are finding themselves torn between two forms of media as they look to get their messages out to the greatest number of people in their target audience.

Conflicting studies released recently ­ one touting the Internet as the area to focus on while the other finding newspaper advertisements as the way to go ­ leave agencies on their own to decide where to invest the majority of their advertising dollars.

Realtors across Massachusetts agree that Internet use when looking for a home is indeed on the rise, but they also recognize that the institution of newspaper advertising will not be fading away anytime soon.

In fact, the majority of home sales have been prompted by advertisements in newspapers, the agents reported.

But as each year passes, the influence of the Internet becomes greater.

Many larger real estate firms with greater resources have invested in both print and electronic media, and at least one Boston realtor, Boston Realty Net, exists solely on the Internet. Smaller agencies, whether because of a lack of capital or resistance to change, choose to stand behind their local papers.

Daniel O'Neil, webmaster for Boston Realty Net's Web site, bostonrealtynet.com, said he was almost afraid to let others know about how successful the Internet has been.

"We've done so well, it's would be like giving away the recipe for Coca Cola," said O'Neil, who launched his site this year but has been working in the rental and real estate business for several years.

Jay Burnham, Beverly-based associate vice president of The DeWolfe Co., one of New England's largest real estate agencies, swears by the Internet when it comes to selling homes. Burnham launched his Web site, northshorerealestate.com, in 1997.

"I've always been in communication with brokers out in California, which is where all the good stuff begins, and back then a lot of the Realtors had their own Web sites," he said. "I made it one of my goals to have my Web site up and running by the end of 1997, and boy am I glad I did."

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the Internet, Burnham said his site has had more than 16,000 hits since its inception.

"I haven't sold a house to every one of those 16,000," he added, "but I am getting anywhere from 60 to 100 visitors to the site every day now.

"They get over 6 million visitors a month at Realtor.com. That's certainly a pretty clear indication that people are going to the Internet to get information on homes for sale as their source and starting point when looking for homes."

According to a survey from RealEstate.com, 90 percent of 1,000 likely home buyers surveyed said they plan using the Internet to find homes, find agents, compare mortgages or look for other related information.

Among all surveyed, 88 percent said they would check out house prices online, 77 percent said they would look at mortgage rates, and 72 percent would research communities using the Internet.

The importance of the Internet for the industry is further demonstrated by events such as E-Loan's initial public offering on the NASDAQ stock exchange. By midday of the online mortgage site's first day of trading, shares had gone from $14 to $48. Furthermore, another company has announced plans to debut a hand-held, Internet device that would provide up-to-date real estate listings.

Linda Hebert, a broker associate for Century 21 A. Perras Realty in Great Barrington, is seeing an impact on the real estate market from the Internet in her corner of the state.

"I'm getting four or five calls a week from people who found me on the Internet," she said. "I think that's a lot."

Young and Affluent

Real estate agents reported that the Internet is a great vehicle for targeted marketing. "On the Internet, people have to search for real estate Web sites, so you know if they visited your site they have to be interested in homes," Hebert said.

O'Neil agreed that Internet users are generally more serious than others about finding real estate.

"If they take the time to respond to you, then you know they're more serious than someone who strolls down Newbury Street and after getting an ice cream cone decides to pop into a real estate office, or someone who sits down with the Sunday Globe and glances through the apartment listings," he said.

"Only 2 to 3 percent of the population is looking for a home at any given time," Hebert said. "Papers can tell you that they have a circulation of 50,000, but so what? Only 2 or 3 percent of those are actually serious buyers."

The targeted marketing on the Internet is yielding a selective audience, agents said.

Hebert said she has observed that many prospective homebuyers contacting her because of the Internet are usually younger, which she said meant less than 50 years old.

Another common thread among Internet users was that they were mostly from outside the area and looking to relocate. At Boston Realty Net, O'Neil said one of the more popular features used by clients is live video teleconferencing that allows viewing property from afar.

"We just had a video teleconference with someone in Ireland looking at an apartment," he said. "We sent them a still photo on e-mail, and they had it in a second, and now the leases are being sent in the mail."

Burnham said Web sites also attract people from higher income brackets who are more likely to own computers and have Internet access. Internet-based home buyers are also generally more computer-literate, he said.

Newspapers Hold Ground

While Internet success stories can be heard from many Realtors, no one can yet discount the effectiveness of the printed page.

Citing a different study, the Newspaper Association of America recently said that homebuyers continue to choose newspapers as their primary source for finding homes. Though detailed results of the survey ­ which polled 3,000 recent homebuyers through a written questionnaire ­ will not be released until later this month, about 75 percent of those asked said they used newspapers to look for a home.

That finding comes as good news for those within the newspaper industry, as real estate advertising accounts for a significant portion of overall revenue. In addition to carrying advertising in regular sections, many papers also devote entire supplements solely to real estate ads.

"I think there's a big fear of the Internet from newspapers because they're afraid of losing business," Burnham said.

Lorraine Konisky of Lorraine Konisky Real Estate in Sutton said the newspaper remains her primary source for attracting clients. "The main sources for me are the [multiple listing service] and the Sunday Telegram-Gazette," she said. "The ads in there bring responses."

Even the strongest Internet supporters admit that the newspaper remains a force.

Though Burnham said the Internet has been very effective and accounted for 18 percent of his earnings last year, that still leaves 82 percent of business coming from the newspaper or other sources. Burnham added that he expected his Internet earnings to double this year.

"There will always be a place for the print media in real estate advertising," Hebert said.

"I think they both have their place," O'Neil said of the Internet and newspapers.

But that place is becoming reserved more and more for smaller real estate agencies with smaller budgets.

Konisky, who runs a one-woman agency, formed a group of 12 small real estate offices in her area called ReNet, and found experiences in those other offices to be similar to hers, with newspapers remaining the medium to use.

"I've talked with that group, and they all have the same story, though some have had a little success on the Internet."

Hebert, who herself once ran a small, independent real estate agency, did not have Internet exposure until a few years ago, when she teamed up with Century 21. "I find that the bigger franchises are the ones using it," she said. "It costs extra money."

Burnham agreed cost is a primary factor prohibiting smaller agencies from launching their own Web sites, adding that it can cost several thousand dollars to build a site unless the agency has the knowledge or time to do everything for themselves.

"There's also fear," he said, "they're still afraid of the computer, but the bottom line is they're losing business."

O'Neil concurred, saying that setting up a Web page could be expensive. But, he added the Internet is the wave of the future and shouldn't be ignored