The Hunt for the Red House
By Joachim Bamrud, Wed Sep 05 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Thanks to a combination of technologies, including WAP and location-based services, consumers can now go from A to Z in finding a new home or a new car.


You're on your way to an appointment with a real estate agent across town. You'll be looking at three potential new homes. Then, while stopping for a red light in another area, you see an incredible house with a "For Sale" sign in front. You drive up to the house, but no one is home and you're wondering if you should call the number listed on the sign or not. How does it look inside? Can you afford it?

Well, now there are some new applications that can make the process a whole lot easier.

U.S.-based Countrywide Home Loans offers a service that enables consumers to use their WAP phones to access detailed property and sales records for approximately 42 million homes throughout the United States.

By entering the address of a property through the phone, a user receives an instant estimate, based on available public records, of the property's potential value, size of the residence and lot, number of bedrooms and baths, last assessed value and last sale date.

24h service


Countrywide's WAP service, which was developed in conjunction with Internet site HomeGain.com and operator Sprint PCS, also includes a home affordability calculator, loan status tracking, and quotes for homeowners insurance policies, home warranties, and life insurance.

"For years, you either had to go to a real estate agent or an appraiser to get this information," HomeGain CEO Bradley Inman said in a statement. "Now, you can sit in your car at curbside, enter the address of a house you want to buy into your wireless phone or PDA, and within seconds receive a free estimated value. That's progress."

And the service benefits not only potential buyers, but also existing home-owners who want to know the latest market value of their home equity for refinancing or new home equity loans, Countrywide officials point out. By having the service available through their mobile phones they can access the data while having dinner away from home or even while they're on vacation and start thinking about their financial future.

In the United Kingdom, Abbey National provides a service enabling customers to receive mortgage quotes or calculate repayments for an unsecured personal loan within seconds through a WAP phone.

The service also enables financing for car purchases and is available through the wireless portals of Mviva (the joint venture between Carphone Warehouse/AOL) and UK operator Orange.

But Swedish developer mobilePosition has taken the concept of house-finding a step further. It uses location-based technology to find the nearest house or apartment for sale as well as the prices. The service, launched in March by Swedish operator Telia, can be accessed both by WAP and SMS.

The application is likely to appeal to consumers in areas where the house- and apartment-hunting process is frenzied, as is often case in the major cities in Europe, Asia and to a certain degree, the United States.

"If the demand outstrips the supply, then this become a fairly important tool," says Egil Juliussen, President of eTForecasts, a U.S-based research and consulting firm. "Then the wireless device really becomes very useful."

Even after finding an ideal home to an ideal price, other questions pop up. What about schools? Crime? Transportation? If you have a wireless device that can access the World Wide Web such as a PDA or SmartPhone, you can check out the web site of Ziprealty.com, a U.S. site that provides location-relevant information on those subjects (after manual input of a zip code).

Realizing benefits




And what about those times when you're in a bidding war for a house? Zugbugauctions.com, a U.S.-based online auction outlet specializing in real estate, launched a wireless version in November.

But the wireless revolution isn't only benefiting consumers. Real estate agents themselves are benefiting from increased applications that make their job easier.

U.S.-based Wireless Wisdom has developed a technology that enables wireless access to MLS (Multiple Listing Service) and is currently being used by realtors in Texas and Illinois.

"Real estate agents are definitely road warriors, on the road about 80 percent of the time, showing houses or looking at houses," says Wireless Wisdom President and CEO Mark Cho.

"A lot of times an agent is with a client and just finished looking at a home. And as they're leaving, the client says 'What about that house or this house?' In those situations, it's good to have MLS available."

However, Cho acknowledges one major challenge: Many of the agents that his company is targeting are not used to using technology and reluctant to start doing so now.

"They've been doing something in one way for 20 years and don't want to start doing things diffrently. There's a huge learning curve," he says.

Information


Another solution, from US-based GoAmerica, enables agents to complete home-owner agreements on wireless devices and have them faxed or e-mailed to the client who can then sign.

The solution, developed in partnership with Microsoft and US-based CreSenda Wireless, can be used on Pocket PC devices using Microsoft's operating system, including the Compaq iPAQ, the HP Jornada and the Casio Cassiopeia.

The next step for house-hunting will clearly be image and video on wireless devices. Already, one of the successes behind Internet realtors has been their ability to post detailed photos (often 360 degree) or videos of the homes for sale. Combining this with other applications, including m-commerce, and technologies like positioning should revolutionize the process.

Then there's the process of buying a new (or used) car. Imagine being able to use your phone to find out the value of a car (before the dealers profits are added), then narrowing down the best deals closest to you.

"The information is of tremendous value to the purchaser," says Juliussen.

And if you plan to finance the purchase, but don't like the terms, you can use the phone to look up other finance offers and even apply and get approval - all from the car dealer's premises.

What a difference that first visit to the car dealer will make. You, not the aggressive, commission-driven car salesman will be in charge.

In addition to the car loan solution from Abbey National in the UK, users today can access similar services on the world wide web from companies like E-Loan, for example.

However, Juliussen believes the purchasing process will more often than not take place face-to-face rather than through mobile devices.

"It's useful tool, but when it comes to fairly big decisions you don't do them over the [wireless] device," he says.

Yet, the availability of key information on those products through mobile phones will clearly benefit many consumers, Juliussen says.

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.