Home Sweet Internet?

Will Americans ever feel comfortable enough with electronic commerce to buy a house via the Internet?

The answer depends on whom you ask, but some industry observers say that unless we start incorporating major transactions into our Internet mix, e-commerce will remain an infant.

That means it’s time to buy cars, furniture and major appliances and even homes via the Net.

Okay, so let’s scan the landscape and see how big-ticket items are doing.

There’s the online auto sales business — still climbing uphill in its ongoing effort to convince car buyers to do so online. Next.

Over at the other end of the spectrum, pure-play appliance and furniture businesses are having trouble gathering buyers, and face heavy infrastructure costs caused by the need for regional distribution centers. An iffy proposition to pour money into, when everyone knows that the consumer base still wants to see and touch the merchandise before opening its collective pocketbook.

Still, the online real estate and mortgage loan industries trudge on, determined to use the Internet as the ultimate sales tool.

Perseverance Pays

Maybe it’s the stubborn tunnel vision among realtors that has resulted in some degree of success.

The National Association of Realtors says that in 1997, a mere 2 percent of online consumers used the Internet in their search for new homes. By this year, that figure is expected to have skyrocketed to 60 percent.

Best of all, it appears no human beings are being displaced by Internet-based homebuying sites. Most homebuyers who use the Internet still rely on a real estate agent to guide them and close the deal.

Virtual House Tours

As someone who is currently in the market for a new house, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the online search for a home. The agent I selected has a user-friendly Web site that not only lists the available homes, but uses smart technology to take me on a virtual tour of each home in which I express interest.

It’s a great blend of traditional business and e-commerce. If I see a property online that interests me, the agent and I go take a look. The Web searching tool saves hours of useless driving across town to walk through houses that would never fit my needs.

Techno Co-Dependency

Still, the progress of the real estate industry online hinges on a number of elements.

First, the above-described virtual tour would be slow going if I did not have a fast-access Internet service, which most Americans still do not possess.

Second, for those who have satisfactorily used a real estate agent before and want to use the same person again, chances are the agent may not be using all available Web technology yet. Therefore, even homebuyers who would shop and buy online may be hampered in their efforts by technology-deprived realtors.

Also, consumers remain skeptical about the safety of revealing personal data online. The privacy factor is still a stumbling block for some homebuyers.

Closing the Deal

Still, the novelty of shopping for a new house online is child’s play compared with the enormity of negotiating and securing a mortgage loan.

While the mortgage business has been operating in various quarters of the Internet for a few years now, there are still some problems with its move to the online channel.

The attraction of “loan approval within minutes” and “cash within five days” is obvious, but savvy consumers are usually wary of quick deals.

Sign Here, If You Can

Some observers say the technology has not quite caught up with the hype. For example, many loan originators do not yet accept digital signatures. That single element will significantly slow the process.

Further, the mortgage loan business is information-intensive, requiring the borrower to invest a lot of time and effort.

Some lenders are trying to streamline the process by relying on less data.Homeside Lending, for example, uses the much ballyhooed Fannie Mae automated underwriting to approve some loans in less than 10 minutes.

Consumer Driven

Meanwhile, those consumers who do shop and buy in the online real estate market are still in the category of mavericks.

The average homebuyer appears to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. But for my part, anything that saves time and steps is worth the pioneering effort.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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