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Will consumers ever buy homes via the internet?

There are two sides to every story and people buying real estate online is no exception. We met a man in Starbucks last week that we got into a conversation with. He told us he was moving from California, found a home he liked online because it had big oak trees, the right number of rooms and a great lot in an up and coming neighborhood, sent the link to his Realtor and moved in the next month, sight unseen and has lived there and loved it ever sense.

This article was originally published on April 20, 2010.

The other side of the story is the people who buy homes from another state to relocate and get to the home only to find a raccoon in the fridge, bars on the neighbors’ windows (but not theirs), the smell of sulfur from the processing plant a mile away and other endless nightmares that can happen when a property is bought sight unseen as a homestead.

That said, people are putting more and more money into purchases made online every year, just look at this infographic to see where we currently stand and which industries are still wildly dominated by brick & mortar purchases (click to enlarge):

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buying online

So where’s the argument?

The argument was born a few years back that the trend would be for buyers to buy their properties online, but as Benn Rosales (AG Founder) has stated many times, real estate is not a point and click proposition. There is a trend toward virtual brokerages which doesn’t change the fact that 99.9% of people (my estimation) want to touch a house before signing their name on the dotted line. There is another trend toward hiring agents to function more as customer service agents than Realtors as brokerages provide leads, marketing, contract to close services and everything outside of holding the client’s hand. That also doesn’t change whether or not people buy real estate through the internet or in person.

Why are none of these things poised to make real estate a point and click? Why haven’t technologists been able to make it to where buyers can just add a house to a shopping cart, add moving supplies, utility services, furniture and maid services?

It’s simple. Real estate is NOT merchandise, it is an investment, whether it is a homestead or a property an owner will rent and research done WITH technology will continue to rise, but there will be no popular “buy” button. Real estate will not be purchased online as the above items will be and can be, because it is simply not a commodity. It doesn’t matter which brokerage model ascends from the dying traditional model, real estate simply will not be an investment that is added to an online shopping cart.

CC Licensed image courtesy of Permuto via Flickr.com

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Eric Hempler

    April 20, 2010 at 7:13 am

    It would be foolish to buy a home with out seeint it first.

  2. Chris Fyvie

    April 20, 2010 at 7:56 am

    I’ve done a lot of office leasing transactions without meeting the principle decision maker but they always send someone to check out the space first. I can see this happening for investment properties after the numbers are done and there is an inspection but as a new home or location for a new business it will be rare.

    That said, I’ve bought 2 condo’s of the developers specs online so…

    • Benn Rosales

      April 20, 2010 at 11:04 am

      But the overall question would be, could it be done entirely online without you? Thats the idea behind point and click.

  3. Tim O'Keefe Real Estate Marketing

    April 20, 2010 at 11:17 am

    As listings IDX has become more and more available to the point of almost overkill online, listings have gone from a privileged data share. to the commodity it is online.
    While this change has happened the public has become more and more entitled to this MLS/IDX data along with all the accouterments that is included with home data.

    Along with these entitlements the value a Realtor provides (one could argue) has been reduced.

    The title of your post takes the natural course of logic that my reply so far induces. Taken thru the full course of logic agents would be eliminated.
    However, agents still make a living, They still provide value. Many still get full boat and do not negotiate away their commissions.

    Even if the web does give us this world where we can somehow buy and sell things in ways we cannot today. Someone still needs to market the property amongst the increasing noise. The public will need help to decipher the often conflicting data online. They will need someone to help negotiate and value a property. They will need someone to help spot that leaky faucet and bootlegged room. They will need someone to help stage the home for maximum profitability. They will need someone to manage the escrow and the many entities that walk in and walk out of the transaction to help facilitate a successful close. The successful agent/broker builds to the list above and seeks to extract the value proposition of each item. This is where the sale will always as I include in this paragraph. This is where the public cannot possibly seek to duplicate if they have any kind of life.

    The unsuccessful agent listens to the folks that illustrate that there is only about 18 hours of time put into managing an escrow.

    The successful agent will have to build their value proposition beyond the typical messaging that the industry has become accustomed.

  4. RealEstate_Mktg

    April 20, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Point and click will never become the typical way homes are bought and/or sold. It comes down to the percent of net-worth people are willing to spend based solely on descriptions and feedback/reviews. Most online purchases will continue to be very small expenditures when compared to offline purchases. For most, a home is the largest purchase they will ever make in their lifetime. Almost no one will ever make the biggest purchase of their lifetime without seeing the product in person first.

    A little while back Mark Cuban became the purchaser of the most expensive “online purchase” ever. He paid over $41 Million for a brand new Gulfstream Jet without seeing one or talking to a dealer. However, if you put it in perspective, he spent over $60 million on a home in Dallas, and $280 Million when he bought the Dallas Mavericks. The largest online purchase ever made was no where near the largest purchase of the individual who made it.

  5. Matt Stigliano

    April 20, 2010 at 11:30 am

    @LaniAR – As I started to read this post words like “merchandise” and “commodity” popped into my head along with “real estate is not…”

    I get towards the end of the post and what do I see? Those exact words.

    I was a hold out on things like CDs and cash – I hated the idea of not holding those things in my hand. I loved buying a new CD, taking it home, popping it in and looking through the artwork and liner notes as I experienced it for the first time. I had shelf after shelf of them and looked at them with pride, even as I was importing them onto my iPod. As for cash, I love counting it out at the checkout stand. Nothing beats the feeling of a crisp US dollar bill, but digitization won out there too.

    Although many emotions can be tied to particular objects, nothing quite compares to the emotional attachment to a home. It isn’t just simply an object to be purchased via PayPal.

    Would some people buy a home online given the chance? Most certainly. Can a buyer purchase their home sight unseen? Again, I have no doubt. Would it ever come to it point where online point and click home purchases outweigh the “old fashioned way?” I can’t imagine a future where it would.

    Then again, I didn’t want to let go of my prized CD collection either.

  6. nanette labastida

    April 20, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    some people might buy a house online sight unseen but a “home” is a different story. I would hope that if the situation were that it was impossible, that the agent would go several steps further beyond the usual call of duty to ensure security and due dilligence ect.. it’s pretty easty to take video of every detail of a house for an out of town client and email on the spot.

  7. Casey Flynn

    April 29, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Like most of the posts before mine, I agree that it is highly unlikely for the trend of buying homes sight unseen to become the new norm of purchasing real estate. However, I do believe that the industry as a whole is going to be seeing a huge uptick in online sales for several reasons. Any real estate professional would agree that intensely researching a property and performing due diligence is an essential part to estimating a property value (look at the AG article that came out today and says consumers research a home for an average of 40 hours). As we all know, one of the biggest contributing factors in research is physically visiting the home! If a home is bought sight unseen, one can’t exactly return that online purchase like they could return a sweater they bought online. More and more sophisticated websites are becoming available to the public and people real estate professionals are no longer the gate keepers to that information. What I am trying to say is that agents, are a huge help to guiding consumers, websites make researching more convenient, open houses will ALWAYS be the most valuable piece research when house hunting, but once the hard work is done, why not point and click?

  8. Ruthmarie Hicks

    January 2, 2011 at 4:07 am

    More than half of the work involved in selling a home happens AFTER the home is selected. There are the price negotiations (these days that can go on for weeks) then there are the contracts with the terms of sale that must be negotiated. There are inspections, appraisals and almost every buyer has some sort of financing hic-up these days. Only one if they are lucky. Then if its condo or coop there are the financials to review, the offering plan and the house rules. So how on earth someone like Casey (above) thinks it is as simple as “point and click” once the home is “chosen” baffles me. But in the end its our own fault that people think that way. As an industry we have done a terrible job educating the public as to what we do once the home is found.

    This quote right here displays the amazing ignorance of the general public:
    “open houses will ALWAYS be the most valuable piece research when house hunting, but once the hard work is done, why not point and click?”

    1. Limiting yourself to an open house for the selection process makes no sense. Only a fraction of the properties on the market have opens any given week.
    2. NO!!! The “hard work” is only beginning…for all the reasons stated above. The poster went from point A to point B and perhaps as far as C and then jumped the other 23 steps to Z with a simple “point and click.”

  9. Leah Kelley

    January 2, 2011 at 9:11 am

    I had a client try to buy a HUD home long distance, sight unseen. She had a friend go over and look at it for her. I went to the inspection for her. The house had major structural issues (bentonite soils) which are common in some areas. The friend had not noticed.

    I had to convince her to back out of the contract. She still wanted to buy it! I finally convinced her to wait until she got in town to look in person.

    Bottom line: You can’t return a house like you can a pair of shoes that don’t fit. You better get it right the first time!

  10. Helen Young

    February 27, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I would never buy a house over the Internet. So many scams I would never try that way… but so did we said 10 years ago about shopping online 🙂

  11. Jeff Knox

    July 12, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Interesting. I just found this article and it is about five years old now. However, within the last five years, nothing major has changed about the way people purchase homes via the internet. While the internet has progressed and evolved in the past five years, there hasn't been a major shift to pointing and clicking to buy a home.

    Maybe I should revisit this in another five years!

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