Start Your Engines! Buying & Selling on the Web

In Manhattan’s real estate market, consumers are hungry for efficient ways to find that elusive perfect apartment. Today, more than ever before, choices abound from the Web sites of individual brokerage firms to sites which feature compilations of listings. The Internet has profoundly affected the way people buy apartments. Various residential Web sites seeking to meet the high demand, display a variety of visuals to help pre-sell properties. And it’s working. Brokers report that buyers are viewing less and less apartments as the months go by. They say this is because buyers are becoming more knowledgeable; by previewing available listings on the Web, buyers are better prepared and know what they want. Just what is the future of online brokerage?

An MLS for Manhattan?

Although most metropolitan areas in the United States have had multiple listing services since the 1970s, it was only recently that an effort was made to provide this service in the New York market. And it almost wasn’t so. Last summer, a battle was taking place between two groups; one led by Douglas Elliman and The Corcoran Group and another by the MLS Task Force, led by firms such as Sotheby’s and Brown Harris Stevens. Taken aback by the Corcoran/Elliman announcement of joint listings last August, the MLS Task Force struck back and announced their own similar endeavor.

Just recently, the two groups announced they have come together to participate in an online listing service that includes 100 firms and represents 90 percent of the residential brokerage firms in Manhattan.

At the top of the nymls.com web page, a rotating banner scrolls through the names of participating real estate firms. It gives the impression of unity and cooperation between these companies. There is no evidence of the controversy that divided them just a few months ago. The unification of the Corcoran/Elliman listing service and the MLS Task force indicates the resolution of this controversy but answers as to the future of this endeavor are still hard to come by.

According to Southerlyn Marino, communications director for the Corcoran group, all firms participating in the nymls listing service are adopting a wait-and-see approach, and have agreed not to speak to the press. All calls are being directed to Steven Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), which served as a mediator between the two sides of the MLS controversy. Although Spinola makes it clear that nymls.com "is not an mls, it’s a joint Web site," he says, "this goes a long way in doing what an MLS is intended to do."

According to Spinola, all firms participating in the listing service are required to post their apartments on the Web site within 72 hours. In the future, participating firms may begin to make more information about their listings available to other brokers, which would be a move towards converting the listing service into an MLS.

In addition to the listing service, nymls.com provides other valuable information for apartment hunters. At the site, people can find information on closing procedures, how to decipher the abbreviations used in apartment listings, how to finance a home, neighborhood descriptions, as well as links to Web sites featuring New York tourism, culture transportation, and sports teams.

In the near future, the Web site will adopt a new, as yet undisclosed, name. The name change is taking place as a result of the unification. Spinola says that the Web site has been "very well received and gets thousands of hits every day. It remains current, and is easy to manipulate."

The nymls listing service is run by a board of directors, consisting of 17 members, including representatives from both larger and smaller firms that are participating in the listing service. Peter Marra of William B. May serves as chairman of the board.

MLX.com

Although the nymls listing service will be a major asset to the Manhattan real estate community, it is not the only available online listing service in Manhattan. There are other online listing services that have existed for years, which provide consumers with information about available apartments and have helped to fill the void created by Manhattan’s lack of an MLS service.The Web site www.mlx.com contains extensive apartment listings, as well as a wealth of information about how to rent, buy or sell an apartment. Members of the site can register the profile of their perfect apartment and receive "instant elerts" when listings come in that match their criteria. Many of the MLX rental apartment listings come directly from landlords and give consumers the opportunity to find a no-fee apartment.

The MLX Web site was established in 1993, "We’ve seen both online and non-online times," says LaLa Wang, president of MLX. Wang says that she believes that we’ve entered an era where most consumers begin their apartment searches online, "People gravitate to the Internet as their first method of researching apartments for rent or for sale. Though most consumers eventually need broker services to refine their search."

Wang also says, "Most brokers have not fully taken advantage of the Internet. People new to the real estate business use it more than people who are established in the field."

In addition to mlx.com, MLX runs three other Web sites: brokersnyc.com, a broker-oriented site where sellers can list their properties and be matched up with potential buyers; openhouse. nyc.com, a site where brokers can advertise open houses at their properties; and matchifieds.com, a free roommate service.

NYCRealty.com

Consumers also have the opportunity to use a real estate brokerage firm, NYCrealty.com, which provides all the services of a traditional broker on the Internet. The company offers reduced commissions to its agents, but because of their low overhead, they are able to give their agents 100 percent of their commissions. The agents are simply required to pay a set monthly fee to be a part of the organization.

The NYCrealty.com Web site contains hundreds of listings and features photographs and videos of available apartments, which gives consumers a very clear idea of what the apartments really look like. NYCrealty.com also has a 40-foot RV/mobile office that they drive around the city, to film videos of their listed apartments. The RV can currently be spotted towing a Mercedes SUV, which will eventually be given away as a promotional event.

John Finan, president and chief operating officer of NYCrealty.com, says that the biggest advantage to operating an Internet brokerage firm is that it can offer buyers big savings on commissions, "People need to embrace the power of the Internet to lower costs for consumers. They need to modify the way they do business, to become more efficient and pass along savings," he explains. "The stock market is a perfect example of an industry that has achieved this; it costs about $25 to make a trade, but with e-trade it’s $9 a trade. At first, people said that this would never happen–but now even the big brokerage houses have discount trading services on the Internet. A lot of bigger companies are now using the Internet, but are still trying to keep their big commissions."

CityRealty.com

CityRealty.com is another online marketplace for New York City apartments. Brokers can easily find buyers and renters interested in purchasing or renting their exclusive properties. Apartment buyers and renters can customize the site to browse through listings or have listings sent to them, creating a portfolio of buildings and apartments. According to the Web site, "Buyers, renters and brokers can conduct many of the real estate transactions through the site’s real estate software tools not available on any other site.

The Future

The Internet is an arena where buyers, sellers and real estate agents can all profit from lower costs. Although it is now common for people to buy books, CDs and other day-to-day items on the Internet, for precisely these reasons, this concept is somewhat radical in the real estate market. But it may not stay that way for long. "People love what we do," Finan says. "They get the same agents they would get if they used a traditional broker, and they save a lot of money."

The establishment of the nymls.com listing service shows a willingness in the established real estate community to embrace the possibilities of the Internet as a powerful sales tool. Companies such as MLX.com, NYCrealty.com and CityRealty.com have been pioneers in creating valuable, consumer-friendly real estate services on the Internet. It is no wonder that the majority of Manhattan’s real estate companies are ready to reap the benefits of the Internet. Of course, many real estate firms already post listings on their company Web sites, but there is no doubt that consumers in the Manhattan market will find it a relief to be able to access the majority of the city’s listed apartments on one unified Web site.

Ms. Baker is a freelance writer living in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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