Home shoppers can be excused if they feel deja vu when they walk into a home for sale.
Thanks to an explosion of technology tools, prospective buyers can "tour" a home before they pull into the driveway to check it out.
Agents' Web sites offer "virtual tours," some with 360-degree images of rooms. Video podcasts go further, with narrated footage of the inside. With another technology, drive-by shoppers can hear a recorded message over their car radios.
The flow of information keeps increasing, but real estate professionals say the technologies aren't threatening agents' jobs. They say the tools sharpen prospective buyers' focus on properties best suited to them.
A National Association of Realtors survey released last year reported that 56 percent of agents had spent more than $1,000 on technology, and 30 percent of them had spent $2,000 or more. NAR also reported that 16 percent of agents spent more than $1,000 annually on their Web sites.
House hunters can rule out certain homes without visiting them, and agents can trim the number of showings to people who are more likely to be potential buyers.
Agents use the latest tech tools to distinguish themselves from the field - until the rest of the industry catches up. When agents first had their own Web sites, they were essentially electronic business cards, said Mark Lesswing, a former Amherst resident who is chief technology officer for the association.
Then agents enhanced their sites by adding listings. Nowadays, merely posting listings isn't enough to stand out, Lesswing said. Agents are getting more sophisticated, with 360-degree "virtual tours," blogs that go into more depth about a home, and even video podcasts. The podcasts allow customers to watch narrated video presentations about homes on different kinds of electronic gadgets, not just personal computers.
Lesswing doesn't think agents are risking their jobs by putting out so much information about homes for sale.
"It's not about keeping things secretive," he said. "These tools help keep the message of the trusted adviser out there better." Ideally, he said, the information grabs a shoppers' interest and leads them back to the listing agent to pursue a purchase.
The Web sites and other tech tools help house hunters picture themselves inside a house, and get prospective buyers more invested in the idea of buying a home, he said.
Falling prices for digital video technology have put creating video presentations within the reach of more agents. And with home-related shows thriving on cable TV, it is natural for agents to want to market homes in a similar format that engages viewers, Lesswing said.
"I don't think Realtors are shying away from the technology," he said.
ReMax of New York last year expanded its Web site to allow consumers to search all listings, regardless of which company holds the listing agreement. That approach might seem to help the competition, but ReMax says the format is designed to make its site a "must-visit" destination for users who start their home-buying effort on the Web.
ReMax agents in New York State are receiving an average of 4.5 leads each per month from the expanded the Web site, said Henry Weber, president of ReMax of New York. "Our agents are raving about it."
To speed up contact between prospective buyers and listing agents, the agents now receive a text message when a prospect sends an e-mail to an agent about a property for sale, Weber said.
ReMax is also planning to add home-valuation software that will allow sellers to estimate how much they can sell their homes for, he said.
Jed Carrol's two companies use tech tools to help sell homes. Amherst-based America's Choice provides marketing support to do-it-yourself sellers, while 2.5% Real Estate Direct provides some services of a traditional real estate agency.
The companies' Web site contains an interactive map, supported by Google technology, displaying their listings. Users can zoom in on an electronic street map, or a satellite image of neighborhoods. Elsewhere on the site are schedules for open houses.
Customers can sign up for e-mail alerts to notify them as soon as properties that meet their preferences are listed for sale. Carrol said that service has sometimes led to rapid sales, sometimes to within a day or two of when the notice went out.
With so much information available on the Internet about individual homes for sale, customers can enter the process with a solid base of knowledge, Carrol said.
"We welcome that, and most good real estate professionals, I believe, welcome the knowledgeable buyer," he said.
Jay Coles has embraced technology to sell homes, down to the Web site that uses his name. He leads a five-member sales team out of RealtyUSA's Orchard Park office.
To market to customers, the agents use a number of Web sites that link to RealtyUSA and to jaycoles.com, he said. They use virtual tours to show off homes electronically. And when leads flow in, they try to respond within an hour.
The team tracks Web activity on a monthly basis and shares the results with the homeowner, Coles said.
Coles said he recalls that when the Internet first took off, he worried about whether technology would replace agents. That is no longer of concern to him. "It still boils down to marketing," he said.
About 40 percent of the team's new-customer contacts come via connections to Web sites, he said.
LanTrax Inc., an Amherstbased company, has developed a program that helps real estate brokers keep track of leads that come through a variety of Web-based sources.
The program, called Lead- Trax, is designed to ensure that leads received via different Web sites don't fall through the cracks, and to ensure that agents follow through on contacts from potential customers, said Aaron Taylor, LanTrax's chief executive officer.
"It's new for them," Taylor said. "It's new that they're being held to a higher level of accountability."
The program allows users to set time periods - usually 24 or 48 hours - after which automatic messages are sent to agents inquiring if they have followed up on a lead. (Agents avoid receiving those messages by filing updates.) Brokers can also have follow-up messages sent to individuals who made the inquiries, to make sure they are receiving help.
Even if a lead doesn't turn into an active home buyer right away, the system keeps track of the person's information, he said. That provides continuity if the lead resurfaces a few months later.
Taylor said LeadTrax is a way for brokers to follow up with prospective customers who start out using the Web for research, then turn to an agent for help.
Not all of the technologies available for home sales involve the Internet.
A product called "Talking House" broadcasts information about a home to people who drive up to the curb. A lawn sign directs them to tune the car radio to designated AM frequency to hear a recorded message - from a small transmitter inside the house - about the property for sale.
"We tell them enough to whet their whistle," said Terri Kern of Stovroff & Taylor Realtors. The firm makes the product available to its agents, but Kern bought her own unit just to make sure it would always be available.
"I like to make every avenue available for a seller, as far as technology goes," she said.
Not every seller wants to use Talking House, she said. Some sellers don't even want a sign on their front lawn. But she finds younger sellers on average tend to be more comfortable with using technology to support the sale effort.
"It's very unique," Kern said. "It's another form of information."
Lesswing said he expects to see agents' Web technology grow even more sophisticated. He predicts agents will be drawn to use a more comprehensive display of real estate information that goes beyond plotting homes for sale on a map.
All the technologies real estate professionals are using now can lead to better matchups with potential buyers, he said. "Instead of a thousand leads, you get 10, and it's 10 good ones."