House-hunting from home

In the search for the perfect home, more and more house hunters are letting their fingers do the walking – or, rather, the typing.

More are using property search portals on the Internet, which are stepping up their game to cater to the demands of these home seekers.

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No longer simply listings of properties and prices, many property websites now offer photos, maps, historical price information, up-to-date property news, and e-mail or SMS alerts when new properties are put up.

Home buyers still rely primarily on the printed Classifieds advertisements in the newspaper, which are much more comprehensive. But many of them now supplement their Classifieds must-reads with property websites that offer more information on available homes.

This is especially so as a more Internet-savvy generation reaches home-buying age, say property companies.

ST701’s property website, set up by CATS Classifieds, has revamped its site to introduce new features that aim to help home seekers make better and more informed choices. Users can view a map of the property they are interested in, its surrounding amenities, and recent transacted prices in the development.

They can also sign up to receive e-mail alerts whenever new properties matching their search criteria are listed. The site also provides guides, tips and up-to-date news articles about property buying.

All these are to cater to the increasing number of Singaporeans using the Internet to shortlist their desired properties before making an actual trip to the showflat, said Mr Alan Soon, ST701’s head of online business and technology.

‘Because of the rise of the Internet and the rate of broadband penetration in Singapore, users these days are better informed and are able to undertake research of a property from their desks instead of pounding the streets.’

This means that listings on a plain vanilla portal are no longer sufficient as home seekers will just turn to other websites to search for data.

To keep up with the keen competition in the property website market, some online portals undergo regular upgrading.

Mr Steve Melhuish, who runs the PropertyGuru portal with his partner Jani Rautiainen, says he launches new website versions and features every two months. ‘We get hundreds of feedback and suggestions every month from home searchers and conduct regular surveys to better understand their needs,’ he says.

The continual improvements appear to have paid off. Mr Melhuish says the number of home seekers using his website has grown by an average of 10 to 15 per cent every month over the last two years.

The main reason more home buyers are turning to the Internet is the sheer convenience of having a large amount of information available in one place, he says.

At PropertyGuru, for instance, there are photos, videos, floor plans, 360-degree virtual tours, and data on recent transactions. The website also has several specialised sections to cater to the varying needs of different buyers. Those interested in property auctions will find a dedicated auctions page, and there is also a home and lifestyle section focused on interior design and decoration, and financial and legal issues, among other things.

Property websites can also be a safer place to shop for your home, away from the abuses of unregulated agents. Some portals offer a more hands-on approach precisely for this reason.

SingaporeExpats.com, which has been around for seven years, handles all enquiries itself through its call centre. It offers free listings for agents, but does not allow them to put their individual contact numbers on the ads. Instead, all ads feature only the call centre number.

This ensures that customers deal with only one person instead of thousands of agents, which helps lower the risk of meeting an unethical agent or one who does not provide satisfactory service, says SingaporeExpats.com director Thomas Teo.

Another newly established website, Singapore Condo, also offers free listings but goes the extra mile: It reviews each listing to make sure the asking price is ‘reasonable’.

‘Most property owners are aware of market trends and prices and do price their properties accordingly,’ says founder Vince Chen. ‘However, there are always exceptions. This rule helps us remain reliable and accountable to our clients and readers.’

While the Internet has become an essential tool for property agents and buyers, there is a flip side: Information has become too easily available, especially junk or duplicated information, he says.

‘It is vital that media owners do their part to filter the unnecessary or inaccurate and provide original and reliable content.’

Source : Sunday Times – 11 Oct 2009

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