SEATTLE – Years ago, Molly Bolanos looked for a home the old-fashioned way: She spent hours driving around in her real estate agent's car, hoping for the best and girding for the worst.
One recent morning, the process went like this: Bolanos and her fiance were alerted to a new listing online. They checked out the pictures on the Internet, then drove over for a real-life look and, within hours, were preparing to make an offer.
"It can be 24 hours — as quick as 24 hours that you're out making the offer — and it's because of the Internet," the Seattle resident said.
Add real estate to the list of industries being forever changed by the Internet.
Home listings — once printed out in books available only to real estate agents — are obtainable to everyone online, accompanied by increasingly sophisticated photographs and virtual tours.
Now, a growing number of online services are also cropping up to help people do things like judge house prices, survey neighborhoods and evaluate school districts, long before they ever snap the seat belt in their agents' cars.
With the nation's housing boom expected to cool in some areas, experts say such offerings will only increase. And ultimately, the fact that consumers on their own have more power than ever to do some of the work of real estate agents could even help further drive down agents' commissions. Many also expect online tools for house-hunters to become more creative and sophisticated.
"The full impact of the Internet has not been realized, primarily because business has been going up each year," said Steve Murray, editor of the trade magazine Real Trends in Littleton, Colo.
Already, the industry is dramatically different than it was a decade ago.
Besides viewing listings online, Bolanos now regularly visits Zillow.com, a new Web site that provides quick, anonymous estimates of home values based on county records and other data. Although the site, which is in test form, isn't always completely accurate, Bolanos said it gives her a good barometer for judging a home's worth.
Less than a month old, the advertising-supported site already has become fodder for office gossip and dinner party chatter, in part because it gives people a voyeuristic look at what their friends and neighbors might be able to get for their homes.
The company's chief executive, Rich Barton, said his goal is to give people information that can improve their position when they sit down with a real estate agent or consider bidding on a house.
"My motivation, I guess, is kind of power to the people," Barton said.
He acknowledges that the site still has a few kinks, but he says the company is constantly working to improve the accuracy by adding more data.
There are also plans to improve tools that let people change out-of-date information that might affect valuations — such as an added bathroom or bedroom that isn't in official records, or an extensive kitchen remodel that might boost a home's value.
Other sites, such as HomePages.com, use interactive maps and other tools to provide information about neighborhoods, schools, local parks and even nightclubs surrounding a particular home.
Ian Morris, chief executive of HouseValues Inc., which runs the HomePages site, said his business aims to reduce the time people spend house-hunting. But the company — which makes its money in part from real estate agents who receive customer referrals from the site — stresses that he still thinks buying a home is complicated and valuable enough to require a Realtor's assistance.
"This is a professionally assisted transaction," Morris said. "One hundred years from now, I expect this will be a professionally assisted transaction."
Still, to survive in a world where consumers have more power via the Internet, many in the industry say agents are being forced to adapt new skills.
David Morrell, an agent in Santa Cruz, Calif., said he now has every house he lists professionally photographed for the Internet postings.
When he sees an online listing that's been up for several days without pictures, he said, "It's unbelievable to me."
Real estate agents also may find the value of their service dropping, as people begin doing more legwork on their own over the Internet.
Murray's data show that the average commission paid to real estate agents dropped from 6.1 percent of a home's price in 1991 to 5.1 percent in 2003, the most recent statistics available.
That was mainly driven by the sharp increase in the number of agents vying for business during the booming market, he said. But in a cooler market, he expects the Internet to be among the factors that will drive those commissions down further.
"We don't see any particular stopping point," Murray said.
Murray also expects agents to start spending more money on fancy Web sites and other online promotions, perhaps at the expense of traditional marketing such as newspaper advertising.
Still, no matter how sophisticated online house-hunting gets, the computer might never be able to fully replace the experience of walking from room to room in your prospective house, peeking into cabinets, tapping on walls and trying to figure out how noisy the neighbors might be.
Although virtual house-hunting has grown more sophisticated, Geoff Wood, chief executive of the real estate firm Windermere Services Co., said it's still extremely rare for someone to purchase a house without ever visiting it.
"You can have a ton of pictures, [but] it still doesn't do it justice," Wood said. "You still have to go and look at it and touch it and feel it. It's your house, you know?"