Technology will change future for real estate

Copyright: David Lawson September 1996

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A year or so ago, hunting for property on the Internet was a pretty thankless task. There were plenty of  houses, a scattering  of simple corporate adverts and a hatful of  services  promising a brave new tomorrow. Today,  a casual visitor faces information overload. Literally hundreds of 'web pages' - the jargon for computerised adverts - and thousands of properties are now online. Even the RICS has taken the plunge and will launch its own online page this month, giving access to both members and the public.  That does not mean the whole industry has taken a great leap forward, however. 'I have a page giving details of my firm. I just wish I knew how to find it,' says one local London agent, who prefers to hide his ignorance  behind a cloak of anonymity.

 Offered a free plug by one of many 'consultants' touting for business, he naturally accepted. But he has no idea how to go online, let alone carry out business this way. If anyone picked up his name, they would have to phone or write. 'There is so much being written about the Internet that you don't want to miss out,' says the technophobe, who has booked up lessons with his one-man computer supplier. 'But he can't do it for a month because everyone wants the same thing.'

  Suspicion stills clouds this new-found enthusiasm. 'No-one is really sure what the Internet is supposed to do,' says Mike Nicholson, a veteran  of online services through his Focus service. 'They want some evidence that the time and effort is worthwhile.'

  One problem is the uncertainty and sluggishness of transmissions. He has rewritten Focus to look like an Internet service  but is keeping  the service  on a private network rather than risk an open system. He  is more optimistic about increasing use of email and has signed up 500 members who can now send messages via the new  Focus Internet service. 'Firms do not subscribe to something because it is pretty or new, but because it has some business use. They can see that in email.'

 That has not stopped some very big names from taking a more ambitious stance. A group of top London agents including Chesterton, Jones Lang Wootton, DTZ and Hillier Parker launched PropertyLink six months ago, and drew in almost a dozen more firms. It claims to now have details of 1,000 commercial properties accessible via telephone and computer. The next stage will involve occupier requirements, with plans being studied for licensed, leisure and  auction property. Investments may also join the list, although these will involve  a more restricted access because of  confidentiality issues.

  At the other end of the scale,  an outlet for smaller agents is being developed through Property Web, which is moving information from the long-established Property Register magazine online. Neil Evans of Comprop, which set up the service with partner ProNet,  says  the number of properties has doubled this year to around 2,500 and is still growing. The partnership also designed the  new RICS service.

  Other outlets are springing up like weeds, particularly for housing. 'It can't go on,' says Graham Downie of Chesterton, a prime mover in setting up PropertyLink. 'Clients are saying they want  a single, comprehensive source rather than skipping around.' Evans agrees there will be a shakeout, with market leaders like PropertyLink, Property Web and Focus winning the lion's share.

 That will not stop sources proliferating. Services like Estatestoday and Proconet provide addresses to hundreds of property sources around the world. There are so many properties that 'search engines' are offered, where callers punch in requirements such as location and size to download a small selection.

In the US, details of around  a million properties are estimated to be available online. But size is no guarantee of success. One major US service is facing collapse after losing  millions of dollars.

Clair Makin has  created enough waves to qualify as a full-blown tropical storm since her surprise appointment last year as head of the RICS. So it is no surprise that she  has radical  views about the impact of new technology. Many professionals do not appreciate  how much - and how quickly - their lives will be changed, says Hurricane Claire.  'We seem to have been bleating on forever about the effects of the Internet, free information and teleworking. But things are now happening, and unless people adjust they will be left struggling.'

 It will change the way professionals operate. 'Information will be  available at the touch of a button. I could be sitting in New York and call up details of a street in London, look at the buildings available and find out the history on each. 'Emphasis in future will no longer be on owning information but on analysis. That is difficult for some surveyors to grasp.'

  Housing agents face a huge threat. It would only take a big group like the Halifax to put all its property online and install terminals in every branch to cut out a large chunk of the market, she says. 'Why should I travel across country for a weekend dragging around several agents when I can draw up a shortlist locally.'

  New technology will change the type and amount of property required. Banks are a classic example, where telephone services are making space redundant and stripping hundreds of branches from the high streets. It will also affect how businesses are run - and that includes surveying firms. Information will no longer be stored in specific places, as  people are able to work away from offices. Job boundaries will change and there will be a breakdown of the old hierarchies of power. Young surveyors who know where the on-off switch on a computer is will acquire power previously held by partners with the longest service.

  But when? Changes are already happening, says Makin. 'When I arrived here there was no such thing as e-mail. Now we get hundreds of messages. Think what the system could mean for something like general council meetings. All 80 members need to be sent minutes and agendas which can be an inch thick. Soon these could go out via email.'

  When dust rises in such hallowed halls as Great George Street, it may be time for even the most sceptical of property professionals to  consider taking new technology more seriously.

Most professionals now feel they should know something about the Internet, but joining can be daunting. Even those  who have achieved an easy confidence handling computers recoil from a language casually scattered with jaw-breaking acronyms and obscure jargon.

  Despair not, as the UK College of Estate Management has produced the first attempt to help property specialists cut through this fog. And as a bonus, it satisfies up to six hours of Continuing Professional Development responsibilities.

 Don't expect a step-by-step guide onto the information highway. Electronic driving is no different to the real thing; it is best learned with someone in the next seat explaining how the gears work and where the roads lead. A cybercafe sponsored by  Focus will offer this kind of service at the upcoming property Computer Show.

  It does, however,  give an outline of how  the Internet works, as well as a fairly comprehensive explanation of terms like HTTP, domain name, e-mail and hypertext. All very impressive. You should finally be able to converse with your net-cruising children  without running for a dictionary. But a weakness remains.  This information is  good at explaining how the Internet works. It also gives an idea of what it does. But such   technical flummery can obscure the basic question about  what  it is for.

  Author Ed Finch, of Reading University, is   almost a quarter of the way through this 50-page guide before he asks: 'Why use the Internet?' Another couple of pages pass before examples of property sources are examined. Questions such as whether routers form part of the Internet and if  response time can be improved by caching also seem a little obscure for the average user.

  But at least the sources are there - and the questions made intelligible.  This is a useful tool for introducing the possibilities of the Internet - not least because it include disk-based material illustrating what the system looks like on screen and pointers to further information. But don't expect to start from complete ignorance and be cruising within an evening.

The Internet for Property Professionals. CPD Study Pack available from Gill Crew 01734 861101 ext 7270