Copyright: David Lawson - Docklands Property Guide 1997Home page
It has never been easier to sell a home in the UK. Demand is rampant and there are no longer forests of empty blocks in areas like London Docklands to bemuse and confuse visitors - and hold down values. But that makes life hard for buyers. Most are busy people. They don't have the time to spend gazing in agents' windows, collecting piles of brochures and wandering around new developments. Many live outside the area, so the search is even more limited to the odd free weekend. Inevitably, the ideal property has been snapped up by the time you find it.
Buying a home before it is even built is one solution. But how can you be sure what the place will really look like? Artist's impressions and floor plans can only go so far to conjure up an impression of a new home. Technology is coming to the rescue. Leading developers and agents are now putting details of their property on the Internet. This is system which links computers across the world. Until recently only experts in universities and big companies had the equipment and know-how to make the link. Now anyone can do it from a standard desktop computer linked to a telephone.
It has been estimated that more than 30 million people are now on the Internet and the number is expected to multiply every year as the system gets easier to use. One of the fastest growing areas is homebuying. In the USA, details of thousands of homes are available, including pictures, maps, interior shots and prices.
Dennis Evans and Lee Kwo Soh lived half a world apart but both used the same method to find homes within streets of each other in Docklands. Evans, an accountant moving back to London from a stint in Leeds, scoured various property listing services on his PC before settling on a selection of flats on the South Bank.
Soh sat in Singapore looking at pretty much the same information as he looked for potential investments for his family. 'We are probably more comfortable doing this sort of thing in the East, as we make computers and use them more.' he says.
This link to hundreds of potential buyers around the world is a boon to an area like Docklands. London is a honeypot for foreign investors but their natural tendency is look at older-established addresses further west. Details of Docklands homes among the lists of Knightsbridge and Kensington property brought Soh to an area he admits he might never have considered when he finally jetted over to draw up a shortlist.
Galliard and Frogmore have taken full advantage of the technology by putting details of their central London developments online. Views specifications and maps are available of Spice Quay, Tower View and Tamarind Wharf at Butlers Wharf, on the south bank near Tower Bridge.
These are still early days for Internet house-hunting, however. 'It will be a big part of the market one day,' says Tom Marshall of Cluttons. 'But there are still not enough properties available and not enough people with access to computers - or the ability to use them.'
That could change very quickly. Just as the fax and satellite TV were slow to take off, so is the Internet. A major boost should take place next year with the introduction of digital television, opening up huge possibilities for selling homes from the comfort of a living room.
Even people who use a computer in the office every day are overawed with the idea of linking to the Internet - let alone using it to find a home. TV-based services are promised which are as simple as Teletext and Oracle, but with a richer mix of pictures and information. Pressing a button the remote control will access all kinds of home shopping services - including property listings.
'It will never replace the weekend trawl around likely buys,' says Evans. 'No-one would be mad enough to buy a home without having visited it, talked to the owner, looked at the surrounding area and generally got the feel of the place. But it could cut down a hell of a lot of time sorting the sheep from the goats.'
Finding attractive location at the right price is only the first step in home-hunting. Increasingly, people are buying homes before they are built to ensure they do not miss out on the best prospects. They then face the problem of choosing which will have the best designs.
One developer believes it has filled that gap by taking prospective buyers on a computer-generated trip into the future. Ballymore Properties has already taken new technology to heart, both through its 'pages' on the Internet and state-of-the-art electronic controls in the aptly-named Millennium Harbour development near Canary Wharf. But visitors are taken a giant step further with a technique which enables them to walk through homes which are still holes in the ground.
A three-dimensional 'virtual reality' has been created from technology desiged for sophisticated computer games and multi-million-pound films like Jurassic Park. This goes beyond seeing an artist's impression of the layout of a room; you move around it and get the feel of the interior layout.
Ballymore has even packaged up this vision of the future so potential do not have to visit the site. The computerised walkabout has been stored on a CD disk which can posted or taken away for buyers to view on their own computer.
'We have received an incredible response,' says Sean Murray, Ballymore marketing director. 'We wanted to create a new and dynamic development with the future very much in mind. We have therefore harnessed the latest technology which will become a way of life for residents as the Millennium approaches.'