Posted on: Friday, June 3, 2005

It's easy to be a real-estate voyeur

By Michael McCarthy
USA Today

It's not enough to keep up with the Joneses. Now, homeowners want to know how much their neighbors paid for their houses and how much their own is worth even if they have no intention of selling.

The home-buying boom has created legions of real-estate voyeurs cruising free Web sites such as Domania (www.domania.com), ForSaleByOwner.com (www.forsalebyowner.com) and HomeRadar.com (www.homeradar.com) to find sales prices for homes in their neighborhoods.

Many who peruse these sites are people looking for an edge as they buy and sell homes. Others surf these sites to obsessively track what's increasingly their

No. 1 investment their house much as they would check a stock's price. And then there are those who just enjoy anonymously spying on their neighbors.

"This is the new form of snooping in somebody else's medicine cabinet. In this case, the shelf won't fall down," says Mark Lesswing, technology guru for the National Association of Realtors.

As real estate becomes the national conversation, 21.6 million Web surfers, or 15 percent of the active Web population, visited a real-estate or apartment site in April, up 26 percent from six months earlier, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Traffic to the top 10 sites is up 54 percent during the same period. The percentage of people using the Internet to search for homes now is 74 percent, the Realtor group says.

While information on these sites could raise privacy concerns, most of it is available publicly through county real-estate assessment sites, townships, newspapers and consumer surveys, according to Colby Sambrotto, chief operating officer at ForSaleByOwner.com. The site has posted a 142 percent increase in unique visitors in the past six months.

One problem: Some public information can be old, so consumers should do their own homework with local real-estate agents and county offices.

"This is similar to consumers going to (Kelley Blue Book) before they sell their cars," Lesswing says. "If this makes you a more informed consumer, then it's good for business."

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