Browsing for housing is not just an ancillary tool in the quest to buy a home.
For one in three home buyers it could be the only way to go when buying a home.
Using the Internet, it turns out, also gives you a clandestine approach to being the proverbial nosy neighbor, not to mention all the "normal" online home shopping benefits -- obtaining a real estate agent and finding financing, mortgage, market, school and neighborhood information, among others.
Nearly a third of 300 San Francisco Bay Area home owners surveyed said it's likely home buyers will consider buying a home on the Internet -- sight unseen -- without an in-person tour, according to a survey commissioned by Prudential California Realty .
Given advances in the Internet's information technology, including high resolution imagery, speedy virtual tours, cross-platform file exchange, online neighborhood mapping, emailed communication convenience, and the wealth of school, neighborhood, mortgage and other educational home buying content, it's not surprising that some consumers believe buying sight-unseen with a Net assist will become more common.
After all, the vast majority of home buyers go online to browse for housing at some point in their home-buying effort.
The National Association of Realtors 2005 Profile of Home Buyers And Sellers found that 82 percent of first-time home buyers and 78 percent of repeat buyers used the Internet to search for homes.
NAR also found 24 percent of buyers actually found their home on the Internet. It's not clear if those buyers actually purchased their home sight unseen, but nearly one in four netted their home on the net.
Online shoppers surveyed said that's because what home shoppers saw online was often pretty much what they got -- on the surface anyway.
In Prudential's survey, 79 percent of those surveyed said the homes online met their expectations when they viewed them in person.
So why beat the bushes?
In the time it takes to physically tour 1 home, you can "visit" dozens or more homes in the virtual world.
Thirty-three percent of buyers searching online said they viewed 10 to 30 homes before they purchased their dream home and 22 percent looked at 100-200 homes online before they purchased. The buyers most frequently viewed between 10 and 20 homes in person, the survey said.
However, sight-unseen buyers should beware.
If you do attempt to purchase a home online or otherwise, without actually seeing it, you should not forego a full round of inspections (home, roof, termite, etc.) to learn the true condition of the property.
Also, photographs and virtual tours typically do not reveal termites, leaky roofs, appliances about to quit or an undermined foundation.
And then there are all the little things that don't show up in photos and virtual tours -- the next door neighbors; true color rendition of paint, decor and other finishing details; creaky floors; the property's north, east, south or west orientation and a host of other conditions lurking out of sight.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, but it's not the same thing as being there. Somewhere along the line, it's your duty to examine the property physically," said Frank Cannella, a branch and regional manager in Prudential's Northern California East Bay Division.
What you see simply isn't always what you get -- below the surface.
"How could you know what the neighborhood is like. How could you know what the smell of the house is like. They could have had [animals] in it," Cannella said.
Neighborhood virtual tours and an online experience that, well, smells is still on the drawing boards.
"I would be surprised if that (one-in-three sight unseen online buyers) ever happened. I don't see that happening," he added.
Prudential commissioned Caravan Opinion Research to conduct the telephone survey from January 17 to 19 this year with 300 adults living in private households in Northern California, who also purchased a home in the past three years and used the Internet to assist them in the search.
Photos attracting the most attention of buyers was the exterior of the home (41 percent) and then photos of the kitchen (37 percent).
While the online home shoppers were at it, many of them, toured online homes as virtual nosy neighbors, dropping in uninvited on homes near where they live.
Among those surveyed, 37 percent were "looky-loos" who wanted to see what was inside of their neighbor's home for sale. Nearly twice that many dropped in to check their neighbor's listing price.
Prudential said consumers not only use real estate listing websites to see homes' high quality photos and virtual tours, but also to view finance, community and school information, to find open houses and to assess the value of their homes.
And that's another sight unseen buyer beware.
Online home values typically aren't accurate if real comparables (recent sale and listing prices of homes comparable, by neighborhood, floor plan, age, style, etc., to their own) are not considered.
Apparently, virtual naiveté is alive and well.