Farming FSBOs on the Internet

November 1, 1997

You've probably been getting mixed messages about cyberfarming for FSBOs.

Has the Internet become the FSBO promised land some practitioners feared? Or have practitioners found a golden harvest of business in cyberspace?

Although it’s too early for a definitive answer, one thing is clear: How well you do in cyberspace depends on diligence, finding the right sites, good timing, and probably a little luck.

Early last year, Marianne Langer, broker-owner of Langer Realty, Tucson, Ariz., diligently pursued area FSBOs who advertised on FSBO-specific Web sites. At the time, we profiled her experience in Today’s REALTOR® (March 1996) and she described her success as “moderate to terrible.”

“It got worse,” she says now, explaining why she rarely farms cyberspace these days except to maintain a presence in special-interest chat rooms, which continues to supply a steady flow of referrals. “Commercial FSBO Web sites simply dried up. Newspapers started putting their home classifieds on the Internet, so FSBOs don’t have to hunt down decent sites or pay to be included.”

Hans Koch disagrees, and he runs a booming FSBO Web site to bolster his assertions. As CEO of San Francisco--based Abele Owners’ Network, he's seen listings go from roughly 5,000 a year ago to 35,000 today. It could be that cyber FSBOs didn’t dry up but rather just pooled here. Koch says 30 percent of listers are paying customers. In addition, Abele has contracted with a Web business called Infospace to provide listers and browsers street maps, weather information, a mortgage calculator, and even compatibles.

Although they could encourage FSBOs to avoid hiring a practitioner at first, such sites may be disguised blessings, says Jon Eborn, a salesperson with ERA--National Real Estate, Salt Lake City, and active FSBO cyberfarmer. “When a few sites distinguish themselves, salespeople know right where to go to target FSBOs,” he says. “You used to have to visit two dozen sites to find one or two sellers to contact. Now you can go to one or two good sites and find two dozen sellers in your area.”

Show a bit of skepticism, and Eborn will show you a listing contract for a $1.3 million residence he landed by trolling the FSBO sites. He also found a buyer for the home by posting his own notices in real estate--related newsgroups--and listed the buyer's $1.5 million property.

Fair warning, however: With more practitioners wising up to the potential of cyberfarming, FSBOs on the Internet get lots of unwanted calls from salespeople.

“Way too many!” confirms Brad Gable, a FSBO who listed his $118,000 Colorado Springs, Colo., home on the Abele Owners’ Network. Would he consider listing with one of them? “Not any I've talked to so far. Too insistent.”

That’s why Eborn makes first contact with an E-mail message. “It’s very nonintrusive,” he says. “Just a simple, ‘Let me know if I can help.’” He suggests breaking the ice by mentioning your common appreciation of things cyber.

Even if a listing doesn’t include an E-mail address, don’t give up. Try looking it up in a free Internet directory such as Switchboard, www.switchboard.com.

Internet providers no longer charge customers for individual E-mail messages sent or received, so you shouldn't have to reimburse anyone if you send an E-mail, the way Langer did two years ago.

When FSBOs do inquire, Eborn's response includes a request for a phone number. “A few people like to hide behind their computer,” he says, “but it’s best to get on the phone as soon as possible. It’s more personal, and you can really get down to business quicker. The key is to get their phone number from them, not their listing. It’s like being invited to call.”

An alternative to farming FSBO Web sites is scouting newsgroup messages. With newsgroups, messages are posted as with bulletin boards, and readers can either E-mail a response or post it. Most Web browsers also act as newsgroup readers.

“FSBOs are taking to the newsgroups,” reports Eborn. “They can scope you out and see what kind of messages you post before posting themselves or contacting you.”

One set of national newsgroups begins with “realtynet,” followed by “residential,” “commercial,” “west,” and so on. Search for others with keywords like “estate” and “realty.” Also look for regional groups.

So FBSOs are indeed in cyberspace, and apparently in record number. The secret to reaping a good harvest is finding the right field. Start first at FSBO Web sites (see “Finding FSBOs Online,” page 49), then move into newsgroups. When you make your move, use finesse and your E-mail.

Is working the Net for FSBOs worth the reward? Eborn and other practitioners we spoke to think so. Or, to use the parlance of cybertalk, :-).

Finding FSBOs Online

Use an Internet search engine to find out where cyber FSBOs are congregating in your area.

Just punching in the phrase For Sale by Owner in the AltaVista search engine recently yielded 28,143 hits. But keying in a region--we used Colorado--narrowed the list to 1,158, most of them FSBO registries or commercial FSBO Web pages. Limiting the search to a city would whittle the list to manageable portions.

Even so, scattered among that first 28,000 are several national FSBO sites worth visiting. We did, and here's our report:

Abele Owners’ Network

(http://owners.com)--With 35,000 listings and an easy-to-use database, this is the one to beat hands down. We used listings in Colorado Springs as a barometer of sorts for our test. In this registry, we found a staggering 273 FSBO listings.

But here's a big snafu: Of the dozen or so listers we called in Colorado Springs, fully 10 of them claimed to have never heard of the service, probably because their properties were posted at a site without their consent. Many did not even have access to a computer. Abele CEO Hans Koch says his company doesn’t post unsolicited listings (from newspaper classifieds or other sources). The primary disadvantage of this to practitioners is that it spoils your ability to break the ice by addressing a common interest in technology.

FiSBO Registry

(fisbos.com)--This one epitomizes the changing nature of the Internet. In June this site boasted hundreds of listings. In August it had fewer than 50: one each in Colorado and a handful of other states; 21 in California.

By Owner Online

(http://by-owner-ol.com) --One listing in Colorado (with a disconnected number); eight in California; a few others. Listers pay big time: $200.

FSBO.net: For Sale By Owner Network

(http://fsbo.net)--A total of 10 listings in six states; miraculously, one was in the Colorado Springs area.

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