The Web on a Budget

“Ramping up” doesn’t have to mean giving up lunch for the rest of the year.

April 1, 2000

Constructing a snappy Web site can cost a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars, depending on the amount of customization you want.

In this article, you’ll meet three comrades who’ve successfully developed sites, but at different price points.

First, however, a few words about getting started: Setting up your page involves design and possibly programming know-how. If you lack the time, technical expertise, or inclination to master a Web programming language or design software, you can hire a site designer to create your destination on the Internet.

A standard entry-level Web site runs about $500, according to Kristina Morrison, vice president of Advanced Access, a Web design company in Anaheim, Calif. A partially personalized destination, including real estate articles, autoresponders—generic, automated responses to contacts’ e-mail--seller and buyer forms, a listings database, and favorite links, costs about $700. Beyond that, you can spend $2,500–$5,000, depending on your ambitions.

But you may make some of your money back. We found a practitioner who’s flirting with turning a profit on his Web business alone. Ready to take the leap?

A Web site for no money down

Mel Coker, a salesperson with Russell & Jeffcoat Inc., REALTORS®, Columbia, S.C., created and published his Web site, www.columbiasouthcarolina.com/homes, for almost no money.

An accountant by trade, Coker taught himself HTML. He obtained his real estate license at a friend’s suggestion in November 1997 and spent every evening over the next two months designing his site.

Coker bought a $600 digital camera so that he could add photos of his listings to his site. He also paid a domain registration fee for a second Web address, www.melcoker.com, to increase the likelihood of being found by search engines.Coker’s hosting services are free, since he’s referred so much business to the provider. He occasionally buys digital photo tours of his listings for $99 each, depending on the level of marketing the property needs.

Coker believes his strength is using free search engine placements to attract a steady stream of buyers to his Web sites. “I’ve requested links in all the major search engines, the real estate-specific search engines and directories, and the South Carolina directories.

He recently purchased a $50 software program called WebPosition Gold (www.webposition.com/), which analyzes a site’s search engine positions and suggests meta tags that could enhance its search status.

Coker attributes 11 of his 20 transactions in 1999 to Web-generated leads.

He also makes money maintaining another site, www.hiltonhead-usa.com, which he uses to rent out his two investment condos on Hilton Head Island, S.C. When prospective renters respond, he finds out whether they’re also interested in buying property. He passes those leads to a local salesperson, collecting a referral fee in the bargain.

One site, $400; another, $3,500

Roger Lautt, a salesperson with RE/MAX Exclusive Properties in Chicago, spent $400 for his Web site, www.isellchicago.com, four years ago and budgeted $3,500 for a recent overhaul. “My first one was great, but it was dated. It wasn’t of the caliber and quality I wanted,” he says.

Lautt, who maintains multiple URLs, spends approximately $200 monthly on hosting services. Multiple destinations help him stay at the top of search engine lists.He rarely buys virtual tours, because homes sell quickly.

Lautt focuses his condo-specific Web siteonproviding information to the hundreds of homeowners in a half dozen high-rise buildings where he sells units. Chicagocondosales.com cost him about $2,500 to build.

Lautt closed 63 transactions in 1999, and estimates that about 20 percent of his business came from the sites. With that newfound volume, he’s recruiting a third full-time assistant to maintain the sites and reply to visitor e-mail.

He won’t need additional software, he says, because Microsoft FrontPage 2000 and other Web development tools were preinstalled on his computer.

He pays a designer about $50 an hour to maintain and tweak the sites occasionally. Lautt advises other salespeople to shop around and select a designer who has a track record with practitioner sites. “I’ve seen people spend $5,000 on a site that doesn’t look as if it cost that much,” he warns. “Make sure you know whom you’re working with, because everyone and his brother have Web design software and can do a Web site.”

High-cost site aims for profitability

Brian Wiegand, a salesperson with John L. Scott Real Estate in Seattle, has spent a tidy $5,550 on his site and has leveraged it into an e-commerce moneymaker.

His investment in www.seattlehome.com includes $300 for a year of hosting plus $5,250 for design services--70 hours at $75 an hour--provided by a retired Microsoft employee. Wiegand believes his time is better spent selling real estate.

Much of his investment is recouped by selling more than a dozen advertising pages at his site to other salespeople and related businesses for $50–$250 a month. (He sells ad pages on a first-come-first-served basis by e-mailing an ad space offer to top producers at other brokerages.) And he earns referral fees by passing along leads that come through the dedicated phone number listed at his site.

Since Wiegand wants his site to be neighborhood oriented and encompass more than real estate, he plans to give away space on the site to local businesses that post “Visit seattlehome.com” stickers on their doors. Rather than generating revenue, these listing-for-sticker deals are expected to boost awareness of the Web site.

Wiegand plans to expand into other areas and even other states. “[My Web site concept]could be profitable,” he says, “because there’s [an opportunity to sell] advertisements and sponsorships of specific neighborhoods.”

So far, the site has been a boon. He counts seven listings, numerous buyers, and referral fees among its paybacks.

If you want to cap your Web design costs, be specific, he says. “The more direction you can give the Web site designer, the less money it will cost you.”

What to ask Web designers

Before you hire a pro, ask

  • How much will the design, maintenance, and hosting cost?
  • Can I add custom information to the Web site, or will I get a packaged template?
  • How will my listings be displayed? (Designers should know how to automate the listing imports and updates to your site.)
  • What will be unique about my site?
  • Will you submit my site to search engines? If so, to how many and how often?

Marcie Geffner is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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