Property: A Few Sites for Sore Eyes ; Convenient Though It May Seem, Househunting Online Can Be Even More Wearing Than Traipsing the High Street. but New Research Can Now Tell Us Where to Browse with Confidence

Article excerpt

The days are over when househunting meant sitting in an estate agent's office for two hours only to emerge with a wadge of material that barely meets your requirements, by which time all the other agents in the street have closed for the day. The internet has removed the constraints of time and distance from househunting and , its greatest strength, given the buyer the opportunity to select from a pool of properties.

Everyone is familiar with the notion that the ideal home in Harrogate can be found from Hong Kong or from a yacht in the Mediterranean, but what is not so clear is how many hours might have been spent browsing through badly designed property websites and how often tempers were frayed by slow searches and unwelcome but unavoidable distractions.

The number of property search sites and portals, regional and national, hovers around the 100 mark, and the frequent comings and goings are a good indication that this is still a young business. Essentially an advertising battleground, claims and counter-claims about numbers of properties shown, agents who participate and the total of "hits" received on a day, can leave the punter at the keyboard none the wiser. Choice, clarity and an efficient service are rather more their concerns.

Two common criticisms of online searches are that properties often remain on display long after they have sold and that the response of e-mail inquiries to an estate agent about a particular property is either too slow or ignored altogether. A regular browser on property sites says she gets the impression that agents use sites as a shop window to acquire customers' details for their database. Indeed, some notion of how the sites generate income can explain why it is sometimes necessary to wade through advertisements for goods and services. Wasting time on the internet is just as irritating as reading through piles of unsuitable particulars and the ability to refine a search clearly benefits the purchaser.

When Jenny Maslen started looking for a house suitable for herself and her husband who would shortly be retiring from the Church, it was agreed that her elderly mother should move with them but have her own separate annexe.

They had settled on Gloucestershire and began their search in Cirencester on agents' web sites. "I specified properties between pounds 200,000 and pounds 600,000 but nothing further. I didn't fill in the number of bedrooms and bathrooms because that was not as important as the adjoining accommodation, but I always wanted to see a picture. Postcodes were also too restrictive for our purposes. Purely by chance, on the Humberts site, we came across a Georgian farmhouse with a coachhouse attached which was outside our initial area."

It turned out to be a find beyond their highest expectations. The property needed work, but the coachhouse turned out to have a suite of large rooms with the potential for developing the hayloft above. "We found the ideal house in a lovely community a few miles from Tewkesbury," says Mrs Maslen. "But if I had been able to type in a requirement for a property with an annexe, perhaps even suitable for the elderly, it would have saved agents and myself a great deal of time. Only with one small agent could you specify outbuildings."

The ease and efficiency of site searching is something that internet users discover through trial and error, since independent surveys are notable by their absence. …