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Sunday, September 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A sit-down, flyby real-estate overview

Seattle Times staff reporter

At first, homebuyers had to drive by potential properties to see them. Then the Internet offered photos and pinpoint locations on rudimentary maps. Now the next generation of online real-estate marketing has dawned: a flyby approach to homes for sale, homes that have recently sold, nearby parks and schools — all without ever leaving the computer.

Pioneered by a new Seattle firm, redfin.com is the nation's first real-estate Web site and brokerage to marry satellite-view photos with a host of other technology to give the public a near tree-top view of whole neighborhoods down to mere city blocks. Viewers can even use it to select a real-estate agent, from any of a number of firms, who specializes in their target neighborhood or type of property.

One of those agents, William "Keoki" McCarthy, considers it a significant improvement over other real-estate sites.

"Normally, you put in a bunch of words to describe what you're looking for and hope you did it right," says McCarthy, owner of McCarthy GMAC Real Estate in Kenmore. Redfin, he says, is "cool because you can look at a map from above and search down and down and down. You can even search by street if you want to. It's a very unique way of allowing customers to look for property."

Unveiled just this month, Redfin is the brainchild of three men with wildly divergent backgrounds.

The founder and president, David Eraker, holds a biochemistry degree and was enrolled in the UW's medical school when he decided to make what had been a fill-in job — software design — his career. "I really like the process of going from something theoretical to something concrete, and the rate you can do that in software is very rapid," he says.

Michael Dougherty, a co-founder and Redfin's chief operating officer, earned degrees in electrical engineering and international studies from Yale, taught physics in Poland, then studied whale acoustics before being bitten by the software bug. The firm's vice president of real estate, Marcus Smith, was an architect who later became the owner/broker of a real-estate company.

Redfin itself grew out of Eraker's own experiences buying and selling his Seattle home. Very tech savvy, "The real-estate market seemed from the viewpoint of consumers one of the most underdeveloped technologically," he recalls.

So he set about changing that, backing the small startup with money raised from friends and family. It's taken two years, and now at its launch Redfin has an integrated menu of information for King County houses and condominiums. (Nearby counties might be added by the end of the year.)

There's Northwest Multiple Listing data on properties currently for sale; this often includes interior and exterior photos plus sales price and a property description. There's King County tax assessor's data, which reveal the property taxes and may also include previous sale dates and amounts.

The satellite mapping function can be zoomed in to give a neighborhood view akin to what one would see flying over it in a small plane — sometimes right down to cars parked in driveways. As chosen by the viewer, schools, parks and names of roads all can be displayed, instantly offering a sense of a home's proximity to arterials and neighborhood amenities.

The boundary lines of for-sale and recently sold homes can be outlined, too, so viewers can gauge and compare the size of the lots. Then those properties can be selected individually for more information. In this way, buyers (or the merely curious) can check out sales-price trends by neighborhood.

McCarthy confesses he's "kind of getting addicted" to the aerials. "It's an interesting way to see, especially if you're looking for acreage. You can fly across the county picking out the big lot sizes and seeing what they're going for. It's kind of fun."

What the system doesn't do is tell redfin.com visitors who owns the properties. Although that's generally public information, "We feel it's very important to respect people's privacy," states Eraker, "so we wouldn't consider doing something like that."

Free to the general public, Redfin hopes to make money by connecting homebuyers and realestate agents — a general model that's been very successful for another Seattle site, HouseValues .com. Just five years old, HouseValues.com so far this year has realized revenues of $20.5 million, with almost $4 million of that profit. Earlier this month, it announced its intention to go public, hoping to raise $86.25 million through its initial public offering.

That's clearly an indication real-estate sites can be profitable. "HouseValues has done a wonderful job," says Dougherty, Redfin's COO. "There's certainly a chance for Redfin to grow at that rate, but that's something we'd hope for, rather than anticipate or forecast."

Redfin, however, is taking a slightly different approach to working with agents. Rather than charging them a monthly commission, agents who register with Redfin (none actually works for the company) will pay it a fee only when a customer who finds an agent through Redfin uses that agent to buy a home.

About 20 agents from various firms already have signed up, and Smith, who's Redfin's broker, thinks many more will as they realize it's a cost-effective way to attract clients.

"Real estate is a very competitive business, and agents are spending more and more of their money trying to get business," Smith explains. "Redfin offers them a way to be out there and have consumers see their qualifications, rather than spending their energy trying to connect with consumers."

After a decade in the business, agent McCarthy has seen a lot of evolution in real-estate Web sites, and he's curious to see how Redfin will do. "It will be interesting to see if it will be a fringe thing, or the thing that causes all of us to try and figure out a way to get it on our Web sites. It certainly has a lot of appeal because it gives a real interesting view of listings."

The team at Redfin is hoping for mainstream acceptance within a year. Then the next step, says Dougherty, would be to "attract investment on a larger scale, which will allow us to tweak things and scale things nationally."

Meantime, he and the others are working on the site "more hours than I'd care to count," adding even more features. "It's all hours of the day and night," Dougherty says.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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