Home & Garden

Househunting in a gas crisis

You can expect some creative strategies to cut down on mileage

If you were shopping for a house, would you be offended if the agent showed up for a viewing on a scooter?

What if you had to fold yourselves into an agent's tiny hybrid car, instead of spreading out in the traditional big sedan or SUV?

I'll bet that you're less likely to be offended now that gas is $4 a gallon. These days, industry blogs are abuzz with tips on how salespeople can serve their clients and keep their gasoline bills at manageable levels. (Yes, one agent said she used a scooter.)

Charlotte pros are paying attention and changing the way they do business. They are less likely to drive clients halfway across the county to see just a few houses, said Lexie Longstreet of Savvy and Company on Seventh Street. “You're not going to drive out to Mint Hill to see just two houses,” she said. “Now, it might be 10.”

That can pose problems. The tactic saves gas, but agents know too many homes in one sweep can overwhelm clients. On top of that, clients want to see more homes during this slowdown. “Before, they might see 10 and narrow it down to two or three. Now, they want to see 30 or 40.”

Longstreet said it's more crucial than ever that agents help clients pare down their to-see lists. If an agent is sure a family won't like a kitchen or a backyard, better to skip that house.

That poses another catch.

Agents traditionally have set aside time, say one day a week, to preview newly listed homes. That's happening less with the cost of gas so high.

Now, instead of driving around all day, more agents – like their clients – are turning to the Internet.

The good news is that online presentations are getting better. “They're less gaudy and more useful,” Longstreet said. There are fewer gimmicks – 360-degree panoramas that leave you dizzy but don't show much – and better photos that help you decide whether you like a home's features.

Donna Anderson of Cottingham Chalk said high gas prices and fewer personal previews have nudged agents to better communicate with each other.

“Say I know that my client definitely does not want white kitchen cabinets, but there aren't enough pictures of the kitchen cabinets online. I call the listing agent to ask detailed questions. … Or, a listing might say that an office could be used as a fourth bedroom. I'd call to ask whether (it) has a closet.”

Anderson, president-elect of the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association, attended an industry convention last week in San Francisco, where she said everyone was talking about gas prices and sharing tips.

Efficient visits

Mapping features on real estate search sites help you plan your own Sunday morning neighborhood tours more efficiently. They're already helpful, and they're getting better.

Prudential Carolinas Realty unveiled a new mapping tool just this week. “When you go there, you'll be able to draw a circle on the map and search for all the houses that match your criteria inside that circle,” said Tommy Camp, president and CEO.

Smart agents aren't just sitting at their desks. They're blogging and looking for other ways to help their clients and raise their own profiles. Savvy has prepared videos with information about a handful of neighborhoods where the company is especially active.

When a prospective buyer has questions about a neighborhood, Savvy agents can e-mail videos.

That often helps clients pare down their own wish list or change their focus altogether. The videos help clients compare, say, NoDa to South End and Elizabeth.

Anderson said she recently helped a family focus its search around churches of the family's denomination. She found a dozen churches in one area the family was considering, more than three dozen in another. The family bought in the second area.

Preparation first

Longstreet says agents should spend more time qualifying prospective buyers financially and interviewing them before hitting the streets. Screening buyers more carefully can be tough. Some want to see everything available, and agents are conditioned to show, but proper screening saves wear and tear on buyers and agents.

Camp, whose company has some 850 agents in 16 offices in the two states, said Prudential has placed renewed emphasis on client interviews. Sales associates are taught to ask questions about lifestyles, not just preferred house styles.

And if some buyers still want to see scads of houses? “We're prepared to show you as many houses as you want to see,” Camp said. But when everyone piles into the car, don't be surprised if it's not a Buick or Mercury.

Longstreet has ordered a Toyota Prius. “We'll all just have to cram in there,” she said with a laugh.

Allen Norwood: homeinfo@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358