Seeking ‘For Sale' with your cell

If you ride around in the car on weekends trying to find open houses while balancing a newspaper and map on your lap, you might want to turn to your cell phone. A display of properties for sale – and even open houses – may be as close as the screen on your wireless device.

Despite the housing market slowdown, many Americans are house hunting, and they helped send sales of smart phones and wireless devices to nearly 21 million units in North America last year, according to research firm Canalys. Big companies and start-ups alike are scrambling to provide what could be described as the ultimate tech novelty for home shoppers: searching from a phone.

New mobile services allow users to search for homes for sale, see pictures and details about the properties, get driving directions and call or e-mail the real estate agents handling the sales.

Here are a few of the companies delivering real estate listings to mobile devices:

Trulia: The San Francisco company, a self-described listings “search engine,” two weeks ago announced its new downloadable Trulia Mobile, an application for iPhones and other smart phones, including some BlackBerry, Ericsson, Motorola and Samsung models. Because the devices can pinpoint your location, you can search for open houses and listings without typing in a city or address.

You can see one picture and a few details about the listing, phone or e-mail the agent, and get directions. Listings come from Trulia's database, extensive but not as complete as most local multiple listing services' (MLS) data.

Terabitz: The Palo Alto, Calif., company that builds Web sites and customer management systems for realty brokerages has also developed mobile listings search for some of its clients, including Intero Real Estate Services and, the listings site operated by Home and Garden Television (HGTV). So far available for iPhones only, the technology features listings straight from MLS databases, including multiple photos and plentiful details about each property. An “explore neighborhood” feature lets you see recent sales as well as school and restaurant information. Released last year, the downloadable products for iPhones and some other smart phones let users search listings, and includes a “Homes Near By” feature that will search in a 10-mile radius based on where the user is. As the official Web site of the National Association of Realtors, features nearly 4million listings nationwide.

Home Finder: This iPhone application from Alexander Mobile draws listings from the Google Base database, which incorporates some but not all of the nation's MLS listings.

Experts say the above sites are only a beginning and that mobile phone real estate services are certain to develop and improve because customers are eager to use them.

Pete Flint, chief executive of Trulia, said more than 10,000 people downloaded versions of Trulia Mobile in the first few days after it was released Aug. 25.

“We've been genuinely staggered by the demand,” he said.

One thing that prompted the application's development was that analysis of traffic to Trulia showed that among visitors coming to the Web site via iPhones, the peak time was on Sunday afternoons – prime house-hunting hours. Flint said the company plans to improve Trulia Mobile by adding more photos and information about recent home sales.

Ash Munshi, president of Terabitz, also said his company will be adding new capabilities to its mobile search, and will expand to serve devices other than iPhones as phone manufacturers increase the size of video screens.

Surfing for listings on a small screen is not everyone's idea of fun.

“Although I can do it, I don't find it enjoyable,” said Mary Pope-Handy, an agent with Keller Williams who lives in Los Gatos, Calif. She's used a mobile listings-search product for Realtors called Pocket MLS on her Palm Treo 700, but only occasionally.

“It's just too annoyingly small,” she said.

But Robert Whitelaw of Whitelaw & Sons, a real estate broker in Morgan Hill, Calif., said he likes the Trulia mobile application. He described it as “prettier” than other such products, but thought some consumers would be frustrated by it because Trulia does not incorporate as many listings as MLS-based services do.

The iPhone-toting broker said home buyers he works with are gaining both the tech savvy and the proper devices to complete more of their real estate searches and from mobile devices.