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The concept is tantalizing: Instead of paying a 6% commission to a Realtor, sell your house yourself on the Web and save tens of thousands of dollars in agents' fees.

Dozens of Web sites, such as ForSaleByOwner.com, HomeSalez.com, GoneHome.com and Owners.com, offer home sellers a platform for marketing their homes to millions of potential customers on the Internet.

But many Southern California home sellers who have tried for-sale-by-owner, or FSBO, sites complain that their ads have gone unnoticed by buyers. Some eventually sign with a real estate agent, while others place FSBO ads in more traditional media, including newspaper classifieds and real estate magazines. The problem, proponents of sell-it-yourself Web sites say, is that many buyers don't yet know the sites exist, though aggressive marketing, including TV infomercials, may someday make for-sale-by-owner real estate sites as popular as such online discount brokerages as Ameritrade and E*Trade.

Perhaps, but today's FSBO sites aren't exactly hotbeds of real estate activity, at least not in Southern California. Their lack of popularity is surprising given the Southland's booming housing market, where homes in some areas are selling in a day and multiple offers are driving up prices. Seldom-visited FSBO sites could offer a distinct advantage to frustrated home buyers, who could make offers without entering into bidding wars.

But don't try to tell that to Valentino Perkov. When he wanted to sell his two-bedroom house in San Pedro, Perkov bought a three-month ad from Owners.com for about $100. After three weeks online, he hasn't received a single call regarding his $345,000 property. "I have some hits on the Web site," Perkov said, "but no calls yet."

James Athan had a similar experience when trying to sell his two-bedroom bungalow in El Sereno. He paid roughly $30 to list his $200,000 home on HomeSalez.- com. "We never got any responses from that Web ad," Athan said.

Christie Stoddard hasn't done much better. She recently listed her $490,000, four-bedroom Brea home on ForSaleByOwner.com. But after a month, her ad doesn't appear to be working. "We've gotten more calls from just having a for sale sign out front," she said.

A typical FSBO site allows the seller to post a classified-style listing with one to seven photos of the houses, along with e-mail and phone contact information.

The cost ranges from nothing (for a basic ad with photos on GoneHome.com) to $199 (for an ad on ForSaleByOwner.com with yard and "directional" signs for your property).

Most sites offer additional services for sellers and buyers, including mortgage calculators, information on schools and recent sales data to help sellers price their homes accurately. And for those unsure about going FSBO, many sites provide links to Realtor sites and phone numbers for partnering real estate agents.

So if sellers are posting ads on FSBO sites, why aren't buyers clicking? According to officials of some sites, the major problem is marketing--or the lack of it.

"Some sites do a good job at taking people's money, but they do a poor job at spending that money where it needs to be spent--at driving potential customers to a home," said ForSaleByOwner.com Chief Operating Officer Colby Sambrotto. "They don't spend enough money on marketing and advertising so not enough people see the ad, and the seller doesn't get any offers."

Based in New York City, ForSaleByOwner.com lists about 10,000 to 12,000 homes for sale on its site at any given time, Sambrotto said. But a quick search for homes within a 50-mile radius of central Los Angeles produced only 36 hits. (A similar search on GoneHome resulted in six homes, whereas Owners.com yielded about 60 hits. Some of the Owners.com listings, however, were for vacant lots and foreclosure properties.)

ForSaleByOwner.com recently shot a 30-minute infomercial explaining the benefits of home selling on the Web. The infomercial will air on cable systems in the Los Angeles area in about a month, and also will run in 36 markets across the country.

Some FSBO sites take a strictly Web-centric (and less costly) approach to marketing. Toronto-based HomeSalez.com, for instance, spends $5,000 to $6,000 per month to place its name on Internet search sites. If you type "sell your own home" in a search engine such as AltaVista or Yahoo, a link to HomeSalez.com will appear in the first page of results.

"It has become so crowded, with [thousands] of real estate Web sites out there," said HomeSalez.com founder and President Shawn O'Quinn. "It's impossible to compete unless you spend money."

Only 16% of homes nationwide are sold without an agent, and that figure drops to 10% in the West, says the National Assn. of Realtors.

FSBO operators believe homeowners simply give up too soon on the sell-it-yourself concept, regardless of whether they use the Web. Perhaps, but it's understandable that home sellers get nervous when potential buyers don't bid.

Michael Williamson listed his $167,500, three-bedroom Inglewood townhouse on GoneHome- .com, but quickly changed his mind and hired a real estate agent. He retained his free GoneHome ad but isn't optimistic about FSBO sites. "As far as I know," he said, "the Web ad has not produced anything."

Williamson said he believes that many potential buyers don't surf the Web. "You're looking at a smaller segment [of the population], people with Internet access."

Many for-sale-by-owner sites see expanding beyond the Net as essential for their success. Some have added voicemail services to attract a larger customer base.

Owners.com, for instance, provides its sellers with a yard sign with a toll-free number. When prospective buyers call the number, they can hear details about the property and leave a message for the seller without going online.

"Imagine yourself driving by a house on a Sunday afternoon, and you want quick information on it without talking to the owner or agent," said Steve Udelson, Owners.com president. "To get information [by phone] is a great convenience to you."

The supercharged Southern California real estate market has created another problem for FSBO sites--outdated listings. Too often homes listed for sale have already been sold, a frustrating experience for potential buyers.

When The Times contacted HomeSalez.com user Athan, for instance, his El Sereno house had been sold six weeks earlier. Similarly, Owners.com user Dorian Filipescu, who was asking $269,000 for his three-bedroom home in Reseda, told The Times that his house had sold a month earlier.

ForSaleByOwner.com's Sambrotto admits that dead listings are a problem for all real estate sites.

GoneHome chief executive and founder Myron Mullins agrees. "It's a huge, huge problem in online real estate right now because it's making for dissatisfactory experiences," said Mullins, who adds that his company contacts sellers if their ads haven't been updated for 45 days. If the homeowner doesn't confirm that the house is still for sale, the ad is removed from the site.

FSBO sites aren't the only ones plagued with dead listings.

Realtor.com, the real estate industry's flagship site, which boasts more than 2 million listings, suffers a similar problem.

A Times check of 10 randomly selected Realtor.com listings in Southern California revealed that seven properties were either sold or in escrow, two were still available and, in one case, the agent's phone number had been disconnected. (Listings on Realtor.com direct you to an agent, not to a homeowner.)

But not all is gloom and doom in the FSBO online world. GoneHome.com user David Huang, who is asking $749,000 for his four-bedroom house in Glendale, said he's had success selling and renting properties on FSBO sites. Some regions of the U.S., he said, are more receptive to Internet shopping than others.

"I'm in the Bay Area," Huang said, "and customers here use the Internet more often than people in Southern California."

Industry experts agree that Southern California isn't a front-runner in FSBO activity. According to ForSaleByOwner.com research, homeowners in Florida, the Carolinas and other regions of the southeastern U.S. are more receptive to selling without an agent.

"We're very weak on the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest," said Sambrotto, a problem he attributes, in part, to demographics. "People in the lower middle class are more open to [FSBO] because there's a larger incentive for them to save that 6%."

Despite the shortcomings of for-sale-by-owner Web sites, its proponents predict the concept will ultimately succeed. The reason: Realtor commissions are too steep, they say, and homeowners want a less expensive way to sell their properties.

"Consumers have been getting a raw deal," Sambrotto said. "They deserve better, and our goal is to offer them a viable alternative."

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Jeff Bertolucci, a former news editor for PC World, is a freelance writer in Agoura Hills.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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