Do online portals help house hunters or add to their woes?

When city-based software professional S. Arun Kumar decided to buy a new home within the city, he logged on to the Internet for help. “It seemed like the best option. I leave for work early in the morning and like to spend my weekends at home. The fact that you get to choose exactly what you want online seemed like an advantage."

Indeed, it is this advantage that draws a lot of busy professionals to online realty portals. This, and the fact that you get a direct line to the owner, cutting down the hassle of an agent and cumbersome and expensive negotiations over brokerage fees. You also imagine that you get to see properties that may otherwise be out of your grasp. But here’s the catch.

What Kumar, and many others like him who look for properties online, have found to their disappointment is that a large number of posts on these sites are, in fact, from brokers and agents. “In India, the concept of online shopping in its true sense is still not available,” says Kalpana Murthy, associate director-residential services, Cushman & Wakefield, “What is available for people to see and view is the initial information that creates some interest in the property.”

Christina Priya Dhanuja, a technology intelligence analyst and theatre artiste who recently went online to find a home to rent, says, “I faced problems with agents all the time. Nearly 9 out of 10 ads on the sites are put up by agents and they have a monopoly. In fact, I'm quite convinced that it is essentially because of these middlemen that rents are becoming exorbitant. You have to be really lucky to find an ad put up by an owner."

While it’s true that the websites have opened up options for buyers and renters, there’s very little by way of the expected direct contact. Experts believe the free websites are simply a way of confirming the presence of a property as opposed to cutting out agents altogether.

What’s worrying, however, is that when it comes to new properties, most of the time agents don’t reveal their identity online, as they are outsourced by developers. Hence, the buyers may not even know if they are dealing with an agent or developer, as Murthy points out.

Ideally, it should perhaps be made mandatory for realty sites to reveal whether a property is being put up by an owner or agent, what the brokerage is, and the price of the property. This will go a long way towards lending more transparency to the process.