Online Real Estate Brokerage Magnifies Discounts

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By Elizabeth Razzi
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Maybe the world doesn't need yet another real estate Web site promising to revolutionize the way we buy homes. But the launches keep coming anyway, and the Washington area just got a new one,, earlier this month.

Sawbuck, a real estate brokerage that exists only on the Web, makes all the usual promises: cool and easy home searches, referrals to real estate agents, and the chance for buyers to save thousands of dollars on each deal. It sounds wearingly familiar, but Sawbuck looks as if it could be smarter than the average URL.

It allows you to search all the homes listed on the local multiple-listing service, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, and includes price data that used to be available only to real estate agents. It's likely to be the site I use most often to search listings and gather price information.

Sawbuck is the baby of Steve Barnes and Guy Wolcott, who run a District mortgage lender, Flex Funding. Its launch includes only Washington-area homes, at least for now.

Sawbuck's business model addresses some long-standing problems in how real estate deals are handled on the Web and in the physical world.

One of those problems is that too many sales tools, from low-tech yard signs to high-tech Web sites, direct buyers to the agent who listed the home, even though the listing agent already represents the seller. Smart buyers find their own agent who can negotiate for a lower price and better terms.

Another problem is that too many brokerages promote their own mortgage and title services to buyers without offering substantial discounts for keeping all that extra business under one roof.

That's not the way it should work. When you buy the burger, fries and Coke, McDonald's gives you a cheaper price than if you buy the pieces separately. It's the same thing with homeowners and auto insurance; if you buy them together you get a discount. But real estate brokers rarely offer a substantial price break when you buy their combo package.

Sawbuck tackles both issues. The system does not funnel buyers to the listing agent. Instead it offers to match buyers with an experienced local agent who can represent them. And it promises significant discounts if you use it for brokerage, mortgage and title services.

I'll get to the details on those discounts shortly. First let's look at the fun part of the site, the search function. All worthwhile real estate Web sites offer a good search function; it's the carrot that lures potential buyers.

Sawbuck is not the first Web site to offer full multiple listing service access in the area., for one, offers it. But Sawbuck makes the information easier to find and provides more price data for recently sold homes.

Redfin recently boosted its price-comparison content, but its pages are statistic-heavy and harder to interpret than Sawbuck's. The latter's approach is easier: Click on the map, look at the house picture, and see the sellers' original asking price and their current price. You can click from house to house and get the history of recent sales through the whole neighborhood.

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