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Living Online at HUD

By Gabriel Margasak
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Friday, February 20, 1998

With vast housing resources online, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is using the Web to help citizens answer housing questions, discuss neighborhoods and find new homes.

By offering mortgage information, homes for sale and discussion groups online, HUD has gone far beyond the press releases and departmental documents that were the standard government Web fare of a few years ago.

The Web site is "a clearinghouse of information on homes and communities . . . designed to empower Americans to solve their own problems," said Candi Harrison, the webmaster for the HUD home page. "What we've tried to do is make this another way that HUD carries out it's mission."

One basic HUD mission is to find people homes -- and with a home comes a mortgage. The "How to Get a Mortgage" page sorts through the different types of mortgages and helps visitors calculate the expense of owning a home.

Not surprisingly, lots of good answers can be found on the frequently asked questions page. Among the questions: "I want to buy a house. Does HUD have any programs that can help me?" And, "I need a place to live, and I don't have much money. Can HUD help me?"

The homeowner refund page answers another key question: "Does HUD owe me money?" When Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance is terminated before the term of the insured loan, a portion of the insurance payment may be refundable to the homeowner. You plug in your name to see if you're on the list.

By far the most popular feature on the site -- getting about 30,000 visits a month -- has been the homes for sale page. Click on "From HUD" to get a state list, which leads to listings that include city, street address, asking price and a HUD case number. Potential home buyers can give that number to a HUD-approved real estate agent and make a bid. Confused? The helpful "HUD Home Buying Guide" explains the steps to take.

Interactivity
The HUD site embraces the idea of online discussion, providing access to the thoughts, opinions and gripes of people all over the country with its "Town Hall" page.

There are several discussion areas. "Over the Back Fence," for instance, is an area for people to discuss issues in their community. "Because we are the department of communities, who better than us to have a good place to talk and chat," Harrison said.

And Harrison said she is trying to get HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo online once a month to discuss issues with citizens.

The Response
Response to the Web site has been overwhelmingly positive, Harrison said.

HUD's home page gets about 120,000 page hits a month. The home buyers page gets about 10,000 a month, and the news page gets up to 13,000 a month, Harrison said.

By comparison, in August of 1995, the home page was only getting 6,500 hits a month.

So who are the people behind these page hits? HUD ran a guest book where users could sign their names and respond to questions. Two thirds of those who signed in classified themselves simply as "citizens", Harrison said.

Bob Warren, a production manager for Continental Wingate Mortgage Group in Atlanta, said he uses the HUD site to get bond prices. Continental is a HUD lender, and the site has the "information we're looking for," Warren said.

"I think for anybody that is looking to buy their first home it's useful," he said. "It helps prepare them for the home-buying experience."

Living in the Future
As the Web continues to expand, HUD managers envision doing more of their business online, with real-time moderated discussions, community mapping software and electronically submitted forms. The Web is "a way to deliver services," Harrison said.

One of those future services is the Community 2020 software, currently only available to download. Harrison said the software will enable citizens to get a sense of any community they are considering moving to with profiles crafted from geographic, demographic and other data.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company



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