Like so many relationships these days, it started when his ad on the Web site Craigslist.org caught her eye.
She called him to express her interest, and they agreed to meet on a bright Saturday afternoon in June. Rita Johnson was a law school student from Arizona looking to move to Washington; Getinet Bantayehu was a recent Harvard grad.
By the next morning, she was ready to commit.
So, tucked at a table in a crowded deli, Johnson wrote out a check for $20,000 as a good-faith deposit on Bantayehu's two-bedroom, two-bath condo in Southwest Washington. He had listed it for sale on the Internet classified advertising site for $399,000. They exchanged signed contracts over cups of coffee. In the glow of mutual goodwill, he offered to pay half the condo fee for the first year.
"It was an emotional sale," Bantayehu said afterward. "She noticed all the little details I'd put in, that I didn't think anyone would notice" -- the counter-depth refrigerator, the crown moldings, the Ralph Lauren "River Rock" textured paint.
There wasn't a real estate agent in sight.
There are no official statistics, but Johnson and Bantayehu seem to be part of a growing number of buyers and sellers who meet through Internet sites, rather than professional agents.
Internet site operators say younger people especially are more likely to eschew agents and try to buy and sell property over the Web that they have come to depend on to meet all their needs.
"It's a generation that's very self-directed and their first reaction to anything is to head to the Internet," said Steve Udelson, chief executive of Owners.com, a Web site that lists properties for sale by owner. If the net-savvy want to find a mate, book an airline ticket or buy stock, he said, they go to eHarmony, Orbitz. or E-Trade. "They're not pre-disposed to paying commissions for anything. They've grown up in an era where you cut out the middleman and use the Internet to find the lowest cost options."
Bantayehu, 21, has already bought and sold several investment properties without using real estate agents, who usually charge about 6 percent commission to sellers.
"If you have the time and energy to do the work, then it doesn't make sense to use a Realtor," he said. "I mean it's not like being a doctor. Obviously you wouldn't want to perform your own surgery. But it is like being a barber. You could save 20 bucks and give yourself a haircut. Except when you're your own Realtor, you save like 20,000 bucks."
Like many sellers, Bantayehu prefers listing his properties on the popular Craigslist Web site, an Internet bulletin board where people can post free notices. Created 10 years ago on the West Coast, Craigslist now has Web sites for almost 100 American cities. Users can post notices seeking dates, roommates, employment or advice without having to pay a fee. Others are selling clothes, furniture, cars and, increasingly, real estate. It's all free, except to those posting job listings in some major cities.
According to published reports, Craigslist's is expanding its user base by 100 percent a year. Every month, the site claims 2 billion hits and boasts up to 4 million classifieds.
Susan Minsek of Silver Spring started off selling furniture on Craigslist this spring.
After unloading her antique piano, leather loveseat, Scan dining room set and other items for a total of $3,000, Minsek decided to just go ahead and list her townhouse, too. Recently married, she was selling her home to relocate with her husband to Virginia.
"Nice, normal people use Craigslist," Minsek said. "It just made sense to list the house there. I don't want to pay commission for something I can do myself."
A FSBO Tradition
Sellers have always tried to bypass agent's commissions by selling their own properties. According to the National Association of Realtors, the number of for-sale-by-owner transactions nationwide has been 13 percent to 15 percent for the past decade.
"It certainly hasn't been increasing, and we believe it may actually be decreasing," said Iverson Moore, an association spokesman. He said FSBOs may be able to use the Internet to more effectively market their properties, but they still face problems when they attempt to sell without professional help, including identifying qualified buyers and negotiating legalities.
"The Internet is a fantastic marketing tool, and no one has embraced it more than Realtors," he said. The association's Realtor.com, which lists properties for sale by real estate agents, is the granddaddy of real estate sites. According to recent association figures, about 7.29 million people browse through its listings each month.
Realtor-operated sites have long dominated the Web, and they were closed to FSBOs. Web sites featuring FSBO properties have been around for years, but they have generated relatively little interest from buyers or sellers.
Another hurdle was that it was difficult for owners to determine a fair asking price for their homes because they didn't have access to comparable sales, or comps, the listings of properties that recently sold in the same neighborhood.
Now, however, owners can find information about comparable sales from public records on the Internet. And for a fee they can arrange to have their properties listed on the multiple listing service, which can easily be accessed by would-be buyers. Meanwhile, sites such as Craigslist.org and Owners.com have picked up in popularity.
Owners concede that an Internet listing, even on a popular site, is no guarantee that a property will sell promptly -- even in a hot market.
Minsek held an open house on the July 4th weekend, filling bowls with popcorn and setting out a fresh orchid. She'd had the carpets professionally shampooed and the whole townhouse scrubbed by a cleaning service, following advice she had gleaned from a do-it-yourself book. Just 10 people came by the first day, and three the second. The only one really interested in buying was encumbered by a complicated financial contingency that Minsek worried wouldn't work.
By the second week, she was talking to real estate agents. But Minsek said she still wasn't prepared to pay a 6 percent commission. She thought she had located a few more potential buyers via Craigslist and wanted an agent to vet them for a reduced fee of perhaps 2 percent.
"I'm under a time constraint and it's difficult for me to take time off to show the house," she said. "Otherwise I would be able to do it all myself."
Some real estate agents would scoff at Minsek's decision to hold an open house on a holiday weekend. And some for sale by owner ads on Craigslist are decidedly amateurish. One recent listing for a "hot" 16th Street condo featured four photos of a tiled bathroom and the notation, "batteries went dead so photogs of living room, kitchen and front of building are not available."
According to the National Association of Realtors, 5 percent of all home sales in 2004 were originally listed as FSBO, but the owners went on to use a licensed agent to get a sale.
New Role for Realtors
But some people, like Owners.com's Udelson, think the rapid rise of Internet sites, combined with a self-sufficient generation, will eventually revolutionize the real estate industry, just as it has revolutionized the travel industry.
"It's going to be a big, big challenge for real estate agents in the years ahead," he said. "The challenge is for the industry to come up with new service options to address the needs of this emerging generation -- such as flat fees for specific services, discounted commissions or services for do-it-yourself sellers."
He said, "The real estate market is hot and there's a lot of programs targeted to young grads -- no money down, fast turnaround, rehab it yourself. They don't hesitate to respond and they're confident they can do it on their own."
Daniel Yohannes, 36, a real estate investor, agrees. "I wouldn't even think about using an agent in this hot market," he said. "The title companies will provide you with all the information and documents you need. And you can list the property yourself and find lots of interested buyers."
Yohannes is looking for a buyer for a just-completed U Street NW loft he bought when it was under construction eight months ago, listing the property with washingtonpost.com, Washington City Paper and Craigslist.
"The people who contact me are professional and savvy and ready to buy," he said.
Many of the owners interviewed concede they may have been able to get a higher price if they had used an agent, but they think they still would have paid more in commissions -- so they came out ahead in the long run.
"I think Realtors fuel the craziness around the bidding process -- they up the temperature," said Colleen Mitchell, who bought a home in Silver Spring with her husband with the help of a real estate agent after they sold their California property on their own. "One of the nice thing about Craigslist is that it's more personal and more relaxed."
Bantayehu said both buyers and sellers benefit when they meet directly and bypass an agent, even though buyers don't pay the agent's commission out of pocket.
"I buy and sell, so I'm on both ends and I prefer not to use an agent when I buy, either, because I can get a better deal," he said. He thinks buyers realize the seller is potentially passing along some of the savings. "Ideally they split the savings and each get 3 percent, but that's a delicate balance and it's almost impossible to achieve," he said. "Still they both can negotiate a price they're comfortable with. There's a 6 percent savings on the table."
According to the National Association of Realtors, younger home buyers are more likely to use the Internet to search for real estate than older people. In 2004, 36 percent of home buyers 25 to 34 and 28 percent of those 35 to 44 searched the Web while looking for homes, compared with 17 percent of those 45 to 54 and 10 percent of those over 55.
No figures specifically track the demographics of FSBO Internet users, but a scan of sites such as Craigslist indicates many sellers are young professionals. Their ads tend to highlight assets about their properties that are targeted to their peers, noting for instance that residents in their building are social or that the property is a short walk to Starbucks.
In fact, the real estate section on Craigslist has become so popular that some professional real estate agents are using it to advertise properties as well. Sometimes their ads are almost indistinguishable from those placed by the FSBOs and don't reveal that the contact number is for an agent, not the owner.
"That's going to ruin it," Mitchell bemoaned. "People go on there looking for deals -- and to deal with sellers directly. If it becomes just another way for Realtors or car salesmen to advertise, then it defeats the purpose."
Johnson, who started law school after a career as a teacher, described the process of buying Bantayehu's condo as "low pressure" and said she wasn't worried that she didn't have an agent to look after her interests. She appreciated meeting the young entrepreneur, noting that many real estate agents try to keep buyers and sellers from ever seeing each other.
"Perhaps it was foolish," not using an agent, she said. "But you can do so much research on the Internet," such as looking at comparable properties, finding a title company and getting a mortgage. "When you think about it, it just seems to make more sense to use the Internet than a Realtor."