It may be hard to remember now but there was a time when real estate was fun, maybe even fun and games. It was in those long ago days before falling housing starts, crashing real estate values, and the sub-prime mortgage debacle consumed so many companies and jobs and so much time, energy, and newsprint.

We used to delight in real estate - in one-upping other guests at a cocktail party with stories of our own home's appreciation; watching those endless infomercials detailing how to get rich quick with no money down. Then it all became dismal and dispiriting, and all we read about - or in our case write about - are the latest stats on foreclosures or the rumors about failing lenders.



Well, if the fun isn't exactly back, at least the games are.

A new company called Realius debuted recently and it offers the equivalent of fantasy baseball or football for the real estate wonk.

It is still in beta format and currently provides only one game, but it is sort of fun and promises more to come. We aren't sure of the utility of its business model or whether people will flock to play, forming fantasy teams and so forth but still it is nice to write about something other than the doom and gloom that has become real estate and mortgage reporting.

Realius was previewed at the TechCrunch 40 Conference in Berkeley, California in September and was written up in Newsweek's Periscope section. It is apparently owned or at least partially sponsored by Red Oak Realty, a major San Francisco Bay real estate agency. The game is centered in those Bay area communities that Red Oak serves, but it is obviously primed to move nationwide and to do so quickly.

Games form the centerpiece of an otherwise rather conventional real estate web site with listing search capabilities, agent recruitment pages, and so forth. It is easy to imagine Realius licensing their game capabilities to other large agencies in far flung cities either on the Realius site or on a more local server.

The one game currently available to those who sign up (free) on www.realius.com is called Price Me Now, and while it is not as gripping as plotting and grabbing a first round draft pick or even participating in Grand Theft Auto, it is sort of fun. Here is how it works.

The player picks from one of a dozen or so communities in the San Francisco area and is randomly assigned a real house to price and provided with basic information on the house - size, location, square footage, features, in more detail than is usually seen on most listing web sites - and treated to a video tour of the home. Once this information is reviewed and digested, the player can request a selection of comps with basic info on address, bedrooms, baths, square footage, sales date and price in both absolute dollars and a value per square foot. The player must guess the listing price of the subject home and gets a score based on how close to the actual price (by percent) he came and points for that success or failure.

For example, my first game was an incredible 5,700 sf. home in the Alamo/Danville/ Blackhawk area with 6 bedrooms and 6-1/2 baths, a club house and tennis court, fire sprinklers, and a four-car garage. While I read about the property on the right side of the screen pictures of a cavernous master bedroom suite, vaulted entry call with a double curved staircase, and a rolling lawn flashed past on the left. I lucked out and guessed the value at $1,980,575. "You nailed it with 97 percent accuracy" Realius announced and I was awarded 4,850 points.

The second house, a lovely English Manor in the Berkeley/Kensington neighborhood was my undoing. In spite of pictures of a spectacular view of the Bay Bridge, stained glass windows, and magnificent paneling I under priced it horribly at $1,555,000 - or only 57 percent of its actual $2.9 million listed price and received an "ouch" and 2.800 points. After two guesses I was still on level one "Living in a Rent a Tent."

Returning to my roots, I picked a much more modest community, East Oakland. My assigned property was a tough one; two houses on one lot with a garage converted into a studio but with only 1.5 baths to its 5 bedrooms (would hate to live in the house with half-a-bath) I was 81 percent accurate with my guess of $275 per square foot ($362,450) which got me to the second level - "Living in a Swell Motel.)

I did much better on the next two houses "nailing" both and earning 9,700 points but still, at the end of five rounds I was still living in a swell motel.

Going to the "Leader Board" section I found that a number of people had been playing a lot. My total score of 21,400 paled against scores of 929,142 posted by one player with others not close behind. Of course, as in all such sites, players are encouraged to post profiles about themselves along with pictures and a number have done so. I suppose one finds community where one can.

Next on the Realius agenda according to the article in Newsweek is a second game called Fantasy Flip in which homeowners are urged to upload their own homes and solicit guesses as to how much a specified improvement will increase the home's value. Also planned is Major League Investor, which lets players put together imaginary portfolios of properties while competing against other "investors."

In a tough market like the current one this is a pretty low key way of engaging potential customers. It will be interesting to follow Realius' progress and to test its other games as they come on line.

At the very least I appreciated a few minutes enjoying real estate once again.