The Web is truly getting crowded with real estate web sites, each trying to carve out its own niche. Zillow has gotten most of the press but we discovered another one today that, while very similar to Zillow in some respects, is following a different business model.

Reply.com looks a lot like Zillow. It claims a database of 70 million homes - about the same as Zillow, and provides the visitor with satellite images of towns, neighborhoods, and streets. If a house is in the database there is a house value available and a basic description of the house; square footage, number of rooms, perhaps a lot size, whatever is available from public records. Reply.com also provides a search function that allows the visitor to identify mortgage lenders, real estate agents, and renovators by zip code. This site, however, also has a parallel service for auto sales. Except for that, the similarities to Zillow are so strong that one wonders if the two sites are affiliated in some way. Not that it matters.



Zillow's latest wrinkles as reported here last month are free home sale listings available to both real estate agents and owners (FSBOs) and a feature called "Make Me Move" in which sellers are encouraged to set a price on their home - whether it is actually for sale or not - that would, if met, be enough to motivate them to call the moving van.

We thought that this was pretty silly, particularly in the current declining market, unless a house is in someway unique such as a waterfront, in a nationally acclaimed school district, or with historical province. Prospective sellers apparently don't agree. When we wrote a review of Zillow on December 18 the site claimed 9,880 for sale listings and 5,431 entries under "Make Me Move." Today, January 9, the numbers have grown to 18,461 and 10,053 respectively; nearly doubling in 22 days and that includes about ten days that include that national breather known as the holidays. Pretty impressive growth!

Reply.com has taken a different approach. Rather than listings (although we bet that will come and soon) readers are invited to make an unsolicited offer on any property in which they have an interest. For a fee Reply.com will receive your offer, review it (no information on what this review involves or what happens if an offer does not meet the unspecified criteria - perhaps their professionals just pretty it up) and forward it via priority mail to the owner. When the offer is received and if the owner is interested he can visit the web site, enter the offer ID number and receive contact information for the prospective buyer. From that point on the negotiation is up to the private parties.

The fee charged for this service is not cheap and is designed to encourage bulk offers. A single unsolicited offer or up to nine offers will be processed for $24.95 each. The fee drops to $19.95 for 10 to 25 offers and $14.95 each for 26 to 50. More than 50 offers at a crack will be $9.95 each. Nor further commission is charged should the transaction be consummated and both potential buyers and owners are advised on the site and the offer package that the offers are not legally binding.

A buyer can submit a specific offer for a property or suggest a range of prices, or even just indicate an interest in talking. The service is apparently not available in all areas. Just to get a feel for the process we went through the opening steps of making an offer on a couple of properties in Massachusetts where information on property size and value is available but got into a loop when we tried to do the same with properties in a Georgia town where such data is not yet on line.

Reply.com is probably targeting a small piece of the real estate market but that doesn't mean they won't be successful. Those people who post "We Buy Houses" signs on telephone poles or shrink-wrap their cars in plastic wrap saying the same will be natural customers. They can target entire neighborhoods easily if not inexpensively. The unsolicited offer feature will be a boon to people who look for pending foreclosures to buy out the equity of the delinquent owner or pursue short sales. While a letter with a 0.39 stamp might achieve the same thing, the priority mail package put together by Reply.com is more attention getting and it is certainly less intimidating and time consuming than knocking on the doors of homes in foreclosure.

Of course the unsolicited offer can also provide an end-run around real estate listing agents. It makes it easy to approach the owner of a listed home and cut a deal outside of the listing agreement and then wait out the agent's contract. The agent will never be able to claim a commission on a sale that is conducted so far off of the grid. But then, the Internet has made life so much simpler in so many ways that it is not surprising it has done so for the ethically challenged among us.

Let us know what you think about this service below.