Home-shopping consumers are not only exponentially increasing their reliance on the Internet but are also developing distinct patterns for using it in their housing searches.  Google and the National Association of Realtors® recently completed a joint study on how and how much prospective buyers use the various digital options, publishing the results in The Digital House Hunt:  Consumer and Market Trends in Real Estate.

That shopping is no longer about showing up in a store or a broker's office or open house to get information is something Google calls the Zero Moment of Truth or ZMOT.  Google says "the sales funnel isn't really a funnel anymore," instead there is a generation that does its homework ahead of time. They shop in traditional ways; watching or reading ads, walk into stores to look at products, talks to friends, check styles and prices but alternate these with digital sources.  They watch "how-to" videos on You Tube, read product and service reviews, look up specific brands on search engines, and even research on the go with smart phones and tablets. 

The study found the real estate-related searches on Google have grown 253 percent over the last four years and that Nine out of 10 homebuyers rely on the internet as one of their primary research sources, and 52 percent as their first step in buying a home.  They also found that home buyers used specific online tools at different points during their home search process.

When they start the process buyers tend to rely on search engines and general websites.  They frequently search terms like FHA loan," "FHA," "home grants," and "home buyer assistance.  They tend to use maps more in the middle of the process, and engage mobile applications most toward the end of their search.

Both first-time and repeat buyers rely on Realtors® in their home search.  Multiple listing services and Realtor.com are popular destinations with the latter attracting more than 20 million unique visitors in an average month and traffic to that site increased 31 percent between March and October of 2012.  Fifty-three percent of users who actually register on a major real estate site are female.

According to data from Realtor.com, today's buyers search most frequently on numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms; square footage; garages; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; and swimming pools.

Mobile devices are significantly changing the way people search for homes, as well.  About 20 percent of real estate searchers are done from mobile devices.  A Google/Complete home shopper study found that 48 percent of people who used a mobile device in their home search used the device to get directions to homes for sale, and 45 percent used the device to request more information about specific home features or real estate services. 

Agents still bridge the gap between internet research and viewing and buying a home.  Eighty-eight percent of buyers us an agent and 67 percent do so frequently. Real estate consumers who use the internet while researching a home are more likely to use multiple sources such as newspapers, yard signs, and open houses but these play a minimal role in decision making, so Realtors would be wise to incorporate digital marketing into their offline efforts.

"Increasingly, online technologies are driving offline behaviors, and home buying is no exception," said Google Head of Real Estate Patrick Grandinetti. "With 90 percent of home buyers searching online during their home buying process, the real estate industry is smart to target these people where they look for and consume information - for example through paid search, relevant websites, video environments, and mobile applications."

"Technology has transformed the way Realtors® do business, but in real estate, high tech doesn't come at the expense of high touch," said Steven Berkowitz, CEO of Move, Inc., which operates Realtor.com. "Rather than displacing real estate agents, the Internet is actually helping connect them with home buyers. And Realtors® are responding by leveraging resources like Realtor.com, Facebook and YouTube to engage buyers and sellers in ever-evolving ways."

You can read the full report here.