Two new companies, HomeView, in Needham, Mass., and SMILE, in New York City, have developed computerized systems that radically simplify the task of finding a new home. Both start-ups have built interactive full-color-image databases that, at the touch of a screen, give users visual tours of listings. Founded in 1991, SMILE can operate from anywhere with a laptop, notes founder Susan Bird. Shoppers must browse through HomeView at one of its own centers. SMILE earns revenues mainly through subscriptions and listings. Brokers pay a $1,000 initiation fee and $500 yearly to subscribe to the system, and in return receive bimonthly updates of worldwide listings. Sellers pay $75 a month for a listing with six color photos. Buyers peruse SMILE at no charge. In contrast, HomeView -- a concept that grew out of 31-year-old founder Bob Norton's frustration with house hunting -- is free to all parties until the completion of a sale to a HomeView customer. Then the company exacts a sizable commission from its affiliated brokers. The companies also differ in their approach to the $120-billion real estate market. HomeView intends to saturate the market one state at a time; it's currently operating in Massachusetts with a database of 10,000 listings and plans to expand into 30 other states and Canada later this year. Started in 1989 with $500,000, the company projects it will operate at a loss for three years while achieving national market share. SMILE is operating worldwide, with 30 subscribers and a database of 1,000 primarily high-end properties. Bird's business plan predicts SMILE will be a $20-million company within five years.
-- Alessandra Bianchi