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Home-Shopping Networks

Two new businesses use interactive databases to give users visual tours of real estate listings.

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

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