real estate industryA look into the real estate history and changes that have taken place in the real estate industry in terms of buying and selling your home.

For the past twenty years, we’ve been chronicling the developments in the real estate industry in this weekly column.

Boy, have times changed. Twenty years ago, the Internet didn’t really exist. Ilyce signed up for an AOL account (she was within the first 500,000 users or so) just so she could put it in the introduction to the first edition of her first book, “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask.” Most people didn’t even know what a browser was.

(Just remember how poor and oversized (at least by today’s standards) cell phones were back in the early 1990s.)

If you wanted to know what homes were on the market, you still had to go to a Realtor’s office to look at a listing book (and you weren’t allowed to take it anywhere). Realtors held sway over all listing information. If you were a buyer, it was tough to get information from anywhere except a local real estate agent.

Agents still faxed each other the “hot sheet” and advertised in local newspapers. So did mortgage lenders. It was difficult to know where to get good information. Google’s founders wouldn’t even start working on what became the behemoth until 1996, and the company was incorporated in 1998. Then, search was born.

It seems appropriate, on the 20th anniversary of this column, to look back at how the real estate industry has changed, for better and for worse. Surely, these past six years, it has been for worse – at least that’s how builders, real estate agents, home sellers, homeowners, and mortgage lenders have experienced it.

Here’s a quick look at how the world has changed in the past twenty years for home buyers and sellers:

Buying a home. Where would we be without the Internet? Back to a paperback book of listings with one black and white photo of the front of the house or building that was published twice a month, viewable only under lock and key in a Realtor’s office.

If you went out shopping for a home, you’d certainly see signage in front of a house, but no website, no color photos (let alone digital), no video, no floor plans, and no way to search other comparable homes in the neighborhood. There was no easy way to search school districts, real estate taxes, or the nearest gourmet coffee shop. And, no online way to tell whether the local municipality had approved a four-lane highway cutting through the backyard of the home on which you were making an offer.

In short, it’s a wonder anyone ever bought anything, which leads us to …

Selling a home. Twenty years ago, most homes were sold through a full-service agent. Agents typically represented the seller, even though they carted buyers around to showings – and the buyer thought the agent was working on his or her behalf. Nope. It was during the mid-1990s, that the concept of buyer agency was more fully developed.

Sellers had a tough time listing their home for sale, other than through a local multiple listing service. Twenty years ago, there might have been a half-dozen local MLS services, each servicing a different portion of a metro area. Typically, the MLSs didn’t share listing information, which made it difficult for a buyer from the west side of town to buy a home on the east side of town, unless he or she used several different agents. (New York City still sort of works like this, if you’re feeling nostalgic for any reason.)

Without an Internet, sellers were only able to attract attention through newspaper advertising or in the Realtor listing book, or with signage. Buyers would often drive around neighborhoods, looking for signs that property was for sale.

No question, twenty years ago, real estate was a far less efficient marketplace. You couldn’t really check up on prices, neighborhoods, or the reputation of a salesperson before you hired them. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how anything got sold at all.