According to the latest research, more than 90 percent of all buyers start their search for a home online. About the same percentage of homeowners looking to refinance their mortgages do the same.

The Internet has proven itself to be an apt repository for the voluminous and detailed information that makes up the real estate industry.

You can find property listings, home valuations, mortgage interest rates, glossaries to explain terms, house videos and information videos that explain everything from buying a foreclosure to improving your credit history and credit score.

But how we access all that real estate information is starting to change. As the concept of “social networking” continues to evolve, peer-to-peer relationships are driving the conversation.

In other words, we care more about what our friends think and tend to follow their direction rather than a professional’s – for better or for worse. Companies are responding by shifting more of their advertising and marketing dollars and human resources online to cope with the tidal wave of online social experience.

Carol Flammer addresses these issues in her new book, “Social Media for Home Builders” (National Association of Home Builders, $15.95).

“Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become an integral part of our cultural landscape. At the same time, consumers have grown more skeptical of advertising and marketing claims that often over-promise and under-deliver. Consumers trust each other for purchasing decisions, and there is no greater buying decision than the one to own a home,” she writes in the Foreword.

Younger buyers, especially those in their late 20s and early 30s, are more apt to rely on their own network of family and friends (even Facebook friends) to offer insight and suggestions on the process of buying a home than a Realtor. These buyers believe that because they’re accessing so much data online, they have what they need to make an informed decision.

This is a huge problem for Realtors, home builders, mortgage lenders and most other real estate professionals, as the Internet and social networking have shifted the center of gravity toward the consumer and away from the professional.

But savvy real estate professionals can still make lemonade. In the book, which is a concise 112 pages and is small enough to slip into a jacket pocket, Flammer decodes what home builders must do to compete in this world. With her nationally-ranked site,, she has proven she can get her many home builder clients some all-important Google-love.

But her advice is applicable to the larger real estate industry, perhaps now more than ever, as it struggles with the worst housing market since the Great Depression.

It isn’t rocket science, but that doesn’t mean every real estate company is doing it right. Flammer suggests that every home builder’s social media toolbox contain a company website, blog, online public relations, social networking Web sites and other websites.

Her company uses “social media marketing” to create and distribute messages through social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others. In tandem, she uses “social media optimization” to boost a Web site’s raking in search engines like Google and Bing.

Flammer describes Facebook as a “24/7 cocktail party,” and gives advice on the mechanics of setting up personal and fan pages. She suggests making your Twitter tweets fun, so that you garner more notice, and gives good advice for working successfully with Trulia, ActiveRain, LinkedIn and other social networking engines.

But it isn’t enough to just throw a lot of search engine optimized content up on the web and hope for the best. You need a thorough strategy to help you make the most of what you have.

And that’s the problem most real estate companies have with social media. The growth of this phenomenon has coincided with the steepest drop in U.S. housing values in history. Many real estate industry players are just trying to survive.

I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of social media. Five or ten years down the line, some of these sites might fade while other, better ideas emerge.

Imagine: It was only a decade or so ago that a small website called Google was launched.