Joey Robbins took his first computer class in 1975, when he was in junior high, and he's been fascinated with technology ever since. This year, he figured out a way to fuse that interest with his business - real estate.
In 1983, Robbins was a senior at N.C. State, majoring in aerospace engineering. But, he says, "I didn't want to be stuck in a small office 9 to 5." He thought real-estate sales might offer more freedom and still be lucrative, so he left school and started selling houses.
Don Moody graduated from State the same year with a business degree. "I found that and a quarter would get you a cup of coffee," Moody says. Unable to find a job, he also started selling houses for the Cary agency where Robbins worked. Three years later, Robbins and Moody opened Cornerstone Properties, a residential brokerage that now has five full-time agents and offices in Cary and Raleigh.
Last September, Moody had a brainstorm: How about putting all the houses listed with Cornerstone into a data base and hooking it up to a modem? Then potential buyers (those with access to a computer, at least) could call up Cornerstone's listings - any time they wanted. "I don't know anything about computers," Moody says. "But I called Joey, and he said, 'It sounds like a good idea.' ... The more we talked about it, the more excited we got about it."
In October, they bought the hardware they needed and an off-the-shelf software package that Robbins customized in time for the system to go on line in January. "Once we had the system set up, we decided it would be quite able to handle advertisements for other real-estate agents," he says.
So they established a separate company, Home Database, and started peddling their services to Triangle brokers, running their listings for free for the first few months.
Here's how Home Database works: Real-estate agents pay $15 to advertise houses that are listed with them. The ads - which can run until the house sells - include the name of the listing agent, the address of the house, the number of bedrooms and the price, plus a lengthy description.
Using a modem, a prospective buyer can call up the service, entering a few particulars to search by: ZIP code or number of bedrooms, for example. Home Database then delivers listings that fit the desired description to the shopper's computer, giving him a selection of houses to drive by and agents to call.
People who want to look at the data base but don't have a modem can call and get a...