More than 12 million surfers or nearly 10% of the online active population accessed real estate and rental sites to facilitate the home buying and apartment renting process in March 2003, Nielsen//NetRatings reports.

Real estate and rental sites have become a useful tool for millions of Americans, enabling surfers to research homes, find a real estate agent, and utilize financial tools such as mortgage calculators.

Realtor.com claimed the top spot with nearly 4.6 million unique visitors in March. Homestore.com locked in the No. 2 position with more than 3.6 million visitors. HomeGain attracted 1.2 million visitors, jumping 48% from 793,000 visitors in March 2002, while traffic to Yahoo! Real Estate increased 5% to more than one million surfers.

Traditional real estate sites also made big gains in audience traffic and engaged visitors to spend more time at their sites. Century 21 jumped 24% with 979,000 visitors from home and work in March 2003. Surfers spent an average of 23 minutes at the site, up from nearly 16 minutes last year. RE/MAX attracted 767,000 visitors in March 2003, up 44% from March 2002. Coldwell Banker also made gains in traffic, posting 730,000 unique visitors in March 2003, as compared to 720,000 the year prior.

Utilizing the Web to shop around, visitors to the traditional real estate sites also visited competitor sites. Of those visiting Coldwell Banker in March 2003, more than 25% of the audience traffic also went to RE/MAX. Twenty-eight percent of Coldwell Banker’s audience traffic went to Century 21, while nearly 53% of the audience traffic also visited Realtor.com.

“Real estate sites enable surfers to comparison shop online for homes prior to committing to a single real estate agent or a single property,” said Patrick Thomas, senior Internet analyst, Nielsen/NetRatings. “Real-time listings, virtual home tours and finance calculators make these sites content rich sources and help homebuyers become better informed throughout the search and purchase process.”

Real Estate Sites Attract Target Audience

Nielsen/NetRatings data also revealed that real estate sites were effectively targeting a highly qualified audience. According to the latest spring 2003 data release, 22.4% of the real estate sites’ audience stated they were “definitely” or “probably” planning to purchase a new residence in the next 12 months. Nearly 32% were “definitely” or “probably” going to move in the next year, while 27% of the audience stated they’d be moving to a different home in the next year.

“Regardless of where people are in the buying or rental process, real estate sites offer valuable content and help streamline the arduous process,” Thomas said. “With a broad audience of qualified buyers, more of those looking to sell properties have begun to realize the benefits of posting online, in addition to traditional newspaper advertising.”

“Rather than cannibalizing business from real estate agents, the Web complements the efforts of both online and offline agencies by matching serious buyers with brokers that can help take the process to the next step,” Thomas added.