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Are Real Estate Commercials Skirting Realities of Homebuying?
You've probably seen those real estate commercials. You know, that one where where the guy's brushing his teeth, the woman's blow-drying her hair and singing in operatic tone, and the overweight man's coming in to take a bath. All in the same bathroom.

Or that one with that sweet song and the woman clicking on a house and envisioning her little boy jumping in the pool.

Realtor.com's hysterical "Find It First" and Zillow's touching "Find Your Way Home" ad campaigns are just a couple of pushes hitting the airwaves and the Internet to grab homebuyers' attention at a critical time in real estate: the ever-important spring homebuying season. The ads by Realtor and Zillow (both of which are AOL Real Estate partners) are clever, that's for sure. But are they sending the right message to buyers who are nervously re-entering the market after years of housing tumult?

While it's a smart time to put ad dollars to use, some critics say that these real estate commercials are skirting a larger responsibility to actually educate people about what's happening in the housing market. Now's the time, they say, because people could be jumping back into homebuying based on the louder and louder message that housing is back -- without knowing what they're doing any better than they did years ago. (But of course it is advertising -- which by its nature is meant to make us want stuff we don't necessarily need or can afford.)

Alexis Moore, a financial risk management consultant and consumer advocate who has been a Realtor in California, said that the commercials don't go deep enough into the factor at play in the housing market today. "The advertisements are missing the boat in a big way and frankly are insulting in a lot of ways to the industry," she said, "because they are not in tune with the real issue: rebuilding public confidence in the entire industry."

Here's a fact not mentioned in the Realtor or Zillow commercials: While home values have roared back in many parts of the country, for-sale inventory is at a startling low (much lower than typical levels during the busy spring homebuying season). That suggests that a whole lot of sellers aren't confident enough in the housing market to put their homes up for sale. And though home prices in February reached a seven-year high, that was driven largely by fat-pocketed investors, not everyday homebuyers. That could be because many still can't qualify for a mortgage under stricter regulations.

"Instead of using the same marketing tactics and campaigns of years past during the real estate boom years, they are missing a chance to build public confidence and restore the industry as a whole as being 'renewed' with real information about what has changed in the industry," Moore said.

Barbara O'Connor, executive vice president of marketing at Move Inc., which powers Realtor.com, argues that Realtor's "Find It First" campaign does what any ad should do: grab people's attention. But once viewers are hooked and persuaded to visit Realtor.com, that's where they'll get real information on housing statistics in individual cities and neighborhoods. Both Realtor and Zillow (like AOL Real Estate) have home-value tools, mortgage calculators and other housing information broken down by area.

"These ads use humor to grab people's attention, pointing a lens at the current historic competitiveness of the marketplace," O'Connor said. "Once consumers click through to Realtor.com, we have comprehensive information available to educate potential homebuyers on the current state of the housing market."

"People will shop for a new home when they're ready to shop for homes," said Amy Bohutinsky, Zillow's chief marketing officer. "The objective of our ads is not to convince people it's time for them to buy. Rather, our objective is to help people understand what Zillow has to offer -- that it's a great resource for shopping for homes -- so that when they're ready, they'll try us out." She added that Zillow's ads do show features such as its home value calculator to show what tools the company offers to aid homebuyers' decisions.

Jason Sherman, a real estate investor and founder of Sherman Communications & Marketing, said real estate companies are wise to be advertising now while the market is hot. "But, to be more credible, they should also speak to why now's the time -- address the fundamentals that are in place [in the housing market] -- in their PR and advertising," he said.

Before ads seduce you with the promise to convert the dream of homeownership into reality, prospective homebuyers should take the time to see if buying a home is affordable for them to begin with. Find out what current mortgage rates are, and use mortgage calculators to estimate what your monthly payment would be, for starters.
  
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