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A History of the AOL Real Estate Center

A History of the AOL Real Estate CenterHow did it all begin?

It was back in 1991 that I wrote the cover story for Home Computing magazine. And there, toward the back of the magazine, was an ad for a small Internet provider, what is now called America Online.

I had written about electronic bulletin boards for an advertorial in The Washington Post and online services seemed to be the next step. Their advantage was that the use of graphics created a system anyone could use.

So, I called AOL, at that time in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, and asked to speak with the company president. In short order I had a guy named Steve Case on the line and asked if he would like a real estate section. Soon thereafter we met, had lunch at a nearby deli with a circus motif and the deal was done: I would be with AOL.

It took a little time to understand the back-end of the system and to operate the features offered by AOL, but in early 1992 the Real Estate Center on America Online was launched, with me as the creator and host. It was then that I adopted the online name, OurBroker.

I, of course, had very little idea where this would go. AOL at the time had about 120,000 members and the servers were actually the machines banks used to operate ATM networks. However, it didn’t take very long for things to change and with bigger numbers one of the most successful growth spurts in corporate history.

The AOL Real Estate Center

  • Area usage was enormous, Annual site visits — not just “hits” — were well into seven figures, and the sheer size and activity of the area clearly influenced the development of real estate sites across the Internet. And remember, this was at a time when the Internet was a small fraction of what it is today in terms of users and usage.
  • The area created one of the first online MLS services. Judging from comments received, this was likely the first time attorneys contacted state regulators to determine the acceptability of an online MLS. This was important because at the time regulations in several states said only newspapers and real estate brokers could show properties for sale.
  • The area developed the largest non-commercial real estate message boards online, boards holding some 60,000 messages at any one time, a place where consumers and professionals could get information, exchange ideas, and debate issues. The actual number of messages was far greater, but the system was cleaned almost daily.
  • The area developed online rules and guidelines which allowed people with a variety of views and interests to interact. Over the years many state regulators have applauded the value and utility of these standards.
  • The area was open to brokers and non-brokers, MLS officials and self-sellers, lenders and borrowers, folks with questions and experts who could provide answers.
  • We received thousands and thousands of “thank you” messages from both consumers and professionals.
  • We had a live, weekly online chat. It was a great place to “meet” people from all over the country you would otherwise never know.
  • Many, if not most, of the leading online real estate areas today were started by people who began with AOL and adopted the ideas and standards found in the real estate area.
  • The area included a Board of Advisers composed of people from across the country with enormous expertise and a willingness to share ideas and information without pay or compensation. I often thought that Board members were active with us because they saw involvement in the area as a kind of pro bono effort to assist the public.

My association with AOL ended in 1998, a time when the company had tens of millions of members. For me, it had been great.

I have always been grateful to Steve Case for his insight, decency, and belief that the Internet could change the world.

Years ahead of the curve he was surely right.

Reviews


Over the years we were lucky enough to hear from a number of reviewers. Here are some of the reviews we received.

Loads of advice and information give home-sellers and buyers an edge in real estate deals,” Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 1998.

One of the 10 “best spots of the Web for financial info and advice,” Ten for the Money, Verge magazine, Summer, 1997.

“There are more than 15,000 real estate Web sites in the naked cybercity. This one is among the best,” San Jose Mercury News (“VRE Web site to see: OurBroker’s fast lane to real estate data,” August 16, 1997).

“Remember the Internet’s simpler days,” asked the Mercury News, “when you went surfing for hard copy and didn’t get wiped out by interminable waits for graphics-laden screen redraws? Then you’ll appreciate the OurBroker Real Estate Information Center. No dancing icons, fade ins or fade outs, blinking, winking, lashing or splashing, just lots of raw real estate data without the fat makes for smooth surfing to valuable real estate content.”

“The best location, bar none, can be found on America Online’s Real Estate Online Forum.” Surreal Estate, NetGuide, April, 1995.

“The best online forums and home pages seem to have one thing in common: an intelligent, dedicated sysop who doesn’t mind spending an unthinkable amount of time in front of a computer. America Online has found that in Peter G. Miller.(How to Buy or Sell Your Home Online, Money (Online Edition), August, 1995.

“Author, real estate broker and all-around real estate expert Peter Miller understood long before most of us that real estate was made for the online revolution. He jumped onto the early days of the America Online bandwagon and began offering a feast of real estate-related services,” Thoughts From Online Real Estate Pioneer, Inman News Features (September 9, 1996), an online real estate news service.

“Miller responds to every e-mail and has served as an ethics official, cheerleader and pundit for on-line property ventures,” says Inman. “He is stubborn and sometimes suspect of new ideas, but for the most part he is credited with legitimizing the on-line real estate world.”

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