Not long ago, potential home buyers made a personal visit to a showroom to check out potential homes and amenities at The Irvine Ranch Community in California. They strolled into a home center to gather information about a community, projected timelines, and home builders.

But in January, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based developer changed its sales strategy. It closed the doors to a physical showroom and created a virtual community online, offering search capabilities without the bricks, glass, and mortar of an office.

“Every year, our walk-in visits to our physical location were staying the same or decreasing, but our Internet traffic was increasing substantially,” says Suzanne Maddalon, senior director of marketing and research for the Irvine Community Development Co. “It made the physical location less needed overall.”

As more potential buyers are going online in a search for their dream home, The Irvine Company as well as other builders and developers are responding with an increased Internet presence. Although most companies are not replacing the corporeal connection entirely, many are enhancing their Web sites to reach out to buyers earlier in the process.

It's a smart move, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors. In 2005, 77 percent of home buyers used the Internet in their search for a new home—a huge jump from the 2 percent figure reported 10 years earlier.

“It is significant,” says Todd Costigan, senior manager for NAR's Center for Realtor Technology. “That contrasts with 40-some percent only four years ago, and in the mid-'90s, it was virtually nobody.”

In many cases, the Web is the first stop for home buyers, he says. Most users look online to define and refine their searches and explore the market before they hit the streets to check out a model or meet with a developer. These shoppers, Costigan says, are better prepared and more qualified to find the right home.

“They have an idea of what they want and what they don't want,” he says. “They aren't spending the time of the person who might be in the sales office or showing them the model home. It often shortens the sales cycles, which is good.”

TAKING THE LEAP At The Irvine Company, officials spotted the trend, took a closer look at their Web site, increased the online functions, and closed down the physical center, says Maddalon.

Maintaining a human connection, they made sure to include a way for users to contact a real person with questions by including the Ask an Expert Feature, which allows visitors to call or e-mail someone seven days a week.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.