An unprecedented 7.4 million homes and condos are expected to be bought this year; nearly a million of those will be new single-family homes. That's a lot of product, and more importantly, a lot of customers. I hadn't expected to be one of them. But a variety of factors recently plunged our household of four into the whirlwind that surrounds the sale of one home and the purchase of another. Only this time, it was my hope we might finally buy that first newly built home with all those options so many of us Americans really do dream about.

I had more than the usual motives: For one, visits with our readers have allowed me to see some wonderfully designed homes the average buyer doesn't often get to see. For another, having just devoted a recent issue of this magazine to what drives new home buyer satisfaction, the prospect of observing the experience firsthand was actually intriguing.

Alas, after a lot of searching, there simply were no new homes available in both my price and commute range. The shopping experience, however, brought two observations to light when it comes to builders trying to capture and satisfy prospective customers like me. What struck me was how important it is for home marketers to be at the right place at the right time; how intelligently executed service can close a sale; and how much the internet played a pivotal role in both.

With two-thirds, or 137 million, Americans actively online in 2002 and 12 million U.S. internet users surfing real estate catalogues and listings a month, according to Harris Interactive and Nielsen//Net Ratings, it is probably safe to say I'm a pretty typical home buyer skipping the Sunday real estate section and heading straight for the Net.

What was disappointing was discovering how hard I had to work to find new home builders in the communities where and when I was looking to buy. Most big builders do a great a job on their Web sites helping viewers locate communities where they're building. The problem arises when buyers prefer to search online for homes by zip code or school district.

Not surprisingly, buyers who gravitate toward -- still the nation's leading real estate site, based on unique visitors according to Nielsen//NetRatings -- won't find new homes listings or even online ads. The advent of next-ranked, among other sites, addresses the problem of letting viewers find new homes by zip code. But the search results are still too regional most of the time, forcing many buyers in search of a map and the impulse to return to -- which is to more than 30 big builders what Orbitz is to the major airline carriers -- and its front-end site,, offers a promising marketing tool for builders, especially as it looks to expand its array of services (see "Digital Evolution"). But discovering the site, and its strengths, wasn't easy or obvious.

It seemed clear, new home marketers still have some work to do to come into proper online view during the brief time my home buying window was open.

Katherine Lambert The pleasant surprise came securing a mortgage. Researching rates and pro-viders online was both empowering and overwhelming. But the convenience came in picking up the phone when I needed help. That's when a knowledgeable, reassuring (and technologically equipped) sales person can do amazing things. Credible answers to a handful of questions led to a quick qualification process. Thirty seconds after the interview, I had a complete Good Faith Estimate e-mailed to me while I was still on the phone. Knowing the rate was competitive, I took it, much to the chagrin of a big bank agent who was still relying on faxes and next-day follow-ups.

My other point: The Internet did more than help me make an informed decision; together with a live person on the phone, it dramatically facilitated a sale. A process that ranks somewhere just above having a root canal was made remarkably satisfying, thereby altering my perception of what constitutes distinguished customer service on a big ticket transaction. Hopefully, my next house will be one of yours. In the meantime, it's my hope that CEOs will give their marketing teams the online resources they need to keep up with the way buyers increasingly shop.

Wyatt Kash