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The Eyes Have It: ODU Researchers Are First to Study Ocular Tracking in Subjects Viewing Real Estate Ads

A groundbreaking study conducted by a team of researchers in three different Old Dominion University disciplines is trying to determine, by where prospective buyers look, what works and what doesn't with online real estate advertisements.

This spring, the three researchers - Michael Seiler, professor of finance and Robert M. Stanton Chair of Real Estate and Economic Development; Poornima Madhavan, assistant professor of psychology and an expert in human factors; and Liza Potts, assistant professor of English and a social media expert - used ocular tracking to determine where test subjects looked, and for how long, at real estate ads on a computer screen.

The subjects - 27 students and another 20 people currently active in the real estate market - placed their head on a chin rest and watched as home advertisements were displayed in front of them.

"We're looking at the actual search patterns," Seiler said.

"Do men focus on one part of the ad, do women focus on the other? Do people with children focus on the school district, for example? Because I'll tell you, we know exactly where you're looking. We know how long you're focusing on it - whether you're reading or you're just glancing."

The test subjects looked at a number of photographs from 10 different homes, with the opportunity to take as much time with each picture as they wished.

"The overall goal of the paper is to understand what homebuyers are interested in when they search for homes on the Internet," Seiler said. "Do they look at the photograph of the home? Do they look at the words that describe the property? Do they look at the open-ended stuff where the real estate agent can describe their property?"

The researchers are using the data set accumulated from the test subjects to look at a number of different factors in the decisions made when people buy and sell homes.

In one portion of the study, the researchers placed a picture of a room painted bright pink into the series of photos of one of the homes, but only for half of the test subjects.

The people who viewed the pictures that included the pink room estimated the home was worth an average of $3,500 less than the price opinion of those who saw the pictures without the pink room, far more than the cost of painting the room before putting the house up for sale.

"They really don't like the pink room," Seiler said. "We would hope that people would be more rational in how they look at it, but they put a huge premium on it."

The researchers also added power lines to a photo of the exterior of one of the homes - again, for half of the subjects. This time, they found the test subjects penalized the home to the tune of $13,500, an amount somewhat less than expected.

Seiler said the information demonstrates to researchers how important the visual presentation of the home is online, and noted that this is the first study of real estate advertisements that uses ocular tracking.

"Technology is a big deal in real estate," he added. "People haven't thought about using ocular tracking in a business sense. But we think there's a perfect application for websites, because most people are going to look at homes online before they begin their physical search. If a home does not make their list based on the preliminary Internet screening, it is unlikely to ever be seen, and therefore seriously considered, in person."

The research was funded by a $17,000 grant from the ODU Research Foundation. The researchers are now looking for other funding sources, because they envision applications for their findings across the real estate market - especially since home sales aren't exactly booming nationwide.

"I would argue that real estate website design is going to be important at any time. But in a down market, it's even more important. Agents looking to survive in this lean market need to use technology to help them maintain their competitive advantage," Seiler said.

This article was posted on: July 29, 2010

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