Posted  Wednesday, September 7  2011 at  18:00

Finding property to lease or buy can be a harrowing experience for many Kenyans.

After draining the contents of one’s pocket into the hands of dubious agents, there is always the possibility of buying phantom property.

“We walked around for hours with these agents who kept on demanding more and more money to show us houses we didn’t even want to see. At the end of it all, we were too tired to care,” Mr Mike Mutuma recalls.

It was after this frustrating experience that he decided to start his own property website. And he is not alone in the quest to take the Kenyan property industry online.

“When we came in three years ago, the online real estate business was virtually non-existent,” Mr Nathan Luesby, the managing director of Jenga Web, says.

Jenga Web, a web development firm, publishes Property Leo.

Property websites provide consumers, both buyers and sellers, with many advantages.

They have a wider, sometimes international reach. Currently, about 24 per cent of Property Leo’s traffic comes from outside Kenya.

Websites also provide a consolidated product.

“We try to give our clients as much information as possible so that they can make appropriate decisions,” Mr Luesby explains.

The Internet allows buyers to compare prices across neighbourhoods and agencies, enabling them to decide whether the property prices they are being offered are fair.

Mr Mutuma envisions that once launched, would become a one-stop home and lifestyle shop.

Clients will be able to get information about loans, mortgages, neighbourhoods and even tips on how to decorate their newly bought properties.

“This is about engaging the consumer; its not just about selling a house. It’s about creating a lifestyle,” he says.

The advantages are even more for upcoming property developments. Investors often look for buyers before building their properties.

“There is only one way to sell these developments, and that is online,” Mr Luesby says.

With only digitally generated images and plans, some websites have sold out units in developments before construction even started.

Despite this seemingly rosy picture, Mr Luesby admits that numbers are not quite as high as they could be.

“It’s still a growing industry and one of the greatest challenges that property websites face is creating trust among consumers.”

There are other challenges as well.

“There has been a lack of quality in online real estate sales,” Mr Mutuma says. “Most websites don’t keep their information up-to-date or they open their doors to unlicensed or ‘briefcase’ agents. Because of this, the public has become dispirited.”

In addition, Kenyans are yet to embrace the Internet the way people in Western nations have.

“There is incredible technology and Internet penetration, but beyond Facebook, most people still don’t trust the Web,” Mr Luesby says.

What is needed, he adds, is a cultural shift. People need to see the Internet as trustworthy and as a reliable source of information for their financial needs.

Another challenge that the online real estate industry faces is that of geographic distortion.

Sites often list properties located in the more affluent neighbourhoods and this puts off the average Kenyan.

There may be hundreds of listings from Kileleshwa or Lavington but none from Buru Buru.

“We are trying to expand our networks. We are trying to bring in reputable agents from all neighbourhoods, be it Kasarani or South B,” Mr Luesby says.

Given a growing middle class eager to climb up the property ladder and ever-increasing Internet penetration, he remains confident that online real estate will become even more lucrative.

“The future is online,” he says.