Pinterest: The new home-sweet-home for real- estate ideas? (© Courtesy of Pinterest.com)

Courtesy of Pinterest.com

One of the Internet's fastest-growing sites is Pinterest, a virtual bulletin board where users can collect and organize images, be they fashion inspiration, recipe ideas — or dream-home fantasies.

"Home" is the No. 1 category of "pins" on the site, accounting for 17.2% of all pinning, according to a study by business-intelligence firm R.J. Metrics. When Pinterest users — 80% of whom are women — find images they like, they can add the photos to one of their Pinterest "boards," which allow them to organize images by category. Ideas for healthful after-school snacks might go on one board, while summer-outfit ideas may go on another. Get the basics or read the FAQs on Pinterest's site.

Homeowners say it's a great way to plan home projects small and large – and is a big step up from ripping pages out of magazines.

Sara Abbott, a mother of three who works from home outside of Boston, says she started pinning as soon as she got an invitation to the site. Her intent was to use the online bulletin board to plan parties, but she says it quickly took on a life of its own when she started to pin ideas for her home renovation.

"I pinned everything my heart desired, and I shared it with my architect," she says. "When he brought us the first round of drawings, it was as if he'd been living in my head. The most minor details, like brick pavers in the mudroom, were included."

Now that she has moved on to selecting appliances, she's pinning those items to a different board on Pinterest. "It's helping me to compare prices between manufacturers because I'm not just bookmarking the page to a folder on my desktop and forgetting it's there," Abbott says.

Another homeowner, Jessica Albon, says she is planning a kitchen remodel for her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., with the help of Pinterest.

"What I love about the site is that there's so much variety," she says. "When I'm completely drawing a blank, I can just search randomly until I start getting a better idea of what I like. It's sort of like having access to all the back issues of every great decorating magazine ever — all searchable."

Whether she's planning the kitchen remodel that's six to eight months away or the light fixture she's creating for her office, she says Pinterest is a great way to gather images that help her better envision a project. "It's really helpful to see everything at a glance," she says. "It makes it easier to see how the different things I love come together — or don't."

An influx of users
Pinterest isn't exactly new. The site's creators registered the domain in 2009. But its popularity has taken off like wildfire in the past few months. ComScore reported that the number of unique visitors jumped 52% from January to February, to more than 17.8 million.

At least a few of those new users are real-estate agents, who are eager to see how Pinterest can help them connect with homebuyers and sellers — and possibly increase their business. The National Association of Realtors' "The Member's Edge" blog had a post in early March for agents about how to get started using the site to drive Web traffic and build business.

Sue Eller, an agent in La Canada, Calif., says she sees Pinterest primarily as an opportunity to connect with buyers and sellers on a personal level. "I use all of these social tools to show that I'm not just a Realtor," she says. "What better use of Pinterest than to leverage affinity marketing? You post back and forth and get to know each other. It accelerates their knowledge of you, and you learn about people.

"You're more apt to listen to your Realtor if you're on the same wavelength from the beginning," she says. "Buying a home is your biggest financial decision, and people have a tendency to be distrustful of Realtors. What better way to circumvent the high wall of mistrust?"

What's your home worth?

For many agents on Pinterest, getting traffic back to their site is a goal. "I'm posting things from my website and blogs and hoping to get the links back to my website and to drive traffic," says Karen Highland, an agent in Frederick, Md. "I've only been on it a month or two now, and I've seen a little bump in traffic."

Mike Bowler, a Lansing, Mich., agent, says that getting traffic is important but that agents should be sure to also repin content from others.

"You don't go there to sell; you're going there to build relationships," he says. The more you pin other people's work, the better relationships you're going to end up building, rather than pinning a bunch of your own stuff."

Highland and Bowler are teaching other agents about social media and use Pinterest as an idea aggregator. 

As far as buying and selling homes, Bowler says he believes Pinterest will be more effective in marketing communities rather than specific properties. "Normally, on a resale home, (buyers) are shopping lifestyle more than the home itself," he says. So agents can use Pinterest to help brand themselves as community experts. Highland has several pin boards about things to do in Frederick and its neighborhoods, and Eller has posted about interesting architecture, parks and activities all over her city.

But so far, agents say it's impossible to measure whether Pinterest is really helping them gain business. "It's really hard to directly measure, 'Did I get a lead from this?'" Highland says. "But it's adding to who I am in social media and getting out there and being known."

She says being active on sites such as Pinterest will keep her "top of mind" with followers and friends. So if a time comes when they are looking to buy or sell, they'll remember, "Oh yeah, Karen sells real estate."

Valuable insight
Kristin Tavcar-France, marketing coordinator for homebuilder Taylor Morrison Austin, says she sees Pinterest as a "terrific branding opportunity" for builders. "We're always looking for new ways to reach our homebuyers," she says. "Pinterest is the perfect platform; it allows us the ability to capture an audience's imagination through the imagery of our homes."

But Pinterest is also market research. "We're able to see what specific things other Pinterest users are repinning," she says. "This is helpful data to us as a company. Pinterest helps show us what people really love and what they're interested in when it comes to their home."

Agents can gain insight, too, by working with buyers to determine what they're seeking. A first-time buyer's "dream home" pin board may depict a far-fetched fantasy, but it does reveal tastes and preferences to an agent who is helping the buyer take the first step toward that dream.

Homeowner Abbott says Pinterest has given her an effective way to share her thoughts and ideas with her husband. "I can share information in one link with my husband, so he can access everything in one place," she says. "It's much more effective and efficient than just waiting around for him to come home to discuss it, or tearing pages out of a magazine or — what we used to do — drive around looking at homes (and) trying to figure out what we like."

Copyright and other concerns
For all its popularity and growth, Pinterest has spurred some concerns about attribution, ownership and copyright. On its etiquette page, Pinterest instructs users to credit the original source for pinned images whenever possible. But there have been complaints from content creators who worry their images will be distributed without credit or permission, and from pinners who weren't sure what content they were permitted to post.

One notable complaint was from photographer and lawyer Kristen Kowalski, who deleted several of her pin boards because of her concerns. Her blog post about "tearfully deleting" those pin boards prompted Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann to call her for input on how to rework the site's terms and conditions.

A Washington Post story in March indicated that the company was looking into the issue, and the site recently revised its terms of service. But Kowalski says on her blog that her concerns have not been addressed: "Because my inspiration boards would contain nothing but artistic creations by other photographers, most of whom did not give permission, I remain concerned that I would be violating the law." 

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Attorney Richard Stim, Nolo.com's intellectual-property expert, writes on his blog: "Copyright owners are like grizzly bears. If you're not on their radar and you're not depriving them of food, they'll probably leave you alone. … Anyway, that's probably true for most Pinterest users, too — nothing is going to happen to them unless they attract a lot of attention or start making money off other people's content."

Pinterest's updated terms of service did address an issue some users had with language that gave Pinterest the right to sell content. From the Pinterest blog post announcing the changes: "Our original terms stated that by posting content to Pinterest you grant Pinterest the right for us to sell your content. Selling content was never our intention and we removed this from our updated terms."

Pinterest also deleted a clause that discouraged the use of the site for self-promotion.