The home has been cleaned. The pamphlets are stacked neatly on the coffee table in the foyer. The scent of apple-spiced potpourri fills the air. But what if a Realtor threw an open house and nobody came?

That's starting to feel like a grim reality in this difficult housing market. A glut of available homes is making it trickier to get noticed. Unwanted homes sitting on the market longer than usual create a double whammy for real estate agents. As the payoffs grow further apart, they need more time and money to fuel the marketing process.

Despite this bleak scenario, ZipRealty (NASDAQ:ZIPR) managed to post a 7% uptick in revenue this past quarter. Curb your enthusiasm, though -- the market isn't getting any healthier. ZipRealty has simply been nibbling away at others' share in existing markets as it expands aggressively into new areas.

Rattling the foundations of realty royalty
The allure of listing through ZipRealty is in the seller's pocketbook. Traditional brokers charge roughly 6% of a home's selling price as commission. ZipRealty charges as little as 4.5% to 5%. It splits the commission with third-party brokers, which is standard industry practice. However, it also treats the eventual buyer to a 20% slice of the commission that it is set to receive.

It's a disruptive model, but is it working? Let's take a closer look at yesterday's numbers. $23.1 million in revenue may sound like welcome news, but the number of ZipAgents had to soar 31% to 1,794 real estate agents to get there.

The company also posted a loss of $0.96 per share -- or a deficit of $0.07 before stock-based compensation and one-time charges -- but the red ink was expected. The company won't return to profitability until 2008 at the earliest.

In the meantime, it plans to make the most of the malaise and grow beyond the 24 metropolitan areas it currently serves. The company expects to have 23% to 39% more agents by the end of 2007. However, it only expects to grow its top line by 10% to 15%. It's the same deal as in 2006: near-term pain, hopefully in pursuit of long-term gains.

I can see for MLS and MLS
ZipRealty is still a small player in this niche, but its discounted commissions and Web-based prowess have turned heads.

Cyberspace has given the housing sector some interesting opportunities. Move (NASDAQ:MOVE) owns Realtor.com, but it also offers online rental guides and moving resources. HouseValues (NASDAQ:SOLD) generates Realtor leads with promises of free home price evaluations. IAC's (NASDAQ:IACI) RealEstate.com began experimenting with actual brokerage services in select markets last year. You also have folks selling homes through sites like eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) or getting the word out for free through Craigslist and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Base.

Against this new-economy backdrop you also have more conventional outfits like Realogy (NYSE:H), but innovation and fancy Web tricks may not be enough to reawaken buying activity.

Thankfully, ZipRealty can afford to wait, blessed by a cash-rich balance sheet. A little more than half of its market cap is spoken for with its $3.60 per share cash balance. The upside may appear to be capped until the company muscles its way back to profitability, but the same can be said for the downside of ZipRealty, as long as the company is able to keep its cash-burning parties at a low din.

The future of real estate brokering
ZipRealty got a bad rap last year when it allowed folks to post reviews on individual listing pages. Sure, it's a crummy idea. Raving about a house -- but not buying it -- would make the praise seem disingenuous. It would be just as easy for someone to slam the property. Why would someone do that? Well, let's just say that a person may really like the place, and hope to drive the price lower with virtual negativity.

However, I can't keep my eyes off ZipRealty. Until Zillow goes public -- and, yeah, I know about the iffy valuations it provides -- ZipRealty will be my favorite way to play the housing market recovery.

Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon. Thankfully, I've got time. ZipRealty's got the money. Let's see whether we can make the connection for real in a few quarters.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz loves to check real estate listings online, even though he has no plans on selling his own home. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.