4 Realtor Secrets to Searching for Houses Online
In Your Home Search, by Anthony Bayardelle
The first thing that needs to be said about house hunting online is that there is a difference between looking at houses and looking for a house.
Looking at houses is like window shopping. It's amazingly fun to see all the beautiful houses out there. You usually end up looking at jaw-dropping houses that are twice your price range, because if there're usually the prettiest ones. Usually, there is very rarely any real intent to buy when you’re just looking at houses.
However, when you begin actually searching for a house, that is searching for houses with the intent to have a realtor show them to you and potentially put an offer down, you need to switch from casual window-shopping to a more structured, research-based approach.
This post is going to go over all the details for how you seriously search for a specific house, with intent to buy.
We’ll start with the most frequently asked questions, but stay tuned to the end, because the most important thing you need to know about looking for houses online is what specifics you need to look at for each house you look at.
Secret #1: The Best Sites to Look for Houses
There’s a staggering array of home search websites available for your immediate perusal. Most of these are 100% free to use to browse for homes, and present a staggering amount of information about the homes you're looking at. It's good to get to know each platform for what it is, because each one has specific benefits that could enhance your home search.
Zillow is probably the most popular home search site on the market right now.
They provide a staggering amount of information about each house, including not just home details, but neighborhood information school districts, and a handy “Zestimate” feature which uses proprietary algorithms to calculate the price of a house at any given moment.
As is the case with information found on any home search website, you want to verify the information you're getting with a realtor or agent, especially when it comes to pricing information, but in terms of a place to start Zillow is almost unparalleled in its detail and amount of information provided.
According to its website, realtor.com has over 900 MLS services updating every 15 minutes to cultivate over 4 million home listings. They pride themselves on a professional website with incredibly up-to-date information. Also, this is the official website of the National Association of Realtors, so that brings a natural amount of credibility as well.
This and Zillow would probably be my top two recommendations for starting your home search.
Another one of the gold standard home search websites, Trulia was actually purchased by Zillow in 2015.
Providing an excellent amount of information, equivalent to that of Zillow or realtor.com, Trulia is another one of the really big names and home search websites. Recently, this website and its companion app has also become a lot more popular for people looking to rent houses or apartments, not just those looking to buy.
While websites like Zillow or Trulia are focused mainly on finding you the right house, Redfin is more focused on finding your perfect real estate agent. This doesn't mean that it doesn't have home listings, but they aren't as plentiful as those found on some of the other sites mentioned.
However, this doesn't completely negate Redfin is a possibility. Some features, like their 3D home tours, are really useful features that aren't offered on other sites.
I would suggest Redfin as a supplementary resource, once you have narrowed down your home search to a few that you really like. It might not have the breadth of inventory of Zillow or Trulia, but it could provide useful information on the homes you are considering once you have identified them.
RealEstate.com offers some pretty unique functionality when it comes to information displayed.
While not as popular as some of the bigger names, RealEstate.com Offers really in-depth information on demographics, neighborhood market analysis, and even more granular details like commute times and risk of different types of weather. Definitely worth a visit, especially once you’ve established a list of potential houses.
This is a necessary inclusion to any list of home search websites because it features only houses that are being sold without the use of a selling agent.
This means you could potentially access homes that have been neglected or not properly updated on other home search websites.
They also feature a great amount of educational resources for both buyers and sellers, so definitely give this site a look sometime during your home search.
Homefinder is not yet has established as some of the more major players in this area, but where this site really shines is in finding open houses, foreclosures, and auctions.
I probably wouldn't recommend using this as a comprehensive search engine like Zillow or Trulia, but it is definitely a necessary step on your home search because it might list open houses or other events that aren't found on other Home search sites.
This one is a bit different from the others because it not only lets you look for homes that are available, you can also buy and sell the homes directly on the website.
Yes, you read that right. You can actually buy a home on the internet now.
The downside of this is internet home transactions are still less secure than the traditional, in-person model. It's definitely good to use a solid degree of caution in any transaction this large, especially when considering doing it online. There has been some Better Business Bureau complaints about this new business model.
However, that doesn't dispute the utility of this site as a home search portal like Zillow or Trulia.
Secret #2: The Worst Place to Look for Houses Online
It's important to know where the data comes from when you are using a home search website.
Some larger home search websites, like Zillow or Trulia, get their data via direct links to the MLS. What you need to be cautious of is the websites of specific agents or brokerages who only list houses for which they are they selling agent.
That's not to say this can't be a good resource, because some sites (like our Home Search Tool) do actually linked to an impartial, comprehensive MLS database.
Overall, I'm not saying to discount these websites entirely (you definitely shouldn’t), and just emphasizing the necessity of knowing where the data is coming from before you trust any given source.
This caveat emptor best practice is also applicable to the bigger websites as well.
Secret #3: How To Find Open Houses
According to NerdWallet, only 9% of homes bought were initially discovered by going to an open house, but this doesn't mean you should just count them entirely as an excellent way to see potential homes.
Especially if you are new to an area, open houses might be a great source of information for you to start your search.
in order to find open houses you should probably start with a simple online search for open houses in your desired area. You can also use many different apps, as well as the home search websites mentioned above.
Some sites even have specific features just for open houses. Zillow has a notification feature if houses you are interested in ever have an open house. Also HomeFinder.com also has an entire section devoted to open houses.
You can also try more nonlinear ways of searching, such as social media and even looking in person for physical open house signs. Yes, even in today's digital age, realtors still put out physical signs whenever they are hosting an open house.
Unfortunately, there is no one, unified, comprehensive guide to open houses, but with a little bit of online digging it really shouldn't be that hard to find all the open houses you could ever want in your given area.
Secret #4: What to Features to Look at About Each House
This section is the meat and potatoes. This separates serious, informed buyers from those who will end up buying an overpriced or problem-ridden house.
Everyone knows how to browse through the pretty pictures on a home search website, but what separates a serious buyer from a window shopper is a knowledge of what specifically they need to know about each house before they even set a foot in the door.
All of the things you need to look at in order to have an informed and complete picture of the houses you are assessing.
Price of the House
The first thing everyone looks at is the price of the home. This is natural, as it is the main limiting parameter in your house search.
I would strongly recommend against looking at houses that are above your price range. Usually, between closing costs, homeowners fees, property taxes, and other expenses that pop up, houses end up feeling a little bit more expensive than you initially thought they would be. Shopping at the top end of your range is a risky game, because it leaves little room for error in your budget and could land you in hot water financially.
Do your budget calculations ahead of time. Figure out your range, and don't set foot in a house that is too expensive for you to realistically and comfortably afford.
If you are working with a realtor that keeps showing you houses outside of your price range, it might be time to find a new realtor. There's nothing as important as your financial security going forward, no matter how appealing the houses above your price range are.
Square Feet (and Price per Square Foot)
These two numbers, square footage and price per square foot, are essential to know for two different reasons.
First, comparing square footage to price and two number of bedrooms will give you good information about the relative size of a house. If you are looking at a house that has a small square footage relative to other houses with the same number of bedrooms, you can almost guarantee that the rooms will feel small and cramped. However, if you were looking at a house with a relatively few number of bedrooms comparative two other houses with a similar Square footages, you know the rooms will be large and spacious.
When it comes to price per square foot, this is another great way to compare apples to apples when looking at different houses in an area. Each area usually has a standard range when it comes to price per square foot for a house in that location. If the house you were looking at is significantly higher or lower than the area average, you can generally take it as an indication that something is off. It doesn't necessarily mean that is a bad house, but you should definitely look for information as to why the numbers don't match up.
This could indicate maintenance issues (if it’s significantly lower) or extra features like a fantastic view or a large pool (if it’s higher than other houses in the area), but it could also indicate over-ambitious selling price, so do your research if you see a house with significantly higher or lower price per square foot than others in the area.
Number of Bedrooms and Bathrooms
This is an important figure to view In context with the square footage and price.
Usually, houses are priced based on how many bedrooms there are, so occasionally you come on a house that has had an additional bedroom added on to sell at a higher price range, even though they really just divided in one room in half.
This isn't to say that number of bedrooms and bathrooms isn't important, it just means that you should look at it in the context of the house’s other statistics as well.
Time on the Market
This is a nifty little statistic that can tell you a lot.
Many people overlook how long a house has been on the market, because it is obviously greatly dependent on local market conditions. However, if you look at ten houses, and nine of them have only been on the market for less than a month, while the last one has been on the market for two hundred plus days, you might want to investigate what is making that one particular house not sell as quickly.
Inversely, if a house looks like it will be a fantastic deal and has only been on the market 3 days, it might motivate you to move a little quicker in your home search if you really think you might love it.
Homeowners’ Association Fees and Property Taxes
These are the dark side of home ownership.
You know what amount you're pre-qualified for when it comes to a total home price, but high monthly homeowners’ association fees or intense property taxes can ruin even the best planned budget.
There's nothing inherently wrong with houses that have high homeowners’ associations fees or high property taxes, but it is definitely something you want to know going into things. If you do see high fees, you can inquire with your realtor as to what is covered by the homeowners association. Sometimes they can cover things like landscaping that makes it well worth your while.
Year Built and Amenities
Again, there is nothing wrong with an older house, but it is definitely something you want to know going into things.
On the positive side, an older home can have a lot of character and unique features that are not currently being built into new houses the market.
On the other hand, older houses can require more maintenance, have higher upkeep fees, and run a higher likelihood that things like air conditioning or more central heating will malfunction, break, or have trouble finding replacement parts.
Make sure when you're looking at a house that you checked both the date the house was built, and the date any major additions or amenity purchases were made. This is checking stuff like when the air conditioning was put in, when the pool was added, or other major home additions.
Historical Sales and Prices
It's good to look at the history of when a house has been sold. If a house was built 40 years ago and has only been sold once previously, it's likely an indication that it is a quality home that two different owners spent roughly two decades each living in, without complaint or issue.
On the other hand, if a house changes hands every couple years, if there was a huge drop in sales price between two sales (especially one that wasn’t reflective what was happening in the greater market at that time), or if the house has repeatedly been put on the market and then taken off without selling, it could be a red flag that there is something wrong with the property.
Nothing here should be a deal-breaker, but if there is something that doesn't make sense, make sure you or your realtor gets to the bottom of it before you invest too much time or mental effort into one specific property.
Nearby Comparables (For Sale and Recently Sold)
This is a really big one which many first-time home buyers miss.
When you're looking at a specific property, you want to look at it in context of the other houses that are for sale in that area. Make sure you look at 5 to 10 other properties of a similar square footage and bedroom count, in the same general area.
Double check all the features on this list to see if your target house falls within the normal range on each of these metrics. If your house has similar bedroom count in square footage, but is far less expensive than the other homes on the market, there might be a reason for it. The reason doesn't necessarily have to be a deal-breaker. It could just indicate that it needs some renovation or repair, which you might be planning to do anyway. Just make sure you know what the reason for an outlier is before you make an offer.
Similarly, If a house is significantly more expensive than other comfortable house is on the market, it could indicate an over-ambitious seller but it could also indicate that a specific house has a particularly spectacular view or other key amenities that the other houses in the market don't possess. Again, this is just a sign that you need to investigate further, not necessarily A deal-breaker.
Neighborhood and Local Area
Finally, no matter where you move you are probably going to leave your house on the occasion.
The ambiance and personality of the surrounding neighborhood, the proximity to shopping, restaurants, or schools, and other important features your future city are going to be just as important (if not more) to your future happiness as how many square feet your potential future house has.
Make sure you do your research on whatever features of a community your family uses most. If you have children, this could include schools, parks, or any extracurriculars that are important to your family.
If you come from a big city, you might want to be walking distance from eating or shopping facilities.
No matter where you come from, if you're planning on commuting I would advocate making sure your house is close enough to a major highway but it doesn't add exorbitant time to your commute.
Even the best of homes in a bad area might not end up making you happy, so whatever it is that’s important to you, make sure you do a research prior to purchasing a home.