What You Should Really Know About Browsing for Homes Online
It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt!
Oh, let’s just admit it, shall we? Browsing for homes online is a window shopper’s Shangri-La. The elegantly decorated rooms, the sculpted gardens, the colorful front doors that just pop with those “come hither” hues.
Browser beware, though: Those listings may be seductive, but they might not be giving you the complete picture.
That perfect split-level ranch? Might be too close to a loud, traffic-choked street. That handsome colonial with the light-filled photos? Might be hiding some super icky plumbing problems. That attractively priced condo? Miiiight not actually be for sale. Imagine your despair when, after driving across town to see your dream home, you realize it was sold.
You Keep Current. Your Property Site Should, Too
First things first: You wouldn’t read last month’s People Magazine for the latest celeb gossip, right? So you shouldn’t browse property sites that show old listings.
Get the latest listings from a site other than Zillow (sorry, zillow) which leaves outdated information online, meant to generate confused calls from the public, who then are switched to other listings. One idea is to ask your agent to send you automated emails from the MLS with new properties that meet your specs. Multiple Listing Service (MLS) are simply regional databases where real estate agents post listings for sale. That means that their website is more accurate than others (like Zillow /Trulia, which updates less often). You wouldn’t want to get your heart excited about a house that’s already off the market!
BTW, there are other property listing sites as well, including Redfin, which is actually a real estate brokerage, and relies on relationships with brokers and MLSs for their listings.
The Best Properties Don't Always have the Best Pictures!
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But what they don’t say is a picture can also hide a thousand cracked floorboards, busted boilers, and leaky pipes. So while it’s natural to focus on photos while browsing, make sure to also consider the property description and other key features.
Each listing, for example, has a “property details” section that may specify important information such as the year the home was built, price per square foot, and how many days the property has been on the market.
Ultimately though, ask your real estate agent to help you interpret what you find. The best agents have hyper-local knowledge of the market and may even know details and histories of some properties. If a listing seems too good to be true, your agent will likely know why.
Treat Your Agent Like Your Bestie
At the end of the day, property sites are like CliffsNotes for a neighborhood: They show you active listings, sold properties, home prices, and sales histories. All that data will give you a working knowledge, but it won’t be exhaustive.
To assess all of this information — and gather facts about any home you’re eyeing, like how far the local elementary school is from the house or where the closest Soul Cycle is — talk to your real estate agent. An agent who can paint a picture of the neighborhood is an asset.
An agent who can go beyond that and deliver the dish on specific properties is a true friend indeed, more likely to guide you away from homes with hidden problems, and more likely to save you the time of visiting a random listing (when you could otherwise be in the park playing with your canine bestie).
Want to go deeper? Consider these sites and sources:
- School ratings: Data from GreatSchools.org and the National Center for Education Statistics, and the school district’s website
- Crime rates and statistics: CrimeReports.com, NeighborhoodScout.com, SpotCrime.com, and the local police station
- Walkability and public transportation: WalkScore.com and APTA.com
- Hospital ratings: HealthInsight.org, LeapfrogGroup.org, and U.S. News and World Report rankings
Just remember: You’re probably not going to find that “perfect home” while browsing listings on your smartphone. Instead, consider the online shopping experience to be an amuse bouche to the home-buying entree — a good way for you to get a taste of the different types of homes that are available and a general idea of what else is out there.
Once you’ve spent that time online, you’ll be ready to share what you’ve learned with an agent. Then you'll know if the house already got 3 offers. Or when their offer cutoff is. Or if there's a home inspection you can see. Or if radon or other common problems are known in that area.
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