The housing market may be showing signs of softness, if not outright collapse in some areas, but interest in real estate hasn’t abated; it’s become a form of entertainment, whether you’re buying or not. Some people even arrange their Sunday afternoons to include open houses, and neighbors some-times meet for the first time when poking about in a nearby property. Recently, a handy new voyeuristic tool known as the Internet has proven its mettle as the perfect implement for house hunters, taking on new aspects not yet imagined by the traditional real estate business—and forever altering the real estate market.
According to the National Association of Realtors, 80 percent of home buyers start looking for their next house online instead of from the front seat of a real estate agent’s leased luxury car. It’s estimated that 24 percent of home buyers first see their future house on the screen of a computer. So what’s the best way to approach the Web as a potential buyer?
The first thing to find is a local Multiple Listing Service (MLS) that permits public access. In San Francisco, for example, the address to bookmark is the San Francisco Multiple Listing Service (www.sfarmls.com). The interfaces tend to be unglamorous,but do allow you to search with a few basic parameters including zip code, price, and date of construction. This gives an overview of a specific area within your price range. And you can focus your hunt on mid-century houses rather than disco-era if that’s the way you lean. It’s also handy to check out how much your neighbor just paid for his house at such sites as PropertyShark.com—out of a sense of community concern, of course.
From the MLS listings, you’ll probably move on to the websites of a specific broker; many real estate agents worth their 6 percent fees will have one, although they’re predominant among premium properties.
When you find listings with addresses, link to Microsoft’s Local.Live.com or Google Maps’ satellite view to get an idea of how many in-ground swimming pools your neighbors have. It’s also a good way to decipher if "convenient location" really means the house you’re lusting after backs up to a freeway. The new Google Street View prom-ises drive-by images of the property you may someday live in, and even has the unnerving capacity to capture your future neighbors taking out the trash.
As with any kind of house hunt—be it virtual or actual—it’s easy to become mired in the overwhelming supply of McMansions and tract homes. But there are great homes to be found if you’re willing to dig. Identifying what you see is part of the adventure, since real estate agents (and their clients) rarely know much about the properties beyond that they’re all equally fabulous and "awaiting your personal touch" (code for "We don’t know what to do with this wreck").
Our recommendation? The more houses you check out—be they actual visits or online—the better you’ll be equipped to understand what your real estate agent is saying when she spouts obscure real estate terms and to decipher the good from the really, really ugly. All of which will increase the likelihood that you’ll actually find the home of your dreams. Unless someone else bookmarks it first.