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Real Estate Websites: House Hunting Goes Virtual

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 26, 2011 Deadline
July 2011 Issue

Real Estate Websites: House Hunting Goes Virtual

Buying a house is one of the most stressful experiences I can imagine. Add in the stress of selling an existing home and trying to coordinate the move and the stress level increases exponentially.

My wife and I spent May and June house hunting and are now in the process of selling our current home. I believe nothing is better than working with a respected local real estate agent. Most local agents are Realtors, members of the National Association of Realtors. I encourage homebuyers and sellers to work with a professional. Professionally, I’ve met and worked with many great Realtors in Tulare County.

Unfortunately, we’re heading to the opposite coast. We considered renting, but there aren’t many apartments or homes for rent in our destination. I’ll write about where we are heading and why in an upcoming column; I believe the move could help Valley residents and many others.

My new colleagues suggested a great Realtor. To my surprise, the first question the Realtor asked was if we had compared homes using the different online real estate websites.

Not that long ago, the real estate industry worried about losing influence to online companies. The multiple listing service (MLS) industry protected housing data zealously, too. Now, it seems Realtors and MLS companies work with numerous websites to help connect buyers and sellers.

In addition to the website of our Realtor’s brokerage company, which relies on a commercial MLS database service, we also used the following real estate websites:
Homes.com (http:\\www.homes.com)
Realtor.com (http:\\www.realtor.com)
Trulia (http:\\www.trulia.com)
Zillow (http:\\www.zillow.com)

Of the four real estate websites, the two standouts are definitely Trulia and Zillow. While each site allowed basic searches on criteria such as square feet and price, Trulia and Zillow provided the most advanced searching options. These two sites also provided more information about properties and neighborhoods than other websites.

The first thing I did on both Trulia and Zillow was use their “Recently Sold” search feature. On Trulia, this is a nice “tab” across the top of the website. This was easier to use, at least for me, than Zillow’s search. The recently sold list on Trulia appears in reverse order, with the most recent transactions first. You see a photo, description and the date sold for each listing. On the right-hand side is a map of the homes, too.

Searching for recently sold homes with the features my wife and I wanted in a house, we were able to determine what we might pay for a similar house in the area. Realtors call these “comps,” as in comparable homes. An appraiser would be more precise than an online search, but Trulia’s data were surprisingly close to what our Realtor told us to expect.

On Zillow, you have to select the checkbox next to a little yellow house icon to include recent sales in search results. While this helps spot trends on a map of the area, the approach of mixing recent sales with home currently on the market made it challenging to read the map and sort through the data. It took more effort, but we found the information helpful.

Where Zillow shines is its “Zestimate” feature. When you search for homes on Zillow, some listings include price estimates, calculated using a proprietary formula. As we found homes we wanted to tour, we would review them on Zillow. Using the Zestimate, we had some idea if seller was asking for a price above or below market trends.

The Zillow data page for a home includes its sales history, tax appraisal history and a handy chart showing price changes over the last one, five or ten years. Zillow relies on public records for these data, so the tax appraisal and deed amounts are precise. The chart includes two additional lines, one for the general area and one for the specific neighborhood. It is interesting to see how two neighborhoods in the same ZIP code can have two different price trends.

Amazingly, the house we are buying was within a thousand dollars of the Zestimate, after some negotiating. I strongly recommend this feature. Our Realtor was wonderful, too, sending us pricing data for areas that was more precise after we had narrowed our search to a few communities. The Realtor also explained housing price trends and why some areas were increasing and others were not.

Trulia shines with its “Local Info” profiles. I was using City Data (city-data.com) and Wikipedia to learn about communities. That really isn’t the best approach to choosing a place to live. Trulia uses the same public data as City Data, but also includes local reviews to create community profiles. The Trulia “Heat Map” feature highlights areas increasing in demand within a given distance. Our final destination was “warm” but not “hot.” Homes in the “hot” area are also three times as expensive.

Trulia, Zillow and the other websites allow you to create automatic searches. When a house is listed or the price changes, you receive an alert via email. The house we are buying was listed mere days before my wife’s scheduled flight to tour houses.

If you like the houses found in a search, you can share those listings via Facebook with both Trulia and Zillow. I used this feature to share photos and information with family members. One of my uncles is a contractor and his insights helped us reject several homes, thanks to Facebook integration with these websites.

With the guidance of a Realtor, Trulia and Zillow are powerful tools for homebuyers and sellers. We are now using the two websites to help set our selling price, for example. It is a tough market and many people have priced homes unrealistically. Zillow helped us generate a “Zestimate” that can be discussed with the Realtor, so we can sell our home quickly but at a fair price.

I’m looking forward to our impending move. The house hunt would have been more stressful without real estate websites.

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