What was house hunting like in the 1990s? Cruising for hours in search of colorful red, white and blue "for sale" signs, working closely with a real estate agent, taking time to visit dozens of houses looking for that one perfect home; it was a lot of work. Buying a house is still no easy task, but the Information Age has brought huge changes to industries the world over, and real estate is no exception.
There are now so many tools to aid us in the house-hunting process, that we can complete much of the work from home, whittle away at the details in our spare time and browse for residences at our leisure before even dealing with an agent. In fact, all these new options for home shopping can be a bit overwhelming. There are so many smart phone apps and Web sites waiting to be used, picking out the ones worth your time can be a challenge. That's why we've done it for you. Here are 10 tools that harness the power of modern technology. Use them wisely to make your house-hunting expedition as comprehensive and painless as possible.
Google Maps has grown enormously as a service since its launch in 2005, adding features like walking directions and Street View [source: Google]. Type in an address in any populated area, and Google Maps can likely pinpoint local businesses and give you a good look at it with satellite imagery. But there's another feature of Google Maps perfect for house hunters -- a "real estate" option is hidden away on the "More" menu. Toggle it on, and suddenly Google Maps will display houses listed for sale in the map area.
In heavily populated areas, that could be a lot of houses. Thankfully, the menu panel on the left side of the screen includes several sorting options. You can enter a price range to search, filter by houses for sale/rent/foreclosure, or sort by number of bedrooms, bathrooms or square footage. And since Google excels at pulling in images from other Web sites and producing its own with Street View, each listing page should give you a basic idea of what the home in question looks like.
Google Maps is the perfect way to get a feel for where available homes are, or even map out a route to travel between them. But when it comes to detailed searches, we'll want to head to a real estate site with a bit more depth.
Zillow is one of many real estate sites that offer free search and other tools for home buyers, sellers or prospective renters. And it's hugely popular: Zillow is the most-visited real estate site on the Web, according to Alexa's traffic rankings in November 2010 [source: Alexa]. It even offers tools to real estate professionals or homeowners who want to know how much their houses are worth.
In addition to a wealth of search and sorting options like size, price, and for sale by agent or owner, users can customize e-mail updates to notify them when new homes are added that match their desired criteria. Other real estate tools are also well-represented: The mortgage section includes up-to-date mortgage rates and a mortgage calculator. And because Zillow is such a heavily visited real estate site, its FAQs and discussion sections bring together users who can give and receive helpful advice [source: Zillow].
Zillow even offers a free app for the iPhone, iPad, and Android and Windows mobile smart phone platforms. The apps pull in Google Maps data and search Zillow's listings by voice, GPS or text input. Each property displayed on the map is clickable to view listing data and images.
Real estate search site ZipRealty had more than 1 million homes for sale archived as of November 2010. Unlike Zillow, which lets you view any property page without any hassle, ZipRealty requires you register a free account to get beyond the initial search results. This makes home shopping on ZipRealty less convenient, but ZipRealty's real standout isn't the Web site -- it's the free mobile app.
Like the Zillow app, ZipRealty pulls in Google Map data and displays recently sold and for sale homes on the map. Each home icon brings you to an individual property page with details and photos, and a convenient link to Google Street View. While the app is available for the iPad and Android, the iPhone version stands out with an extra augmented reality feature called HomeScan.
HomeScan uses the iPhone's video camera and connects to the Internet to pull in information about homes for sale in your vicinity. The app provides information like how far you are from the properties, prices and even photos. This form of augmented reality marries the visual experience of the real world with detailed information from the Web. Because this feature requires a video camera, it will only work on an iPhone 3GS or 4 [source: ZipRealty]. Since most Android devices now come with video cameras, ZipRealty could update its Android app with the same feature.
Part of finding that perfect home is simply searching as thoroughly and diligently as possible. There are a lot of helpful Web sites out there, each with differing interfaces. Finding the one that best suits your needs will bring you one step closer to picking out a home. Another Web-based real estate search site, Trulia, highlights homes in your area that have been recently reduced in price. Its homepage also shows nearby open houses, recent home listings and helpful statistics like median sales prices for the area.
Much like Zillow, a community-based section offers advice for and from home buyers, and a blogs section highlights articles written by experts in the field who have helpful tips on all things real estate. Trulia also offers an iPhone app with GPS-based map search and images and data on houses for sale.
Redfin offers the same basic search features we've seen already on Zillow, but the site also has a different focus. All of these sites make it easy to browse through a vast number of homes for sale, but Redfin prioritizes the process of matching prospective buyers with agents who can guide them through the purchasing process. In several major cities, that means an agent who works for Redfin itself. Everywhere else, they'll put you in contact with a local agent who's a Redfin partner [source: Redfin].
Redfin's services also offer a 50 percent commission credit through Redfin agents and 15 percent through its partners. That could add up to a decent chunk of money saved during the expensive process of buying a house. For beginning homebuyers, Redfin's Web site also includes a detailed home-buying guide that breaks down several parts of the purchasing process. It goes in-depth to explain mortgages, how to choose a lender and how to finalize a deal.
And Redfin's got its own iPhone app, too, with similar features to the ones we've already covered. It also allows you to take a photo within the app that you can view on Redfin's Web site alongside any notes you took on the phone about specific properties.
While sites like Zillow, Ziprealty, Trulia and Redfin prioritize their Web sites and offer mobile apps as complementary additions, Smarter Agent is all about the mobile space. Smarter Agent began building real estate tools with mobile GPS technology back in 2000, and its dedication to the technology means that Smarter Agent apps are available for a wide variety of mobile devices, including iPhone, BlackBerry and Google Android [source: Smarter Agent].
Smarter Agent's app is free and covers more than 300 markets nationwide. Additionally, Smarter Agent offers an in-development search engine on its Web page with a dizzying number of customization options. If you only want to find houses with saunas and sunrooms, consider Smarter Agent your search engine.
But finding a house is only half the battle -- even if it's the right size and price, there are other important elements to consider. Parents, especially, want to make sure their new neighborhood is safe, making the next Web site on this list a must visit.
There are two major sex offender registries available online. The first is the government-run Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Web site, the NSOPW. It's possible to search through the NSOPW archives by name or location and view the current addresses of all registered sex offenders. The second option is Family Watchdog, a non-government site; Family Watchdog gathers data from various state sex offender registries. Do a search for your own state's registry if you don't want an archive that covers all of the United States.
Knowing about any sex offenders in a neighborhood you're thinking of moving to is important, but don't automatically assume that new dream home is dangerous. If you do find a sex offender listed, check his or her crime. Assault on a minor may be a serious red flag, but other crimes like public indecency may not hold the same implications.
Once you've picked out some houses to visit and have done all of your homework, it's time to check them out in person. Our next tech tool will help you get the most out of each home you explore.
Realty Web sites will usually offer a few pictures of a house on the market, but how often do they really cover everything you're interested in? What's the view from the front windows or the porch? How's the back yard? How cramped is the kitchen? If you're visiting multiple houses, all of these details could get mixed up in your head, leaving you struggling to remember which kitchen you liked best, which patio was your favorite. The simple solution? Document everything.
Decent point-and-shoot cameras are cheap, easy to operate, and small enough to fit in a bag or pocket. Even a cell phone camera will get the job done. Modern smart phones are actually closing in on the point-and-shoot market, offering 5 or 8 megapixel lenses that take clear, high-definition photos. Older cell phone cameras may not offer the picture quality of newer generation smart phones, but they'll still help you catalog each visit.
After using Web searches, mobile apps and photography to finally nail down that perfect house, there's one major hurdle left to cross: actually affording it.
Crunching mortgage numbers on paper is no fun. There are a lot of big numbers involved: how long the mortgage will last, what the interest rate will be, how much the house costs. Why try to calculate it the hard way when there are applications built specifically to make mortgages easier to understand?
There are dozens of free, easy-to-use mortgage calculators on smart phone platforms that make mortgage calculation a snap. For example, the free Karl's Mortgage Calculator for Android will break your mortgage numbers down into tables, graphs charts and a summary showing just how much of the mortgage comes from principal and interest. And while there are tons of apps on the iTunes App Store that will handle mortgage calculating for only $1, free apps are plentiful, as well. And if you'd rather do your money math at home, Karl's Mortgage Calculator online or Zillow's simple calculator are good starting points.
Finally, there's one last element we can't ignore when calculating a new mortgage: property taxes.
While some mortgage calculators will help you figure out how much in taxes to expect from your new residence, others ignore them completely or want you to input the dollar amount manually. Thinking about taxes isn't much fun, but government Web sites are there to ease us through the pain. Every state has a Department of Revenue with tax records and a wealth of government-provided information.
The Free Public Records Directory aggregates a huge number of state government Web sites. Just enter your ZIP code to view the county's public records Web sites. Official property search tools can give you a detailed description of any address you plug in. Armed with tax information, mortgage calculators and a huge selection of realty search engines, it's time to go out and find that perfect home.
Most homeowners insurance won't cover your home if you're renting it via sites like Airbnb. HowStuffWorks looks at insurance policies that will.
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More Great Links
- Alexa.com. "Top Sites By Category: Business/Real Estate." (Nov. 6, 2010).http://www.alexa.com/topsites/category/Top/Business/Real_Estate
- Boero, Brian. "15 real estate related iPhone apps you need to check out." July 29, 2009. (Nov. 3 2010).http://www.1000wattconsulting.com/blog/2009/07/15-real-estate-related-iphone-apps-you-need-to-check-out-2.html
- Google.com. "Google Milestones." (Nov. 10, 2010).http://www.google.com/corporate/milestones.html#2005
- iPhoneness.com. "15 Best Real Estate iPhone Applications." (Nov. 3, 2010).http://www.iphoneness.com/iphone-apps/15-best-real-estate-iphone-applications/
- Jeacle, Karl. "Karl Jeacle's Mortgage Calculator." (Nov. 10, 2010).http://www.drcalculator.com/mortgage/mobile/
- Redfin.com. "Why Redfin Is Way Better." (Nov. 7, 2010).http://www.redfin.com/buy-a-home/why-redfins-better?src=homepage-btn
- Smarteragent.com. "Innovation." (Nov. 7, 2010).http://www.smarteragent.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=47
- Smarteragent.com. "Mobile for Consumers." (Nov. 7, 2010).http://smarteragent.com/mobileforconsumers/
- Trulia.com. "Trulia Voices Real Estate Blogs." (Nov. 7, 2010).http://www.trulia.com/voices/blogs/
- Zillow.com. "What Zillow Offers." (Nov. 6, 2010).http://www.zillow.com/learnmore/what-you-can-do-on-zillow.htm
- ZipRealty.com. "HomeScan: ZipRealty's powerful new iPhone app feature." (Nov. 7, 2010).http://www.ziprealty.com/iphone/