7 Tips To Improve The Effectiveness Of Your Online Home Search

Do Your Homework Before Getting Started

When it comes to searching homes for sale online, it’s easy to jump right in and start picking out potential dream homes. After all, starting a home search is exciting, and looking at homes can be a lot of fun. However, taking the time to understand the best search practices can save you a lot of time and help you find the perfect home much quicker. In this article, including the video below, I’ll discuss my best tips for maximizing the effectiveness of your online home search.

Essential Tips For Searching Homes Online

Tip #1 - Find a site (or two) that works for YOU.
Tip #2 - Save searches and use auto-notifications.
Tip #3 - Use Google Street View to explore potential neighborhoods.
Tip #4 - Utilize map search options and overlays.
Tip #5 - Learn how to properly use search filters.
Tip #6 - Ignore automated home value estimates.
Tip #7 - Use local tax records for additional info.

Tip #1 - Find A Site (Or Two) That Works For YOU

The first, and probably most important thing you’ll want to do, is find the right website(s) to conduct your search. There are literally thousands of real estate search websites out there, each with their own search interface and tools. Finding a tool that is enjoyable to use will keep the home search process from feeling like a job.

I recommend limiting your search to one or two sites, since most websites have all the same listings on them anyway. Learning to master the search tools on one or two sites is much easier than 10 sites, and will keep you from essentially performing the same search and getting the same results, over and over.

What Should You Look For In A Search Tool?

One of the most important things you should look for is the ability to create an account and save searches. I’ll explain why this is so important in tip #2. In addition, you’ll only want to use sites that provide accurate, up-to-date results. You may need to spend some time trying a few out before committing to one, but spending a little time upfront will save you much more in the end. Here are some great questions to ask yourself when testing out various sites:

  • Do you want larger photos and virtual tours?
  • Do you need integrated public data, lots of listing info and school reviews?
  • Do ads and calls to action distract you from your search?
  • How quickly do search results load? Is the search user friendly?
  • Do results fit your screen size or do you need to scroll?
  • Do the search filters give you the results you need?
  • Are listings displayed on a map? Are properties easy to locate?
  • Can you search by school district? What about zip code, neighborhood, etc.?

Sites I Recommend Using

If you’re not getting properties sent to you by your REALTOR® from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), I recommend finding a local broker’s site (one with a direct MLS IDX feed) as well as a site that features properties listed for sale by owner (FSBO). This will enable you to get accurate results from the MLS, plus, view “unlisted” properties directly from homeowners.

You should be able to find a local broker by searching “your city MLS IDX search” in Google or Yahoo. When it comes to finding FSBO listings, there are various "by owner" sites out there, but many homeowners are now gravitating toward sites like Zillow to list their homes for sale for free.

10 Most Most Popular Search Portals (Monthly Visitors)

  1. Zillow
  2. Trulia
  3. Yahoo! Homes
  4. Realtor.com
  5. Redfin
  6. Homes.com
  7. ReMax.com
  8. HotPads
  9. ZipRealty
  10. Auction.com

Tip #2 - Save Searches & Use Auto-Notifications

Hopefully you’re using a site that allows you to create an account and save your custom searches. This will allow you to quickly perform the same search in the future without having to redo all the settings. This should also enable you to create auto-notifications where you’ll get daily/weekly/monthly emails when new listings hit the market that match your criteria. This will save you tons of time versus having to constantly login to see if any new matches are available.

Listing Updates Are Essential For Serious Buyers

Anyone who is serious about buying a home should setup immediate listing notifications. In a market where the best properties are under contract in days, the quicker you catch the top new listings, the better your chances of getting in early and getting the property. Even buyers who search daily can miss out on a home, since some properties can be under contract within hours! However, if you’re not ready to buy now, look at setting up weekly or monthly notifications. This will keep your email inbox from overflowing with listing updates.

Tip #3 - Use Google Maps Street View Feature

I can’t tell you how many times Google Street View has saved a trip to a house that was a definite no-go. Since many agents take advantage of wide angle cameras and only use the best shots, the way a home looks online can be quite different than how it looks in person. If available, Street View allows you to quickly see what a home really looks like and take a virtual drive through the neighborhood.

You have full control to pan, zoom, and reposition the 360 degree images. If Street View is not available, try using Bing Map’s Bird’s Eye View. You can explore a property with 360 degree overhead images that allow you to zoom in enough to make out details about the property and the surrounding area. This is a great way to check out the size of the yard is and see how close together homes are in the neighborhood.

Tip #4 - Utilize Map Search Options And Overlays

For those visual searchers out there like myself, a map search option is a great way to visualize the location of potential homes and make narrowing down your search, easier. Let’s say you want to be a certain distance from a school, park, or even your job. Use a radius search from a point on the map to view matches within that search area.

Many map search tools also have the option to do a polygon search. This enables you to get more precise with the areas you’d like to target. Some map search tools also have great integrated overlays that can show nearby schools, attractions, shopping & dining, and even real estate statistics for the defined area.

Tip #5 - Learn How To Properly Use Search Filters

The only thing worse than not being able to use a filter, is using it the wrong way. After all, the last thing you’ll want to do is set up a filter that excludes homes that you may actually want. It can be easy to save a custom search with very specific criteria that excludes many great potential properties. Unless it’s an absolute deal breaker or you’re getting far too many results, try to avoid filtering by specific features or amenities.

Examples of these kinds of searches include: homes with fireplaces, attached garages, fenced yard, pool, formal dining room, etc. Many of these features can be added later on, and sometimes these fields don’t have the correct information entered to begin with.

Square Footage & Lot Size Fields

The square footage of the home and the lot size are two of the most important search fields you should NOT use when filtering listings. While searching primary fields like the number of beds, baths and the year built are pretty straight forward and usually correct, square footage is not. I’d estimate that nearly 20% of the real estate listings on the MLS in Atlanta do not have a value entered for the sq/ft of the home, it’s simply listed as 0 sq/ft.

Even if the sq/ft is available, it is often incorrect, depending on the source of the measurement. Unless you’re searching for land, avoid filtering by lot size, as this field is often wrong or missing as well.

Tip #6 - Ignore Automated Home Value Estimates

While they may be fascinating to look at while searching listings, home value estimates can do more harm than good. It may be difficult to do, but try not to write off a home that appears “overpriced” according to automated value estimates. These value estimates can be way off, therefore, distorting your perception of a home before you give it a chance.

Zillow, by their own admission, features home value estimates (Zestimates) that can be off by 10% or more. So don’t let yourself ignore homes with low value estimates, or get hung up on properties that look like a great deal because their value estimate is higher than the list price. Your agent should do a value analysis once you’ve found the home you want, that way you can make a solid offer based on the true value of the home.

Tip #7 - Use Local Tax Records For Additional Info

If you’re having trouble finding information about a home, look no further than your county’s property tax website. Most counties now have property records available online, and since they’re public record, anyone can look at them. Although they’re not always 100% accurate, tax records can provide you with the square footage of a home, lot size, and sometimes, measurements of the structure (home).

You can also find mortgage history, sales & transfers of ownership, and current/historical tax assessments. You may also be able to find appraiser maps of the neighborhood that show lot lines and measurements. In addition, you can determine whether a property currently has any kind of homestead exemptions and view the current assessed value of the property.

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