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Your Questions Answered: How Do Online Tools Fit into Your Home Search?

What you see isn’t always what you get.

Image: HouseLogic

Let’s face it, you do everything online: watch movies, pay bills, keep up with the glamorous life of that suspiciously perfect friend-of-a-friend. When you’re ready to buy a new home, browsing internet listings is probably a no-brainer. But did you know those online tools might not be giving you the full picture?

When it comes to neighborhood traffic, outdated plumbing, or many other home issues to consider before you buy, you’ll need to take the info on property listing sites with a grain of salt. That means working closely with your agent and being prepared for what online tools can and can’t do for your home search. 

In a Q&A on Facebook, HouseLogic teamed up with real estate expert and Senior Vice President at realtor.com® Suzanne Mueller to answer your questions about how to work with online tools when buying a new home. Here are the top Q&As from the event.

#1 How to Begin an Online Search

Q: Property search sites seem to be the way everybody shops today. How should people use them?

A: Property search sites are excellent research resources and offer multiple other tools to keep you on top of the market. You can set parameters that make sense for your needs and register your search on a site so you’re notified as soon as a new home is listed or goes pending. 

While all home dreamers and even sideline buyers (people waiting for the right house) pay attention to the active listing process, I’d suggest making sure you look at the long term. Research prior sales in your market, and check with your agent to supplement your online window shopping.

#2 What Your Agent Provides That the Web Can't

Q: Do you recommend shoppers use online tools and a real estate agent when searching for a new home. What’s the right balance?

A: Yes! The combination of working with online tools as well as a real estate agent is the perfect recipe for success in the process of buying or selling your home. Online tools allow you to search and research on your time. Live. 24/7. They allow you to get a broad picture of the marketplace and help you refine your wants and needs before you jump in head first.

Realtor.com® also offers a wealth of information for buyers and sellers, beyond the home search. 

The other critical piece of your successful home search is your agent. An experienced real estate agent brings irreplaceable local knowledge to your search. No one knows the cracks and crevices of specific streets, cities, and school districts the way a well-informed and knowledgeable real estate professional does. And ask if your agent is a REALTOR®, a member of the National Association of REALTORS®, who follows a strict code of ethics.

Online tools are great for research, communicating, and staying current with the market. (For instance, realtor.com® updates all our listings at least every 15 minutes.) But nothing can replace the knowledge and expertise of a good local agent. Plus, your agent is there to be your guide and advocate in the process.

#3 Finding an Agent Online

Q: Are there online tools to find an agent, and should I use them?

A: Absolutely! Realtor.com®, for example, offers a specially designed Find a REALTOR® search combined with excellent agent profile pages where you can search for and connect with a Realtor® right in your area. 

You’ll be able to review the agent’s biography, interests, and years of experience, and see the markets in which they work. Realtor.com® also allows past clients to provide unedited reviews of those agents on their profile pages, so the tool is really built so that you can choose the real estate professional who is right for you.

Above all, take your time, compare the options, and make sure you feel good about your choice before moving forward. 

Related: More Ways to Find the Right Agent for You — And How Youl’ll Know You Did

#4 Most Important Things to Look for in a Property Site

Q: Is there anything that makes one property listing site better than another?

A: The most important thing is to make sure you have the best and most up-to-date information you can get. Realtor.com® has the most comprehensive active listings, and they’re updated at least every 15 minutes from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), regional databases where agents post real estate listings for sale. 

These listings should include details such as price, square footage, number of bedrooms, and other noteworthy attributes — as well as photos of the property.

So, if you’re following the right online tool and a new home comes on the market or goes pending, you’re going to know about it as soon as possible. This is super critical [if you’re in a competitive housing market].

#5 Tap Your Agent's Knowledge of the Area

Q: What kind of questions can a buyer’s agent answer that these websites can’t?

A: There’s so much information available about neighborhoods and homes that no single site can tell you all of it. That’s where your agent can help. Who built the home, and what are its quirks? Was there a recent school levy? What’s going on with the city at the municipality level? Are there any upcoming changes in the neighborhood’s zoning you should know about? 

All of these things are important and can impact both your home choice and the future value of that home, so this is definitely where your agent can be an excellent resource.

#6 Find More Than Listing Info Online

Q: What other kinds of online information can supplement this process? Should people be looking up walkability scores, crime stats, etc. in other digital tools?

A: There’s so much information like this online! Realtor.com® offers great neighborhood information, including everything from walk scores to school ratings and more. All of this data helps you be more informed in the home buying process.

People are also turning to 3D virtual tours to view a property and even stage their furniture to see how things do or don’t work in the space. A home is a very personal purchase, and being able to walk through the space in this unique manner can make or break a sale.

Don’t be afraid to turn to new technologies that can help show you a different angle in conjunction with your in-person tour.

#7 What to Look For During a Walk-Through

Q: Should buyers walk through properties with their real estate agent? Why?

A: For those new to the process, a “walk-through” is where you physically walk through your future home before you are about to take ownership and ensure the property’s condition is what’s specified in your contract. This is not an inspection. This is when you double-check that any agreed-upon repairs have been made and that the property’s condition hasn’t changed since your last visit. Your agent has probably been on more walk-throughs than you can imagine. As such, they are an immeasurable resource. 

Not only should the agent bring a copy of your contract as a reference, but they will ensure things are not overlooked and act as your advocate with the seller and the seller’s agent, should any issues arise.

#8 Exclusive Listings

Q: Are any property listings exclusive to certain agents? Will buyers ever find homes online that their agent isn’t able to show?

A: Usually all homes for sale in a given market are available on the MLS and online. However, in the current economy, where homes are being sold so quickly, sometimes (but not often) homes can be “for sale” but treated as a “private” or “exclusive” listings. This means that the agent markets the home to other local agents, usually with the agreement of the seller, for two weeks to a month before entering the property into the MLS. 

Sometimes in this seller’s market the home is sold within that initial, exclusive time period. Many argue that without the broader exposure, the seller missed out on getting the best price for their property, but it’s still important to note that this is something you could have to contend with in especially hot markets.

Buyers may also find homes online with certain showing terms, meaning conditions under which the listing agent (the agent representing the seller) has brought the home onto the market. That means the home may be seen by appointment only, could be renter occupied, or might require 24-hour notice to show, etc.

All the listings available on realtor.com® will be available under the same terms as through the MLS to which your agent is subject.

#9 Mistakes to Avoid

Q: What are the three biggest mistakes buyers make when they shop online?

A: This is the most important question yet! Buying a home is likely to be the largest financial transaction you will ever make, and we’ve found that many home buyers are not as prepared as they can be to ensure the best possible purchase decision. Plus, buying a home is a time full of emotion, so there’s a lot to be mindful of.

First of all, do your prep work! Understand your family’s finances and needs. The wisest home buyer will analyze assets, decipher debts, and get pre-approved financing before plunging into the house hunt. 

You should also get to know the neighborhoods you’re interested in. Remember, you’re not just buying a house; you’re also buying a location. It’s important to find out about the quality of schools (start with a site like GreatSchools), local transportation, and possibly upcoming zoning issues. Not all parts of every community will suit the needs of you and your family, so do some research about the location as well as the listing itself.

Secondly, a home is more than four walls. You have to understand how the space feels, and, more importantly, how the space makes you feel. None of that translates online. 

Think about furniture! Rooms look much bigger online than in person, and it can be hard to take windows and doorways into account when you’re just seeing photos.

Finally, don’t underestimate the cost of remodeling or other work needed.

Online tools are an excellent way to begin dreaming about a new home. They help you get a general sense of the market, weigh your expectations against your needs, and get excited for the steps ahead. But no property listing is comprehensive.

So once you’ve gotten your feet wet online, it’s always a smart move to have a trusted real estate agent interpret and contextualize each home and neighborhood you’re interested in. 

With both tools in your back pocket, the journey will be so much smoother.

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