You’re finally far enough along in the home buying process to start having fun. Scrolling through houses is such a great time that it’s become a hobby for people who aren’t even interested in buying a home; the obsession has been mocked on SNL and spawned one of the top real estate accounts on Instagram, “Zillow gone wild.”
For the casual shopper, these sites are a fun escape into the market, a voyeuristic way to spend an afternoon. But for the grizzled veteran who has loved and lost, who has been outbid countless times, scrolling through lists becomes work. At this point, you’ll want to find the fastest and most efficient way to narrow down your search.
Wherever you are in your home buying journey, it makes sense to start online, where you can browse hundreds of homes at the same time as it would take to visit a single open house.
Real estate websites have become more informative and easier to use over the years, and advances in 3D technology allow you to visit many listings virtually. It’s not quite the same as walking through the door yourself, but at least it gives a better understanding of the layout – and combats the tricks photographers use to make a room look bigger than it is. actually isn’t. (The right lens can make a closet look like a bedroom.)
Strategy alert: When browsing these sites, some will have a small tag that identifies a popular home that more people click on or visit. These properties are usually charming, well photographed and aggressively priced – the perfect storm for a bidding war. Fall in love with them at your peril. An alternative is to search for homes with ugly photos at a weird price that have been on the market for months.
There are tons of websites and apps to choose from, but dozens of interviews with homebuyers revealed that most Southern Californians prefer three: Zillow, Realtor.com, and Redfin, which all include all properties published on the multiple listings service.
Zillow – The Biggest Name
There’s a reason why Zillow is the first name that comes to mind when you’re thinking about house hunting.
The real estate giant pioneered the concept of instant home value estimation with the Zestimate, which combines public data with user-supplied information to put a price tag on any property. Of course, the number is only as good as the data behind it, so it’s far from foolproof. But the concept has helped make it by far the most popular real estate search engine.
“Zillow was our go-to,” said Kaitlynne Sanfilippo, who bought a Long Beach home in June 2020 after months of research. To save time, she signed up for Zillow email alerts for Long Beach homes coming on the market under certain parameters: single-family homes listed for less than $600,000.
One or two emails arrived in her inbox every day with a new option, so there was always something to choose from without having to do her own research.
Realtor.com functions as a search engine for both homes and real estate agents.
Zillow offers a similar agent search feature, but also offers agents a “Premier Agent” program that gives them more branding and exposure on the site if they buy.
Realtor.com’s system seems a bit fairer, and a simple zip code search will show how many homes an agent has listed and how many that person has sold. You can also search by credentials; for example, you can only see agents who have received certifications such as ‘Expert in Real Estate Negotiation’ or ‘At Home with Diversity’, two of the many accolades awarded by the Assn. real estate agents.
The site also displays data on past listings. While Redfin tends to hide previous listing prices, Realtor.com shows each time a home has been listed and for how much – so you can see when a home flipped for a quick profit, when the price of a house has gone down or when a seller has just put the property up for sale without a reduction.
The app version also offers a Sign Snap feature, so if you’re out for a walk and come across a sign-up sign, you can snap a photo of it and immediately retrieve all property information.
Redfin – Easiest to use
Real estate shopping should be fun, and quite simply, Redfin looks the best. It has a clean and simple interface that doesn’t bombard you with information, but offers almost everything you need to know if you’re willing to dig a little for it. The site also has a handy “Hot home” tag that measures how many people view an ad. If it’s hot, you might have to make an offer soon – and a good one.
Redfin also acts as a brokerage and charges a lower commission than traditional real estate companies. If you choose to buy with a Redfin agent, they promise a commission rebate that can stretch north of $1,000, depending on the sale price. (In Southern California, for better or for worse, the selling price will always be high enough for the buyer to get a good bribe.)
Although not as popular as the three mentioned above, Trulia’s unique feature is to poll residents to get a sense of certain neighborhoods. For example, a recent Eagle Rock listing gleefully reported that 72% of residents say they would wander there alone at night, while 70% say there’s a holiday spirit – so you won’t have not to be the only person with a kick- Santa Claus and reindeer on the lawn in December.
Next: Find and vibrate with your real estate agent
Agents have the expertise, tactics, and contacts first-time buyers need, and they’re everywhere, even on TikTok.
Are you looking for an offer? Foreclosure.com searches for homes in foreclosure, pre-foreclosure or bankruptcy. It’s not as simple as the traditional home buying process, but if you don’t mind a project, it’s an alternative entry into a market that can be very expensive.
FSBO.com – which stands for For Sale By Owner – does away with real estate agents altogether and connects buyers and sellers directly. There’s more risk, but if you’re looking to save money and work directly with a seller, this site makes the most sense.