What to Look for When Browsing for Homes Online

Browsing real estate listings can be a fun activity, whether you are ready to buy right now or are thinking of it for someday in the future.

However, if you are looking to buy a home now, the online search is your gateway to your potential new home. Note that the online search is fun and informative, but you should not seriously begin looking at homes until you are pre-approved for a loan (mortgage) by a bank or other financial institution. Otherwise, you may not be able to accurate gauge how much you can afford.

Even if you are familiar with an area where you want to buy, you should still look at homes in person to ensure you understand all the benefits and the limitations of any particular home. Recognize that small factors will have an impact when you consider them on a daily basis. For example, what direction does the home face? Will you get any direct sunlight? How long would your commute be from this location? Where are the nearest amenities? All of these considerations about neighborhood and other factors should be factored in when you look more seriously into buying a home.

What is a Multiple Listing Service (MLS)?

A Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is a database aggregating all available listings in an area regardless of who the listing agent is. Agents and brokers provide information to create a regional MLS database, which should be all-encompassing for officially listed properties. Properties being sold by their owners and other privately listed properties might not appear on the MLS.

In markets that do not have an existing MLS, listing agents hold more power to only show you their particular listings, with an emphatic push to sell. In an area with an MLS, buyers have the option to conveniently and easily peruse all available homes for sale within their search parameters, and the buyer’s agents can work with any property, regardless of the listing agent. Agents and brokers also benefit from additional marketing and potential reach for buyers.

An MLS is ideal for keeping your online home search broad enough to catch all listings of interest in your area. If you hire a buyer’s agent to help with your home search, your agent will also have the inside track to upcoming listings and listings that will appeal to you based on your specific requirements. Working with an agent can help you in a particularly competitive market.

Top Online Real Estate Listing Sites

Some of the most widely used resources for prospective homeowners are easily accessible real estate websites. An MLS is a more real estate-specific term for the type of online real estate listing sites you are probably already familiar with. Some of these sites will sound familiar, even if you are a first-time homebuyer or if you bought your home before these websites were available.

Some of the most popular sites for online real estate listings include the following:

  • Trulia
  • Zillow
  • Redfin
  • Realtor.com

These websites generally include listings across the United States, so you should be able to find listings wherever you live or wherever you want to live. They aggregate regional MLS information provided by local brokers so you can view listings anywhere in the country regardless of your current location.

If you want to go the unconventional route, you can also check out sites like ForSaleByOwner.com to look at listings without agents.

How to Narrow Your Results

The best way to get started in your online search is to set your search parameters on one of those sites and set up an alert for that search. If you are in a particularly fast-moving market, you might find it fun to constantly peruse these sites to see what is available, but that excitement can quickly turn into frustration.

With new listings being added as quickly as every 15 minutes on some sites, it is impossible to keep up by just scrolling through. To better manage your time, set up alerts and dedicate specific times to check the many online listings available.

Searches can be done according to a wide variety of factors, beyond just the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you want. You can search by oceanfront or crime statistics, proximity to specific stores or walk score. Whatever matters most to you, make sure you search for it.

You should also consider reaching out to a buyer’s agent who you want to work with so that a professional can keep an ear to the ground for any upcoming listings of interest, relieving you of some of the responsibilities of home searching. Just make sure you do not shirk all responsibility, since this is your personal investment.

While the above websites offer a wealth of local listings that you can search through based on a variety of factors, there are also other online searches that will help you to decide where to buy your next home. For example, some sites allow you to browse important community statistics like education, commuting and other neighborhood-relevant insights that will impact your daily life and your investment. Use those resources even if you live nearby, since small factors can make a huge difference.

Pitfalls of Online Listings

When buying a new home, you should never forget that online listings can feel very different in reality. If no floorplan is provided, you might show up to realize that the photos provided maximized the space. You could also find that the photos do not reflect reality at all, with major repairs needed and other issues completely omitted in the online listing.

Some common red flags in online listings are often given away by certain words or phrases. If you see these in a listing, it may be a sign that there could be issues with the home that you should look out for:

  • Cozy, Cute or Charming: These descriptors could indicate cramped or irregular spaces.
  • Custom: This term could indicate a homeowner has done some updating that may or may not be quality work.
  • Needs TLC or Recent Facelift: These terms could indicate major repairs that still need to be done.

If an online listing appeals to you, it is always worth an in-person check. If you do not live nearby, you can hire an agent to further inspect potential places to narrow down a search to valid potential homes for you. If you can, you should always try to visit homes in person before making an offer.

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