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Shopping for real estate online

Finding your dream home can mean trudging through an endless parade of houses, quietly wondering if there's a faster, better path to the one place you really want.

Well, there may be. By using the Web wisely, you can learn about your target market, save hundreds of hours you might have wasted checking out inappropriate properties and be the first to snag a great deal as soon as it's available.

And if you're moving across the country, careful Web research can help you save on airline tickets and motels. You can also save work hours, sleep time and the most important thing -- your sanity.

"If you live in California and want to buy a place in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, you can pull up a map online and see where the houses are," says Nick Hajrulla, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Mountain Lakes. Buyers can access school reports, go on virtual tours of homes and even do a comparative market analysis online, he says.

"I find the Internet extremely valuable," Hajrulla says. "By the time buyers who use the Internet get in touch with me, they're ready to buy and they're informed."

While real estate agents say it's unwise to buy a house solely through the Internet, you can reduce legwork and make yourself more comfortable about the big purchase.

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And by searching online listings, you can narrow the possibilities to homes sold directly by owners, houses with a low annual tax bill or multi-family units in the school system you really want, all with a few clicks.

The Web is a great way to research your target market's price ranges, home types and recent sales. How much another bedroom might cost, how distance to public transportation affects price and whether some neighborhoods are slightly cheaper than others are all questions the Web can answer.

The Internet "gives the buyer a certain amount of control that they never had before," says Rita Marcus, a Realtor with Blank & McCune in Iowa City, Iowa. "Psychologically, that's very important. This is the biggest investment most people make, and when you're making this large an investment, you need a little control."

But there is plenty of essential information you cannot find on the Internet, Marcus cautions. "You can't get the service and the know-how. In one phone call to a Realtor, you can get referrals to insurance agents, bankers, financial advisers and even the best women's clothing store."

For out-of-town buyers, the Internet may show them what the house looks like, says Marcus, but it won't tell them the true quality of the school system. That inside information on a neighborhood is what good real estate agents provide, she says, and that's why an Internet listing is only the beginning.

The main thing the Internet offers is a little objectivity. A three-bedroom can be cramped or palatial, and it's hard to know when a real estate agent makes everything sound glorious. By supplementing your conversations with a real estate agent with some surfing around the agency's site, you can see for yourself.

"Brokers can lie," says Tonya Jennerette, who recently bought an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. "Cozy can mean unbearably small. I like an open layout, and when I looked at apartments online, I could see right away from the photo if the place had the layout I liked, or if it was chopped up into little rooms."

Jennerette, who was working long hours as a corporate lawyer, did not have the free time to personally visit every potential apartment, so Web sites were essential. She first viewed the apartment she bought on-line. Even though it was four blocks away from where she was living, there was no for-sale sign and she never would have known the place was available. She was also able to act fast because of the Internet.

"My broker called at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. I was able to log on and see it on the realty's Web site, and we agreed to meet there at 9 on Saturday morning. By that afternoon, I had signed to buy the place, and I love it."

The web, brokers say, is increasingly popular for local moves and for people willing to rush over for a perfect property. A photo can save buyers' time -- and agents' time.

Most real estate agents now have Web sites, so you can look at what a particular agency has. Identifying the five or six agencies that deal with your target neighborhood and checking their Web sites religiously can give you first dibs on a good property.

The quality of agency sites varies widely in content and frequency of updates, but the sites are getting better., the site for Coldwell Banker Brokers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, lets you search by town or city, type of property -- condo, house, or multifamily, and new or existing home. You can also sign up to receive e-mails of new listings and open houses, which can let you act fast and save the hassle of constant checking. In a hot real estate market, speed is critical.

But in other communities, a general site, such as or, is the best bet. Include these sites in your initial search and see if local agents actually use them. Then check to see if listings you like are still current, because the general sites are often packed with stale listings. You can test by calling about a house that looks interesting and asking if it's still available. will tell you the name of the elementary, junior high and high school, along with the tax bill -- which can vary dramatically from block to block. So even if the listings are a few weeks out-of-date, the national sites can be a good research tool when you're first figuring out what you want and what you can afford.

In some cities, the local newspaper puts out daily online classifieds that can alert you to new properties. Many newspapers publish the sales prices of recently sold homes so you can get a weekly sense of the market, and some municipalities have recent sales available online through the local assessor's office Web site. This way, you'll have as much information as your broker does about prices.

If you're looking for a house that's being sold directly by its owner, a site for those homes can help match you with a seller. Helpful sites include,, and If you know you're looking in a particular state, typing in "for sale by owner" plus your state into a search engine can bring you to a state-specific site. And in some communities, giveaway newspapers have online classifieds that list many local FSBOs.

Official sites from government agencies are a great resource on special cases -- like foreclosures and government-owned properties. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has an online guide to buying a HUD home and online listings at

Your state's housing finance authority site can direct you to homes owned by local municipalities. The Illinois Housing Development Authority has a terrific links page, with links to every state's agency, plus general sites that can help home buyers.

Beware of sites advertising bank-owned homes for one-tenth of the market value. Banks don't want to advertise their failed loans to the world, so that information is rarely available online. Similarly, many bargain-real-estate sites are scams, and any outfit that asks you to pay for real-estate listings is questionable.

The safest way to use the Internet is as a source of preliminary information, agents and buyers say, which can help you feel more confident and ready to buy. By sticking to real-estate agency sites and government sites, by eliminating inappropriate properties and educating yourself about what's out there, you can literally let your fingers do the walking -- and focus on making your housing dreams come true.

-- Posted: Dec. 1, 2004
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