If you’re searching for a new home without leaving the comfort of your own, you’re in good company. A full 84 percent of recent homebuyers used the Internet in that way last year, according to the 2007 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.

“The Internet is the first stop for most homebuyers I have dealt with in recent years,” says Realtor Alexander Clark, founder of theFrontSteps.com, a social network for “real estate obsessed-San Franciscans.” “Most brokerages are beefing up their Web sites,” she says.

And the most serious buyers are getting listings online as soon as they hit the market.

What kinds of clicks are they getting?

“The first thing a consumer will hit is real estate listings sites,” says Patrick Kitano, co-founder and managing principal of Domus Consulting Group, which helps brokerages develop technology marketing strategies. After the listings part is figured out, it’s analysis that homebuyers seek, in Kitano’s experience.

That analysis has two parts:

  • Automated valuation-modeling software calculations such as those offered at Zillow.com (a Bankrate.com partner) and Cyberhomes.com. These tools help estimate what a home’s true current value is.
  • Real-time neighborhood news and insight such as what can be found on some real estate agent blogs.

Kitano’s own blog, TransparentRealEstate.com, aims to document the business strategies of Web 2.0 companies and their impact on the industry. Besides individual blogs by those in the industry, he’s seeing sites that group real estate bloggers who cover a particular area (such as Homescopes.com in Northern California) and consumers sharing information on sites such as Homethinking.com, which posts reviews of individual agents.

Clark also has his eye on blogs “where many Realtors come together under one roof to provide insight. They tend to be much more informative, contain a broader base of knowledge and not have the ‘sales pitch'” of most individual agents’ blogs.

As James Hsu, a suburban Seattle-based Realtor and real estate investor, points out, it’s wise to avoid lead-generating Web sites, as well. “A site that requires a person to give contact information in order to provide you a ‘free’ estimation of your home’s value is very likely only selling that contact info to a local agent.”

Forums are another popular beyond-the-listings look, and sites with listings that also invite discussion are gaining fans. “As people turn to the Internet to do more research on their own, sites like Zillow and Trulia that have forums for these people to ask questions or just read up on what people have talked about will, in the long run, win over more people,” says Hsu, the blogger behind Northwest Real Estate Update.

For help in managing the search for home listings in the first place, today’s sites allow consumers to avoid having to keep checking back and doing the same searches over and over again. From e-mail alerts on new or updated listings that match a buyer’s criteria to the ability to save and even comment on searches to be picked up again later, many sites have added features to help take the frustration out of the search. (There’s plenty of opportunity for that later on during a home purchase anyhow.)

Here is a collective look at real estate listings sites recommended by bloggers Clark, Kitano, Hsu, Joel Burslem (The Future of Real Estate Marketing) and Noah Rosenblatt, (UrbanDigs.com).

Best places to shop for homes

Almost 80 percent of homebuyers seek information online before buying.

  • National search sites
  • Multiple market area sites
  • Notable locals and regionals

Google Base

Listings source: Brokers, agents and Google Web crawls; recently more than 4.8 million housing listings available; update frequency varies by source and posting method.

Pros: Includes for-sale-by-owner listings, foreclosures, rental properties; can search by school district name; type in keyword for more specific searches; can sort price in one of a dozen ways (including square footage and year built); zoomable Google map at right pinpoints where each listing is, by number; listings free to brokers and agents.

Cons: Once a listing is clicked, you’re redirected to the listing company’s Web site with its own interface; some duplicate listings (e.g., same house for sale by owner and by a real estate agency, and it’s not clear which listing is current; or a broker and agent can each post the same listing and it appears twice); listing removal requests by brokers/agents can take up to two weeks.

Coolest features: Can find Google Base from a Google homepage search of “Google Base” — or you can go to base.google.com. Select the “Housing” search option.

Realtor.com

Listings source: On average, more than 4 million listings from nearly 900 MLS operations, updated as often as every 15 minutes (for more than 1.5 million listings currently) and member agents/brokers can manually submit changes or add more details.

Pros: Summaries of housing inventory, schools and other info about local neighborhoods, either by searching for one or exploring sample lists (e.g., celebrity neighborhoods, hip neighborhoods); flags show which listings are new that day or that week; video home tours on some listings.

Cons: Have to click twice to get from submitting search parameters to seeing full results (first click brings you to featured home listings only); listings gathered from nonmember agents are limited to one photo.

Coolest features: Downloadable tools allow you to display a continually updated slide show of available listings in an area right to your desktop; find out how many listings match your search as you’re entering your criteria, not just after you click the search button.

Trulia.com

Listings source: Brokers, agents, Web vendors and MLS; an average of roughly 2 million listings at any given time; updated daily based on feeds from brokers and agents.

Pros: Site loads quickly; user-friendly interface; search results include foreclosures; local real estate guides with detailed market trends, schools overview and community information.

Cons: No for-sale-by-owner listings; may not include all MLS systems.

Coolest features: By signing up for an account, you can save a list of homes interested in, write and store notes on your favorite homes, and subscribe to e-mail alerts to learn of new listings matching your criteria. Use heat maps to learn the current number of listings, average price and higher/lower home price areas within a state or area of state. Trulia Voices section allows users to post questions for buyers, brokers, sellers and locals to answer.

Zillow.com

Listings source: Brokerages, real estate agents and homeowners; more than 1 million current listings; providers with automated feeds have updates pushed to Zillow.com nightly (for listings posting manually, update time depends on the source).

Pros: Pleasant user interface; comprehensive listing information posted, but you can choose to view it on the listing broker’s site instead; registered users can keep track of favorite homes and contributions made to the Zillow community; page views chart at the bottom of each listing shows how many times it has been viewed compared to how many listings have been viewed this month and total in the same ZIP code, city, county and state; Zestimate (Zillow’s home value estimate) available on many listings); compare, sort and contrast home through comps; discussions section allows you to connect with other Zillow users.

Cons: No contact information given for someone needing to contact the company privately — feedback button brings you to a “Suggestions” thread in discussions (posted user problems tend to be complaints about incorrect listings information and how home values were determined).

Coolest features: Heat maps display at a town or broader level where the most and least expensive homes tend to be; Make Me Move searches, which turn up homes that aren’t actually on the market whose owners have named a price they would consider moving for; Home Q&A feature allows you to post a question about an individual home for agents, homeowners, neighbors or anyone to answer (e.g., How’s the commute downtown from here? Is there a park nearby to walk the dog?).

Multiple market area sites

  • Roost
  • Redfin

Roost.com

Coverage: 14 markets, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boise, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Orange County, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego and Silicon Valley (new market suggestions accepted).

Listings source: Local MLS offices, brokers and builders; an estimated 900,000 current listings; updated hourly (with the most recent update time listed at the top of the page).

Pros: Very comprehensive listings inventory; ability to select properties from larger list to see in detail later; six options for sorting results; three search result view options: list view, map view and photo view; keyword search allows you to enter unwanted keywords in listings, too (e.g., “no pool”).

Cons: For those who prefer viewing listings all in the same format, clicking on a property for more details takes you to the sponsoring broker’s site; new construction and for-sale-by-owner searches must be done separately.

Coolest features: Sliders at left of search results page allow for quick adjustments on search price, number of bedrooms or baths, and square feet; registered users can highlight preferred properties to compare, save notes on properties and save a search for later, all accessible from any computer.

Redfin.com

Coverage: Six regions (Bay Area, Boston, Los Angeles/Orange County, Calif., San Diego, Seattle, Washington, D.C.), with Chicago coming soon.

Listings source: 16 MLSs, updated as quickly as every 15 minutes for 10 of those and up to every several hours for others.

Pros: No need to find a buyer’s agent to be shown properties (Redfin agents, who work on salary rather than commission, can arrange tours, draft offers online and handle negotiations); “Popular searches” list in case you need ideas for what to search for; view listing summary at right as you scroll down search results list; comprehensive listings include details such as lot outlines, county tax records, school information and Zillow.com market value estimates; comparative market analysis data; sign up for e-mail newsletter with last week’s sales, info on price reductions, upcoming open houses, neighborhood indicators and news, previews of upcoming listings, and home shopping tips.

Cons: Must pay Redfin agent for home tours greater than two hours or for second tours; limit of 10 offers every six months; no guarantee that an agent working on salary only will provide better service than one working on commission.

Coolest features: Customers of this online brokerage have two-thirds of the buyer’s agent commission price refunded at closing; Listing details include zoomable overhead view photos for a look at the neighborhood.

Notable locals and regionals

  • BlueRoof
  • Estately
  • Hawaii Life
  • Homescopes
  • John L. Scott
  • Sawbuck Realty
  • Streeteasy
  • Windermere

BlueRoof.com

Coverage: Utah

Coolest features: Use sliders at left of zoomable map (also available in satellite and hybrid views) to quickly adjust sought price, square feet, number of bedrooms and baths, garage size, lot size, and year built.

Estately.com

Coverage: Washington state

Coolest features: Registered users can used saved searches to quickly view the newest homes on each and see updated statistics, subscribe to RSS feeds for those searches, leave notes about listings for viewing again later, and click on a button to request a date and time for a showing.

HawaiiLife.com

Coverage: Hawaii’s five islands

Coolest features: Registered users can used saved searches to quickly view the newest homes on each and see updated statistics, subscribe to RSS feeds for those searches, leave notes about listings for viewing again later, and click on a button to request a date and time for a showing.

Coolest features: Scroll over properties to see locations highlighted on the map at right (also available in satellite and hybrid views), and then as you drag to a new location on the map, the search is automatically updated, if you wish (during which time a “searching (Haiwaiian time) relax” note pops up).

Homescopes.com

Coverage: Northern California

Coolest features: On this site, which brings together the blogs of seven local real estate experts (whose own sites have listings), you can see, at a glance, which bloggers are currently online for immediate interaction.

John L. Scott

Coverage: Idaho, Oregon and Washington

Coolest features: The interactive map’s Neighborhood Wizard allows you to see properties for sale within a designated neighborhood (boundaries drawn by you), and then save the search for later.

Sawbuck Realty

Coverage: Maryland, the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, Eastern West Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania.

Coolest features: Searches using interactive map, which has sliders for multiple criteria, can be saved and linked to, and specific properties can be rated with one to four stars for a later reminder. In addition, listing details offer a bird’s-eye view of the property.

Streeteasy.com

Coverage: New York City.

Coolest features: It’s in the details. The site contains detailed listing information, statistical snapshots, a new development directory, recent recorded sales, school information and an active discussion forum.

Windermere.com

Coverage: Nine western states and British Columbia, Canada.

Coolest features: The Open House tool allows you to set parameters such as geographic area and preferred open house dates, and then interacts with the site’s PropertyPoint interactive map to display up to 100 open house matches, which can be narrowed down with additional search criteria; desired listings can be “clipped” and saved, or printed out as a flier.

Promoted Stories