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House-hunting has changed a lot over the last few decades. Not so very long ago, you would need to go to local real estate brokerages and drive neighborhoods to find available properties. Now, almost every listing is available online — and home sellers and real estate agents know it.
As Kimberly Allard, a Braintree, Mass.-based broker and Realtor at Century 21 Professionals, puts it: “Everybody starts their searches for real estate online.” Even once you hire a real estate agent, you’ll probably keep your eyes peeled. “In our modern world, the vast majority of buyers do their own online research,” Robby Hill, a Realtor at LIV Sotheby’s International Realty in Ojai, Calif., says.
In general, most of the big real estate websites pull from multiple listing services (MLS) and aggregate the results in their own platform. Usually, they make their money by collecting data and contact info from home-hunters.
While these websites might function similarly, there are some key differences between them. Let’s get into what makes a good real estate site, along with some of our top picks.
What makes a good real estate website?
Most real estate listings websites gather up listings from various agents and compile them all into what is essentially a search engine. “The formats are slightly different and people tend to find their preference,” Hill explains. “The ultimate function is the same. They all pull directly from the MLS so they have every listing uploaded within seconds of being entered.”
Since they’re all functioning fairly similarly, finding the best real estate websites comes down to your preferences. Do you want to be able to search by neighborhood? Do you like to see the listings displayed on a map or as a list? When you click into the listing, does it have the key details displayed in a way that’s easy for you to read? To a large extent, finding the best real estate websites means clicking around on the top options to find which one you personally like best.
You don’t have to go in totally blind here, though. Allard advises, “Because all real estate is local, you should ask the real estate agent that you’re working with where you would find the most accurate data — on which website?”
Beyond your real estate agent’s recommendation and your personal preferences, there’s another factor you should take into consideration: the site’s business model. Most of these sites make money by featuring a contact form on each listing. If you like the listing, you can fill it out — and theoretically get contacted by the listing agent. Actually, though, “the search engines will show featured Realtors that pay for exposure,” Hill says. In other words, “Realtors can pay to be featured and their name and contact will show up on the user’s browser.”
Be warned: “The website wants to register you,” Allard explains. “Once they have your name and contact information, they then want to sell you services, like inspection or lending services. And they want to sell your name back to an agent who may not even work in that area.”
To guard against this, look for real estate websites that will give you the info you want without requiring you to share any of your personal details in exchange.
6 of the best real estate websites
Knowing that, we teed up several real estate websites that will give you info without requiring you to share your personal info. Here are the six of the best real estate websites to get you started, whether you’re buying or selling — plus an honorable mention that might be worth a perusal.
Zillow has more than 130 million properties in its database and gets northward of 230 million unique users each month. It’s one of the biggest players in the game and for good reason: you can find a lot of info on there and it’s completely optional to give up any of your personal details.
Zillow also provides its Zestimate, their estimate of the home’s value. This leverages their extensive data sources so it can give you a good feel for whether or not the list price matches what the home is actually worth.
Zillow can be a useful tool for buyers, sellers and renters. Just be advised that if you like a listing you find on their site, filling out the attached contact form doesn’t necessarily put you in touch with the listing agent. Your info might (read: likely will) get sold to the highest-bidding real estate agent.
In short, this can be a great place to start, but if you find a property you like on Zillow, ask your real estate agent about it rather than risk getting bombarded with solicitations.
Zillow bought Trulia back in 2015, so they share most of the info on their websites. You might even notice that when you search an area on both, the resulting map looks virtually identical (except Zillow uses red pins and Trulia uses blue ones). Really, the main difference comes down to how the listing’s details are displayed. Some find Trulia, whose features include drone film footage, quotes from people who live in the area, school ratings and walkability scores, to be more complete and user-friendly. Check both and see which you prefer.
Redin is a brokerage, which means it has its own real estate agents. Even if you don’t want to use a Redfin agent, though, it can still be a useful tool to search for listings — so useful, in fact, that roughly 53 million people consult it each month. Plus, there’s no fee to use this site to search listings.
Redfin is a discount brokerage, which means if you do end up using a Redfin agent to sell your home, you might be able to score a reduced commission. As the buyer, you may get a refund to apply toward your closing costs. That said, you should still thoroughly vet your options for real estate agents. Don’t choose a Redfin agent just because you want to save — a bad agent could lose you a hefty sum of money during negotiations.
Realtor.com isn’t actually owned by the National Association of Realtors® but they do have something of a connection. As a result, this is Allard’s top pick when it comes to real estate websites. “They have relationships with local MLSes,” she explains, “and they can tell you whether or not the person is a Realtor or not.” (Here’s a refresher on the difference between a Realtor and a real estate agent.)
Like many other real estate websites, Realtor.com wants to match you with an agent (and make some money in doing so). Unlike a lot of other sites, they’re willing to cut you in on the deal. They currently offer cash rewards to buyers who choose the agent they recommend. Remember, though, that this is their business model, not necessarily something in your best interest. Choose the agent who will best represent you when you’re making the huge decision to buy or sell or buy a house.
Like Redfin, Realtor.com can still be handy even if you don’t use the agent they recommend. As a search tool, they rank high thanks to plenty of listings and a solid user interface.
You’ve probably seen the Jeff Goldblum (or should we say “Brad Bellflower”) ads for Apartments.com. Homes.com is owned by the same company, the CoStar Group, and delivers listings for home purchases just like Apartments.com tees up rental options.
This website makes the map, satellite and street view of a potential property just a click away and includes local transit and parks and recreation options. Ultimately, it can be a solid way to get a feel for not just the listing itself but also what’s going on around it.
With millions of listings across all 50 states, HomeFinder might be less known than other real estate websites, but it’s still a solid option. Their user interface isn’t as clean as other sites but it’s worth a scan. It also includes a rent-to-own side, a rarity on the market today.
Honorable mention: FSBO.com
Maybe you’re in the market for a house or you want to sell but you don’t want to deal with a real estate agent. To buy a home directly from the current owner or to sell your house yourself, check out FSBO.com. As the name suggests, this site specifically compiles for-sale-by-owner (FSBO) listings.
Best real estate websites for foreclosed properties
If you’re looking to get the most affordable home possible, you might specifically want to shop foreclosures. Here, we recommend MLS.com.
Like Realtor.com, this website’s name may be a slight misnomer. There is no one MLS. As Allard explains, “We say the MLS, but there are thousands of them across the country.”
In short, don’t let the branding of this site fool you: It’s not the go-to MLS solution. But it is a tool you can use that can be particularly helpful for properties that are in foreclosure. The site itself is pretty clunky, but once you navigate through the menus to get to your area, you’ll be able to see local foreclosures.
Beyond that, you might also want to check for foreclosures on:
Bottom line on the best real estate websites
You’ve got options. Most of the real estate websites out there today function more or less the same, so it’s all about finding the one that you like the look and feel of.
Once you do, think carefully before you fill out any contact form. If you do, the odds are high your info will get sold to the highest bidder, and you’ll be deluged with email or text solicitations. Instead, you’re probably better off finding your own real estate agent first. That way, when you find listings you like, you can show the agent and have them handle reaching out.