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So say you want to buy a house. If you read the newspapers or watch TV or even pickup your news online, you can’t help but notice that the US real estate market is in the tank. There are many good deals to be had, if you could only find them, and then be sure that they were really a smart buy.

But where do you start? The local newspaper? The homes for sale magazines in the supermarket? Do you drive around (at $4.55USD a gallon?) and look for signs?

No! You are a reader of MakeUseOf.com and you have a technology slant on the things that you do, so you want to use online tools to find that house. This is your lucky day because today I kick off a five part series on what I consider to be the 5 most significant online home search websites currently available in the United States.

I am a real estate broker, licensed in California, and I work in the San Francisco Bay Area, arguably one of the technology hot spots on the globe. People here EXPECT great tools to be available to them in every area of endeavor, and real estate is no exception.

The trouble is, how do you know which tool does what and which ones do it right? That’s what I hope to clear up for you with this series. We’ll start with Realtor.com, the granddaddy of them all. They claim to have most of the homes for sale listings, and they probably do, given their close association with the National Association of Realtors®. However, in my not so humble opinion, just having most of the listings does not make them the best choice for everything you need to know.

Let’s take a look:

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Realtor.com Landing page

This is the landing page of Realtor.com. Please notice the red circles, red arrows and numbers because I want to talk about each of those areas.

To start with number 1 and number 2, you can see a place to login. What a login? No way. Not a problem, you don’t have to login, the tools to search are free. But if you wanted to set up alerts to receive emails when a property similar to what you are searching for turns up, you’ll have to establish an account. The process isn’t all that hard though.

Next is number 3. Find Property Values. This is an Alpha of a new tool that Realtor.com is developing and as an Alpha, it’s not all together yet. It is worth looking at though because it allows you to search for homes using a map (although none of the three houses for sale on my street show up!). The really cool feature is that you can view a “heat” map that shows the range of prices across the US much like a weather map shows you temperatures.

This would be useful if you wanted to quickly gauge where you could buy a house for say $150,000. (not too many places).

Heat Map Alpha

Next we come to a blatant lie! Number 4 points to two areas where you are promised an “immediate” price quote on your own home if you had one to sell. The sad truth is that if you click on those links you are asked to give up some contact info, the address of your house and guess what’s next? A pop up window from a Realtor® who is local to your area and who has bid the most money for the privilege of having the chance to “snag” you as a customer. The “immediate” report is nowhere to be found because the local Realtor® has to generate it. It’s not an automated system and it exposes your contact info to the Realtor®. Don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily bad, but at this stage of your search you don’t want to complicate things, so say no thanks to this tool!

Find the value of your home

Number 5 is almost as bad as number 4. This one is called Market Conditions. When you go to this page you get to tell it what area you are in and it purportedly takes you to the information on the local market that is provided by a local “expert”. Now, I can only speak for my area, but when I checked to see who the local experts were, I did not recognize any of them as being active in my area. They are apparently the highest bidders and the info they provide is generally available elsewhere. I didn’t see any real insight from any of them. Your mileage may vary, but how would you know?

By now you are probably thinking that there is no value in Realtor.com, but actually I have saved the best for last. The thing that Realtor.com really shines at is the search. Given that they have almost all of the available US listings and a lot of the Canadian inventory, this is the logical place to start a search for property. Here is the advanced search form from number 6:

Advanced Search Page

And here is a sample results page:

Results of a search

I set the search parameters pretty tight to get these two results, basically I set the price range and beds and bath count to just get a few listings.

Notice that these listings have a gold border around the left side and the top. These are what is known as showcase listings. The listing agent has paid to have these listings enhanced with additional photos and property tours. The agent also gets some additional exposure as the next picture will show:

A listing detail

This is where Realtor.com shines. There are a number of photos, a featured tour of the home, great detail on the home itself and the ability to print a brochure and to also request a showing. The listing agent is also featured; in this case it is my beautiful wife!

So, even though I started out tearing Realtor.com apart, where it really shines is in the ability to search over 3 million active listings and present the data in a visually appealing format. This IS where you should start to develop your list of properties that are listed with a Realtor®.

There are better tools available for doing analysis, and we’ll look at them after we look at a few other search engines. Next time we’ll look at Craigslist!

In the meantime, why don’t you let me know what property search sites you like, and why?

(By) Jerry Kidd is a California Real Estate Broker, blogger, educator and author of Realty Tech Bytes

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