Property Search Tools: Top 5 Online Home Buying Tools

Online Home Buyer Search Tool from Redfin

Redfin has a Well Respected MLS Search Tool. Create Different Searches and Receive Email Alerts for Each One.

Today there are literally hundreds of websites and online search tools you can use to buy or sell a home. At WaLaw Realty, we charge a low flat fee so our clients save the commission usually paid to a real estate agent. Here are our recommendations for tools you can use to find the home that’s right for you. Give us a call if you need more tips!

If you’re like many of our buyer clients you may be thoroughly frustrated with the lack of quality inventory out there right now.  Our clients are scrubbing the MLS daily but just can’t find what they’re searching for.  And then, if they do find it, all too often it turns into a multiple offer scenario.  To make matters worse we’re moving out of the summer selling season which traditionally means fewer and fewer new listings.  Waiting till next spring is definitely an option but if you don’t want to wait that long here are some tools you can add to your home search toolbox.

Keep in mind that much of what follows are ways to find off market deals.  Most real estate agents don’t like them because there’s no guaranteed commission if they bring a buyer to the seller.  Well, that’s not a problem for us at WaLaw Realty since our fee is not tied to the seller.  We don’t care where our clients find the house so long as they find it.

1. MLS Search Listings – Use More Than One Tracking Service

The MLS is, far and away, the single best source for finding properties for sale.  There are innumerable MLS search engines that provide direct MLS search listing access ranging from Redfin.com, Estately.com, Windermere.com, JohnLScott.com, and so on.

You can set up an auto-alert with one of these MLS search engines so you get daily updates via email anytime something new hits the market or a price drops on a home you are following.  However, what most don’t know is that the speed with which each of these home listing sites updates with new or modified listing varies.  It shouldn’t vary because they all get the same data feed from the MLS at the same time but we have seen first hand that it does.  To improve your edge, use more than one MLS search listing tool.  Two is probably fine, three is triple protection, and four is overkill.

2. Non-MLS Search Engines – Zillow.com

I bought my home off of Zillow in an off-market deal back in 2007 so I can personally attest that it can happen. (Yes, I know, peak of the market, blah, blah, blah.)  In my case, doing a non-MLS deal meant neither side used an agent and there were no commissions to be paid which meant both the seller and I as the buyer felt like we got a much better deal.  It helped that we were both attorneys so handling the paperwork wasn’t a problem.

Check Zillow occasionally, perhaps once a week for potential candidates.  Narrow your search by area, price, beds/baths and only look at For Sale (red houses) and Make Me Move (blue houses).  Most of the red houses are already on the MLS and you will have seen them before.  If so, move on to the next one and look for For Sale By Owner deals (FSBO) that you haven’t seen before.  With the blue Make Me Move houses you should search a good bit above your actual price ceiling because these folks tend to be dreaming.  Be prepared for sellers asking ridiculous prices but don’t be deterred.

Make a list and check them out when you conduct your regularly scheduled neighborhood reconnaissance tours (you know you do them!).  If a drive by reveals an appealing house then use Zillow’s Contact Owner feature to contact the seller directly to learn more about it and set up a time to tour it.

If it’s an over-priced Make Me Move house your message might say something like, “Hi, I saw your house on Zillow and then drove by to see it.  It looks like a great house and I might be interested so I thought I’d drop you a line to see if you’re really considering selling it.  If so, I’m shopping in the $___ to $___ range and was wondering if you thought it might be worthwhile to set up a time for me to come see it.”  Use a range that’s below the make me move price.  If the seller won’t budge on price they’ll let you know straight away.  Likewise, if they’ve got some flexibility they’ll probably say, “Yeah, come on over.”

3. Searching for Homes on Craigslist.com

Craigslist is another online home listing resource that you only need to check weekly.  Go to the “Real Estate for Sale” section in the Housing category.  Use the tabs at the top to narrow the search area, e.g., Seattle, Eastside, Snohomish County, etc.  Then search by price range, neighborhood key word, minimum bedrooms, whatever.  You can further narrow the search to just “By-Owner” listings so you can skip all the broker posted listings you’ve already seen on the MLS.  There probably won’t be that many hits so this search won’t take too long and it might reveal a sweet little FSBO deal you can buy without commissions on either side.  There’s nothing like squeezing out the middle men and buying wholesale.

4. For Sale By Owner (FSBO) Listing Websites

The internet is littered with poorly funded, poorly executed websites for people looking to sell their home For Sale By Owner (FSBO).  These sites are trying to build a viable alternative to the traditional MLS but, sadly, none of them have achieved any meaningful traction.  However, they’re still out there and they’re still getting at least some sellers who want to try the FSBO route.  I wouldn’t spend a lot of time perusing these sites but they may be worth the occasional visit just to see if something pops up.  This is kind of like panning for gold so don’t have high expectations and whatever you do, don’t give them your credit card number.

Also, be careful to distinguish between flat fee MLS websites and true FSBO websites.  The former is just a cheap way to get a listing into the MLS.  You should already be seeing their listings in your MLS searches.  The FSBO sites I’m talking about are not putting the listing into the MLS (although some offer MLS listing upgrades for an additional charge).

Use extreme caution when using these websites and take note that WaLaw Realty does not endorse any of them or make any representation about how good or not they are.  It’s quite possible some of these types of sites are simply lead generation schemes.

Examples of For Sale By Owner listing sites:

  1. ForSaleByOwner.com is probably the most viable FSBO listing site I’ve come across.
  2. SaleByOwner.com
  3. ByOwner.com

5. FSBO – A Post, a Sign, and a Prayer

Some sellers are not inclined to fool with that newfangled internet and prefer to just throw a sign in the yard. The For Sale By Owner sign isn’t an online tool, but it deserves inclusion in our list of home search tools. You’ve probably seen them at Home Depot or your local hardware store: the classic red and white For Sale By Owner sign.  Hey, don’t knock it.  It does work.  Occasionally.  Ok, maybe not very often, but I can personally attest to it working at least once because my wife and I sold a home using a For Sale By Owner sign back in 2006 in Rainier, WA (out past Yelm).

So, as you’re driving around looking at houses keep your eyes open for these little signs.  The big yard arm posts agents use are easy to spot but you have to look a little closer for these little guys.  If you see one that looks interesting call the number on the sign and say, “Hi, I saw your sign and would love to know more about your house.”  See where it goes from there and don’t be shy.

There it is, your top 5 home search tools.  Happy hunting.

Posted by Marc Holmes

Tags: , , , , ,

Residential Real Estate Lawyer Marc HolmesMarc Holmes is an attorney in Seattle with a practice focused on residential real estate. In 2009 he merged his life-long passion for real estate with his law practice to create WaLaw Realty. WaLaw is a new and unique model that combines legal representation with the services of a real estate agent while charging much less than a traditional agent. Marc blogs when he has a chance.

One Response to “Property Search Tools: Top 5 Online Home Buying Tools”

  1. Back in the day, I used to look for homes for sale via magazines by gas stations. I’m kind of new to this whole online real estate. I have a few good leads but nothing solid yet. I’m hoping to find a good real estate agent to help me out with this. Thank you for the tip to check out Craig’s list.

Leave a Reply

=