How to Find Your Next Home Online

Written by: Steve Cook   Tue, July 28, 2009 Market Analysis

 If you’re like nine out of ten home buyers today, you are using the Internet to look for a home.  Why not?  The Internet has transformed the way people buy and sell houses.  Real estate search sites make it easy for buyers to check out hundreds of properties in a matter of minutes and for sellers to reach thousands of buyers that they could never reach before.  Searching on line makes sense.  Buyers who use the Internet spend 2.2 weeks on average looking for a home with an agent whereas traditional buyers spend an average of 7.1 weeks?[1]   Typical buyers search a total of 10 weeks and physically visit 10 homes before buying. [2]

 When you look at listings on a Web site, can you be confident about the information you are reading?  Are you sure that the data are current and complete?  Are the pictures a fair representation of what the property really looks like?  How can you find out about the neighborhood?  Are you taking advantage of the latest tools the better sites have developed to help you find your dream home?

About Search Sites

At any given time, youcan find between four to six million US residential properties for sale on the Internet. However, you only want to find one-the perfect home for you and your family.

When it comes to search sites, though, most people use more than one-three in fact or as many as seven, according to a recent study.[3]  Different sites serve different purposes.  The large, national sites are great for relocators and for people who want to get a feel for what’s available.  You can add local MLS and brokerage sites for an additional look at local properties when you have a good sense of the community where you plan to buy.

There are several kinds of search sites:

Third Party Aggregators. These sites are largely national and they get their listings from one or more sources: multiple listing services, brokerages, newspaper classified ads and directly from sellers or brokers.  These sites often offer valuable services in addition to listings, such as home valuation, neighborhood search, mortgages, and help finding a real estate agent.  Examples are, Yahoo Real Estate, Zillow, Cyberhomes and Trulia.   National listing sites operated by the large franchises like ReMax and Coldwell Banker operate in much the same way.

MLS Sites.  Multiple listing services (there are about 900 in the US) are organized and owned by local Realtor organizations, in most cases.  They pre-date the Internet and were created to help real estate brokers, not consumers, buy and sell property for their clients and customers. Today MLSs remain the primary local databases of homes for sale, except that most do not carry homes being sold by directly by owners without the help of a professional. They are the source of information for local brokers who carry information about all the homes for sale on their sites and they are the primary source for national third party sites.  Brokers who are members of the MLS are required to list properties they represent on the MLS within seven days of signing up the seller.  Though their first responsibility is to the brokers who own them, more and more MLSs are creating consumer-facing Web sites.  These are one layer closer to the properties for sale than the national sites or local brokers’ sites, except for properties the local broker represents.  Here’s a directory of consumer-facing MLS sites:

Vrtual Office Web Sites.  As the name implies, these sites act as “virtual” real estate brokerages and you must register to access their listings.  They get their listings from MLSs. Examples of VOWs are ZipRealty, Redfin and Sawbuck.

Local Brokers.  Brokers who are members of multiple listing services can operate sites that list all properties for sale in the MLS, including those listed by competitors.  The information comes from a feed from the local MLS, updated at least once a day.  Homes represented by the broker hosting the site are usually highlighted.  Information about those properties is fresher on the host broker’s site than anywhere else on the Internet.  Sometimes it can take national aggregator sites days to receive and post data originating from a local broker.

Local Newspapers.  Newspaper sites may contain MLS listings as well as listings from classified ads.  Newspaper classifieds are a rapidly declining option for home sellers, and even the largest carry only a fraction of the local homes for sale.

 Tips on Using Search Sites

Privacy.  Some sites, such as virtual office Web sites, require you to fill out a registration form to access listings.  These are known as Virtual Office Websites and the information may be distributed to real estate agents who will contact you if you give permission.  Check out their privacy policies before proceeding. To register for search agents that automatically email you with updated information on homes you are interested in, all sites will ask for your name and email address.  Again, check to see that they have a policy protecting your privacy.

Search AgentsOne of the most useful features of search sites is search agents.  Once you enter a zip code, house type, size and price range for your search, the site has enough information to email you updated information on new listings that fit your profile and changes in existing listings, such as sales and price reductions.  You can activate search agents on several kinds of sites to be sure that you don’t miss important information.  Once you have found your home, be sure to cancel your agents or you will receive updates forever.

Neighborhood Information and Local Market Data.  National aggregator sites like, Zillow, and Trulia have introduced features that help you understand local real estate market trends and give you a wealth of information about local neighborhoods ranging from school ratings to heat maps showing home values and recent sale prices.

Financing. The trend today among real estate sites is “one-stop shopping.”  That means they want to provide you services in addition to the search, especially a mortgage.  Some sites provide sophisticated wizards and widgets that help you accurately estimate mortgage and closing costs involved in the sale even as you are browsing the listing.  They help you understand how changes in property prices, mortgage rates, loan terms, closing costs and your credit directly affect the range of houses you can afford.  However, you are under no obligation to obtain a mortgage from the site where you found your home. 

Accuracy.  The listing information and photos you see on a search site were entered by a real estate professional (unless you are looking at a “for sale by owner” site) and are generally reliable, accurate, and current-but not always.  A recent study found that accuracy improves with proximity to the source of the data. MLS sites were most accurate.  Sites fed by MLSs such as brokers sites and national aggregators were only slightly less accurate-98 to 96 percent.  The small percentages of differences occur because IDX data are typically refreshed once a day. Any home that gets sold, newly listed, expired, or has had a price change gets updated within 24 hours.


I am trying to sell my house.  Can I put it on a search Web site myself? 

In order to get your house on the most popular Web sites, you must list it with a broker who is a member of the multiple listing service.  Once it is on the MLS, it will automatically appear on other sites, including the sites of other brokers in your region, VOWs and national sites that have agreements with your MLS.  However, some national sites like Zillow will also take listings directly from brokers or owners.  If you have no agent, you can also list on “for sale by owner” sites if you have no agent.

 I found a home online I really liked and I sent an email to the listing agent, but have yet to hear back.  What should I do?

Find the home page of his or her agency and send another email to the owner or top broker.  Sometimes busy people miss an email now and then, so don’t assume it’s for lack of interest.

 The blurb describing the property tells me more about the agent who wrote it than it does the home itself.  Is that typical?

Agents are expert at writing descriptions that sell, and they realize how hard it is to sell you on a home via an Internet listing.  They do their best to pique your interest in the next step, a walk-through.

 What can you really tell from the photos on a listing?

Listings feature photos because they know that’s what attracts buyers.  Some listings have as many as 25 large color photos to show all the home’s selling features.  They are usually taken by professionals to show off a home at its best, just like a portrait shows off a person at his or her best.  You won’t see trash on the drive or weeds in the lawn or the house across the street.  Always visit the property yourself before you put a contract on it.


How will a listing differ from one site to another?

In most cases, it won’t.  Only if you are looking at the listing on the site of the listing broker who actually represents the property, you might see more photos or narrative-and you can be sure that the information is as up to date as it is anywhere else on the Internet.


There is an error in the listing for my home.  What should I do?

Contact your real estate agent immediately.  Only he or she can correct the mistake on the MLS, which is the source of information accessed by other Web sites.  If you don’t have an agent and placed the listing yourself on a For Sale By Owners site, you must contact the site directly.  







[1] 2006 Internet vs. Traditional Buyer Survey. California Association of Realtors

[2] NAR 2006 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers

[3] To Buy or Not To Buy -Finding Your Dream Home Online. eVOC Insights LLC




3 Comments For This Post

  1. Michael Erdman Says:

    Very thoughtful, comprehensive post, Steve. Perhaps you could clarify one point for me?

    For the prospective buyer who wants to speak with the listing agent, but doesn’t hear back, it certainly makes sense to reach out to the owner or top broker. But, to take a step back, do you encourage unrepresented prospective buyers to make immediate and direct contact with listing agents when they find their dream home (vs. first considering other options such as conferring with a Realtor(R) or other professional)?


  2. Steve Cook Says:


    Thanks for the kind words.

    Good question…and in the spirit of full disclosure. you should know that for 7 years I was VP of Public Affairs at the National Assolciion of Realtors. Perheps I tried too hard to avoid getting into the discussion of whether or not to use a professional in this piece. Personally, I think one would be crazy not too, especially a buyer looking for help. I’m well aware of the expertise and amazing valuation and market data tools available to the professional today. However, I have always worked with proessionals, even long before we had the Internet (I’m giving away my age) and long before I had anything to do with NAR, but that also was my nature and my choice. I respect the rights of consumers to choose what’s best for them, though even during the boom, when I was dealing with 20/20, SmartMoney, New York Times and many other media outlets doing stories about sellers who were successful by just sticking a free ad in Craig’s List, I noticed those sellers probably didnt do as well as they could have with a professional. Moreorver, dealing with the details of the transaction just never struck me as much fun and potentionally highly risky.

    So, to answer your question. I would strongly recommend an unrepresented buyer consider working with a buyer’s agent before they get to the point of maiking an offer, if not earlier. Why not, it’s free. However, they should still feel free take advantage of all the Internet has to offer to help search and learn.

  3. Michael Erdman Says:

    Well said, Steve. Thanks for the follow-up.

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