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Househunting Online
Find the best online listings of houses for sale.

Thanks to the Internet, homebuyers no longer have to rely solely on real estate agents for information about homes for sale. Scanning listings to see which homes are worth a visit, how much they cost and what they offer is now as easy as turning on your computer.

You can find listings of both resale and new homes based on location, price, size, amenities and other criteria you key in. Virtual visits to new homes often include floor plans and photographs. The newest enhancements to these sites include virtual "fly-throughs" that let you zoom in, out and around in 360-degrees for panoramic views of homes and the rooms within.

Once you identify a house that's to your liking, you can email the address or identification number to your agent, the listing agent or the owner (if it's a listing by a FSBO -- For Sale By Owner) to obtain additional information or to set up an appointment to see the home in person.

National Listings of Homes for Sale
Among the most frequently visited national real estate listing sites are the National Association of Realtors' Realtor.com operated by HomeStore.com, Microsoft's HomeAdvisor.com, Homes & Land's Homes.com, and CyberHomes.com. These sites offer interactive maps to locate neighborhoods and useful links to real estate broker websites.

Realtor.com claims to have the most listings, nearly 2 million, but many of these national sites share the same listings. Some are stronger in certain geographic areas, most provide email features to notify you of new listings that meet your search criteria and all of them have a host of related realty services from mortgage shopping to neighborhood information to escrow assistance. They are a boon to real estate consumer education.

National sites give you the most return for your time because of the sheer volume of listings. Given the enormous size of the databases, however, access times can be slow, numerous mouse clicks are often necessary to arrive at a single listing and once you arrive, if the home is in a hot market, the listing could be sold, expired or otherwise unavailable.

Browsing for Housing by State or Region
Your state or regional realty association or multiple listing service (MLS) also likely offers a website of homes for sale. Along with real estate listing information from nearly every Multiple Listing Service in Washington, it offers community and travel information, an agent selection service, a guide to local schools and related Web links, all in both English and Spanish.

Be sure to check smaller, easier-to-manage local and regional MLS-type sites, which are more likely to contain current listings, especially if the site is managed by the local multiple listing service or realty trade group.

Surfing Realty Company Sites
Major real estate companies, including ERA, RE/MAX, Coldwell Banker, Prudential and others also offer company listing sites. Typically, each listing points to the individual local office, branch or franchise that actually holds the listing. At that level, you can find as few as a handful of listings held by, say, an individual broker or small office. To compensate, the sites often link out or form an alliance with a larger online listing service.

If, for whatever reason, you like shopping brands, these sites are for you. When you get down to the broker level, some of the best sites offer detailed photographs and downloadable flyers with extensive listings information, buying assistance and informative content.

Virtual Realty Agents
The Internet has spawned a new breed of real estate agent who operates from a website rather than an office, but takes his or her cue from brick and mortar discount brokers. These so-called "click and mortar" brokers typically offer their own listings and align themselves with a larger online MLS or listing site. They often distinguish themselves from traditional agents by charging smaller commissions, sometimes in the form of rebates or a fee-for-service, pay-as-you go system. Companies such as zipRealty.com, eHome.com, and Homefox.com attempt to automate as much of the real estate transaction as possible and pass savings on to consumers.

More and more small, independent mom-and-pop brokerages and brokers who work solo are likely to evolve into virtual agents, if only to cut costs for themselves. The discount approach, however, often leaves virtual agents' sites with rudimentary content and few ancillary services.

New Home Pages
Homestore.com also operates the National Association of Homebuilders' website, Homebuilder.com, with listings of newly built homes and developments in major metropolitan areas. You can search new houses by city, price range, minimum number of bedrooms and baths and size of the home, move-in date, or other variables, such as whether the home is part of a gated or adult community. You can view floor plans, elevations and color photos and check for details on amenities such as pools or tennis courts. If you want to focus on a particular area, such as San Francisco, you can easily see all new homes available in participating developments.

Little online website competition exists among the new home sites with most builders offering their own listing sites.

Another major site, NewHomeNetwork.com, includes some crossover builders from Homebuilder.com.

For Sale by Owner Online
Owners.com is the site to see for homes sold without a broker, also known as FSBOs (for sale by owner). Simply enter in the location (state, city, county or metropolitan area), the type of property (such as house or condominium) and the minimum number of bedrooms to see FSBOs that meet your criteria. While the Owners' Network has limited listings, you just might find the perfect home that meets your needs. The site recently partnered with Prudential, a national real estate company, to give both buyers and sellers the option of working with an agent at a discount. Owners.com offers some of the best features found on a major national real estate listings site.

Old Media, New Resources
Virtually all online editions of newspapers offer a homes-for-sale classifieds section that works much like an online listing site. The regional nature of real estate makes newspapers a natural for such a service. Along with the listings, editorial staffs offer objective editorial content with current information that could affect your transaction. Newspapers tend to do a better job of reporting on the news than keeping listings current.

On most newspaper listings sites, you can browse all the listings, or customize your search by typing in your criteria, such as price range, location and number of bedrooms and baths. Some of the best sites also include useful information on mortgage rates, schools and other community resources, financial calculators, links to sales data on comparable houses, home inspection services, real estate agents and other information of interest to local buyers. Check the Newspapers Association of America (www.naa.org) for a link to your newspaper. (Click on "Hot Links.")

Final Word
To get the most out of your Internet home search, use it in conjunction with traditional home shopping techniques. Attend homebuying seminars and workshops and consider obtaining the assistance of an experienced, professional real estate agent or attorney. When it comes to deciphering all the information you'll encounter online and off, you'll need all the help you can get.

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   Related Topics:
:: Qualifying for a Home Loan
:: Mortgage Basics FAQ
:: Online Mortgage Shopping
:: Househunting Online
:: Online Help With Community and Neighborhood Info
:: Working With a Real Estate Agent
:: New Houses
:: Homeowners' Associations and CC&Rs
:: Real Estate Offers and Contracts FAQ
:: House Inspections Before a Sale
:: Homeowner's Insurance
:: Your Home as a Tax Shelter
:: Real Estate on the Web
:: Deeds FAQ


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