Six Secrets of Internet Home Buying

How to get the most out of your online real estate search.

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With the worst housing slump in a generation slashing home prices across the country, the dynamics of the market have shifted squarely in favor of buyers. And as the real estate industry grows increasingly Web-savvy, house hunters can now scour through neighborhoods, inspect front porches, and even peek inside bedrooms from the comfort of their desktops. But while this surge of new information can help you find that perfect home, it can also—at times—make the whole process overwhelming. Here are six ways to ensure that your online real estate search is as efficient and effective as possible.

1. Know when to say when. There are plenty of ways to waste time on the Internet. When it comes to home buying, searching through properties you admire—but can't afford—tops the list. So before you grab for that mouse, contact a lender and get preapproved for a mortgage. That way you'll know exactly what you can afford. "It's not difficult," says Elizabeth Deal, senior vice president of ICBA Mortgage, a subsidiary of the trade group Independent Community Bankers of America. After contacting a lender, prospective home buyers will typically be asked to provide information about their income and debts, Deal says. (In some cases, lenders will want to see a credit report as well.) From that information, the lender will be able to issue a letter outlining the price range that the buyer can afford. The whole process can take as little as a half-hour, Deal says.

2. Find the right tools... Real estate search engines are getting better and better. Pat Kitano, a cofounder of Domus Consulting Group, which works with real estate brokerage firms on technology marketing strategies, calls Trulia.com "the most complete national site." Kitano also recommends DotHomes. Jay Thompson, of Thompson's Realty in Arizona, suggests using Zillow.com or Realtor.com, the official site of the National Association of Realtors. Realtor.com "has probably the most listings of any national site," Thompson says. "Just about anything that is on a local [multiple listing service] will be on realtor.com." But rather than limit your search to national search engines, Thompson says, it's a good idea to visit the Web sites of real estate agents and brokers in the market that you are considering as well.

3. ...and put them in a belt. Instead of trying to pinpoint the one "best" search engine, home buyers should put together a list of resources and use them in tandem. After all, no single search engine can provide a complete picture of the entire housing market. But by using several as a group, prospective home buyers can get a much better look at the inventory. "A consumer has to go to multiple sites to figure out the whole landscape," Kitano says

4. Don't forget the indies. The majority of Internet search tools enable users to look through homes that are being sold through agents. But if you use those exclusively, you will miss the sizable chunk of homes being sold independently. "Agents list about 77 to 78 percent of the homes on the market, so there is another 22 to 23 percent of homes that 10 to 15 years ago people wouldn't be able to find," says Greg Healy, vice president of operations at ForSaleByOwner.com, which markets the homes of sellers who are looking to cut out the agent and save on commission. "Using sites that are not agent-related is really critical."

Joshua Dorkin, the founder and CEO of BiggerPockets.com, a real estate networking and information site, says that Craigslist is a great way to find non-agent-affiliated listings that might not show up on mainstream real estate search engines. "It's the classified powerhouse of the world now," Dorkin says.

5. Be alert. Some online real estate resources now offer e-mail alerts or RSS feeds that provide instant notification of new listings and other information of interest to prospective home buyers. Sign up! This is a great way to stay on top of the changing real estate market as your home search progresses. "Rather than actually pulling the information from a particular source, you want that information pushed to you," says Douglas de Jager, cofounder of DotHomes. "It saves you time."