Online Tools For New Home Searches

10/26/12

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Searching for a new home is a touch away.

If you last searched for a home in the pre-Facebook era, you’re in for a treat as a house hunter. The Web, social media and mobile apps have made the home search a whole lot easier. They can help you find the right home and community quickly, and give you confidence in your choice.

Anyone who can remember using the Internet in the 1990s knows how much better and faster real estate websites have become.

Homebuyers realized long ago that the Internet is perfect for searching and browsing through a lot of information quickly. But only 2 percent of buyers were using it in 1995, according to the National Association of Realtors. That jumped to 71 percent in 2003. Now the average is 88 percent of buyers using the Internet in their search. In the “below 44” age group, it’s 96 percent.

The MLS on the web

The most comprehensive websites draw from the Multiple Listing Service, the dominant way to list a home. The MLS used to be the domain of Realtors alone, but now the public has access to its listings via countless sites. These include general sites like REALTOR.com, Homefinder.com, real estate company sites, and others. Homfinder has a link that brings you to builder’s new homes.

A time-saving way to use a real estate website is to set your search criteria (price, size of home, bedrooms, location, etc.) then sign up to be emailed when a home matching your description becomes available. This works for new homes and for resales. Zillow.com and Trulia.com excel at this.

Real estate technology

Real estate companies have invested more and more into technology. In addition to browsing local properties, these sites are a good way to search for an agent, see what their specialty is, what they have sold recently, and read their client feedback.Chicago-Festival-of-Homes

People once used their car as a house-hunting tool. Now when you drive by a real estate sign, there is likely to be a text code or website address for that home which you can type directly into your smartphone to get details on that home or community.

Baird & Warner has taken this a step further. It allows you to get instant info on any home for sale via your cell phone. Simply text BAIRD to the number 87778. You’ll get a prompt asking for the property address or for permission to use your phone’s GPS to find it (if you’re standing in front of it). Then, voila! you will immediately receive information and photos of the home. Your cell phone does not have to be a smartphone to use this service, and the home does not have to be a Baird & Warner listing.

Apps

Many real estate websites have a “mobile” icon or link that allows you to download an app for that site to your phone or tablet (or get it at the app store on your phone.) These apps are necessary because a full real estate website is often difficult and cumbersome to use on a smartphone. The downside of an app is that they seldom have all the features of the full site.

Chicago-Festival-of-Homes-House-Hunter

One popular app built just for homebuyers is called House Hunter. It will not help you search for a home, but will organize your search instead. Most buyers look at a number of homes over a period of time, and after a while they can run together. This app helps you organize your notes and priorities for each home you’ve seen. It also allows you to evaluate the homes via a scorecard that weighs features you think are important. It works with iOS and costs $3.99.

Blogs

Builders and developers are using blogs to connect with buyers in a conversational way about their communities. A builder’s blog can impart an insider’s knowledge of a community. Information like this tells you whether a community would be a good fit for you and your family, says Jennifer Arndt, marketing director at Rock Creek Homes.

“About a year ago, we created a blog where potential buyers and current homeowners can keep track of what’s going on at Henning Estates,” says Arndt. The blog also mentions nearby places of interest. “People will come in and mention they saw a post about something they didn’t realize was in the area.” Arndt updates it frequently.

“In years past, people would come in and say they saw a sign when they were out driving around. Now with the price of gas, fewer people are doing that,” she says.

Arndt says the blog is important, because Henning Estates is on the far west side of Huntley and many folks wonder what else is out there. One example is Blackstone Golf Club, which recently debuted a new clubhouse, Arndt says.

“Henning Estates is a nice location because it is scenic and our home sites are larger than normal,” Arndt says. The community features ranch homes on 1/3-acre lots with basements included, starting in the mid-$300,000s.

Social media

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and YouTube give builders ways to show and tell in instant, concise ways that do not require buyers to wade through emails or websites.

Several years ago, Lexington Homes hired a company that specializes in social media for builders. On the Lexington Homes website you’ll find icons for a blog, Facebook and Twitter, and one other thing the company has borrowed from retail sites: instant chat. Users simply click a tab to chat online with a salesperson.

“People do use it,” says Jeff Benach, executive vice president of sales and marketing. “We are going to enhance it so that a little window will pop after you’re on the site for a few minutes, asking if you would like to chat.”

His Web company also tracks whether viewers are watching the videos and virtual tours on the site, and whether they are watching them to completion or not. This helps them make better videos. These strategies work as a way to draw eyeballs on the Web.Chicago-Festival-of-Homes

“The more of those elements you put in your website, the more you enhance your company in Google searches,” Benach says. “Google has been our No. 1 traffic generator. We know that because we have our salespeople ask how they found us, and we even ask what Google search they used.”

Also, it works. “We have had some traffic that we can equate to social media,” Benach says.