Tim and Alison Harris were living in Houston when he was recruited in 2016 to work in the Spokane, Washington, area.
After researching neighborhoods, banks and a real estate agent online and through colleagues, the couple found themselves in a bidding war for a new home. That’s when Marianne Guenther Bornhoft,the real estate agent the couple first found online, stepped in.
“We had already left the city. And Marianne said, ‘Okay, stop your bidding. There’s another house that just came on the market. And obviously, you can’t see it. You’re no longer here. I need your absolute best offer, ’” Harris says.
Harris found Bornhoft, a 26-year real estate veteran, while researching online real estate sites, listings, agent websites and even social media, like Twitter and Facebook.
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While most agents seemed to post the same video tour for each house, Bornhoft’s offered more quirky details that house hunters crave, like which homes had unusual “yard art. ” Her personalized video tours revealed details that mattered to the couple, who had a three-year-old son at the time.
“So, we got the home. And we were only able to see it via FaceTime tour, ” Harris says. “In a market like this, you absolutely have to have somebody who knows what’s best for you,” Harris says.
Fewer than one-quarter of prospective homebuyers would feel comfortable buying a home entirely online, a survey conducted in February by Zillow found. But at least 75% are OK using online tools, including digital floor plans, 3-D tours, or video showings with an agent.
Here are some online tips and tools experts recommend:
Classes offered via the U.S. Housing and Urban Development are underused, says Eric Lawrence Frazier, who runs thepowerisnow.com, a real estate advisory media company in Riverdale, California.
“They lean into the details. And then on top of that, they provide additional resources to help you with dealing with credit, with a budget and all those things,” he says.
Check your credit rating
Before you start house hunting, make sure your finances are in order so that you know what you can afford, says Nicole Peterkin Morong, a financial planner and CEO of Peterkin Financial in Braintree, Massachusetts.
You can request your report from all three credit rating companies for free once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com. Once you get your report, clearing up errors can take time.
Peterkin Morong also sends clients to Experian, one of the three main credit rating companies, for its free monitoring service. Most people overlook how credit use – not just debt – impacts their score. Experian provides updates and takes some of the mystery out of it, she says.
“It clues them in for free, and lets them do a little bit of cleanup to understand what’s going on,” Peterkin Morong says.
Research the market
Start with the big sites like Zillow, Realtor.com, and Redfin, experts say. Real estate agents can also put you on a list for the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS with their login.
“There are so many tools,” Frazier says. “Every single real estate agent that is full-time has a website and you can sign up to get notifications of properties that are available in your market for sale.”
If you’re interested in hiring a realtor, the real estate portals can be a good place to find agents, like Bornhoft, who give live FaceTime tours.
Use LinkedIn to find advisers, brokers
Using LinkedIn can help you gain confidence in someone’s background, education and experience, Frazier says. If you like what you see, you’ll feel more confident when you decide to work with them.
“It’s not 100%, it’s not an absolute, but the odds are very high that this person is going to take a consultative approach with you,” rather than just make a sale, he says.
Use mortgage calculators, rate comparison sites
Once you have a feel for homes and what you can afford, a mortgage calculator can help you negotiate rates. Bankrate.com and Nerdwallet.com offer good tools and a variety of lenders when looking at mortgages.
Harris, for instance, says he researched rates and then found a bank in Spokane, Washington, that matched the lowest offer.
Don’t feel guilty switching banks for the loan if you can get a better deal, Peterkin Morong says.
Google Earth is your friend
Once you have a good idea of where you want to live, use Google Earth to take a detailed look around. The street view feature can help you research the area, including the quality of homes nearby.
Bornhoft, Harris’s agent in Spokane, noted quirks in some neighborhoods like “yard art” – large metal sculptures or other decorations. So Harris checked out the area on Google Earth and was able to get a sense of the neighborhood’s personality. Harris says looking for homes in Houston taught the couple to poke around.
“It may be that yes, the listing was wonderful,” Harris says. “But it’s across the street from an impound lot. And they’re not showing you that picture.”
Community group websites
To really delve into a neighborhood, see if there is a social media group in the area on Facebook or other platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Harris, for example, found a nearby school to investigate for his son.
Many neighborhood associations communicate through social media. Other places to look include town and city websites, assessors offices and recreation departments.
Rachel Layne is a Boston-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, CBS News, HBS Working Knowledge, USA TODAY and other publications. She previously spent two decades covering multi-industrial companies for Bloomberg News.