Some buyers think that finding homes for sale online is so easy that they really don't have to bother with an agent. But it's guaranteed that you won't find every listing that's available for sale if you rely solely on the internet.
There are both pros and cons to taking an online approach. You can use real estate apps and online tools to help narrow down your search, and you’ll find at least some possibilities. But hiring a professional agent or broker to help can make a huge difference in complicated situations.
Advantages of House Hunting Online
The internet can be a real time-saver. It will let you quickly see a large number of properties on the market, with some details about each and the asking prices. It’s a good way to get a feel for the broad outlines of the market, and you can easily rule out properties that just aren't right for you without wasting anyone's time.
This can be particularly helpful if you're considering buying a house in another state—it cuts down on travel time.
You can quickly focus on a smaller group of properties if you know the area where you’re searching. Most sites let you tailor a search to certain types of homes or certain areas, and some will even email you if a new listing pops up that meets your criteria.
Some people are natural do-it-yourselfers and they're more comfortable conducting their own research rather than relying on a real estate agent to do it for them. There are tradeoffs that they might consider, but they wouldn't necessarily realize them without conducting their own searches.
Online sites often list details of who's handling the sale, so you can follow up if you find a promising home. You might have to dig around in the listing to find it, but it's usually there.
The Downside of Online House Hunting
The number of homes on the market at any given time can be overwhelming. A real estate agent can help you quickly focus your search, especially if you don’t know a market very well.
Some are neighborhood specialists. They can tell you the differences between the homes on individual streets or blocks, including which ones are close to good-to-know features and problems such as schools, parks, or all-night freight train lines.
Online listings are only as good as the information that's input regarding them. It might be a warning flag if a house shows up as having three bedrooms when everything else in the neighborhood only has two. Maybe the third one used to be the garage. A buyer's agent can easily do more research to find out.
Not every home that's for sale, or every detail about one that is, is available online. Agents talk to other agents in the market. They know if the price on a home is about to be reduced, or that a brand new listing that's perfect for you is about to hit the market. These deals don’t show up online until after they've happened—and then everybody knows about them.
An experienced agent knows what comparable homes are selling for, and can take more variables into account than many websites do. This can mean the difference between an offer that's rejected and one that's accepted, or between paying the right price or paying too much.
An online site can tell you what people are asking for their homes in a complex market rife with short sales and foreclosures, but it’s unlikely to tell you what prices the banks are accepting for those homes.
Protect Your Interests
Contacting the real estate agent who's selling a home—and perhaps listing it on the internet—means that you’re dealing with someone who has an interest in both sides of the deal. But if you have your own agent, that individual represents solely your interests, not the sellers’.
The Bottom Line
Only you can judge whether buying a home on the Internet all by yourself will work for you, but consider the money you might save by hiring a pro. The good thing about hiring a buyer’s agent is it doesn’t cost you one dime more than going directly to the listing agent without representation.
At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.