Spring Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, April 27, 2007

Narrowing the home search
Internet allows more customized house hunting

by Carol Blitzer

It's 1:30 p.m. on a typical spring Sunday. Sherril Green and her husband, Steve Turner, just set their GPS for a Palo Alto open house. Today they're only visiting one home that meets their criterion: four bedrooms in Palo Alto.

As working parents with young children, Green and Turner want to move to Palo Alto to get more space as well as on-site school childcare, something not available in Menlo Park. Since January, the couple has been house hunting on the Internet, mostly relying on www.mlslistings.com.

Ten years ago, when they bought their first home in Menlo Park, they didn't use the Internet.

"It was just a budding service at the time. MLS listings came out as listings; you didn't even see a picture. There were no virtual tours, room-by-room photo shots. So we would drive around on the weekend and visit 35 houses. The only thing we knew about them was they had 'X' bedrooms and the address," she recalled.

Today, with a 4- and 6-year-old, they're taking a more focused approach, saving time by pre-screening everything from the neighborhood to the inside of the house.

When they're truly interested in a property, they take it a step further and Google the address, occasionally finding court documents that reveal things such as contested fence lines.

"You can find addresses where the community was upset because something happened on the street regarding the building of another house or a utility issue," she added.

Green's preferred Web site is mlslistings.com because she can quickly focus her search.

"Inventory in Palo Alto is not so good right now," she said, with just 10 to 15 houses in their category. "Half can be excluded because they have no garage or are on a corner of a busy intersection."

They can also eliminate those that are simply not their style or see whether the interior has been updated since 1970.

Eventually they found Realtor Elaine White with Coldwell Banker, who was representing the seller of a house that was on the 'Net.

"I was interested in the house over in Barron Park. I sent her an e-mail," Green said, adding that she then met White at the house and chatted.

"The next time we wanted to see a house where we needed an agent to get in, I called Elaine White. We've actually bid on a house with her," she said. They didn't get the house, but it hasn't sold yet either.

White e-mails Green and Turner new listings that meet their criteria, often with links to neighborhood information. That lets them track down schools, public parks and libraries and check out the satellite overhead view, including how far they are from the nearest freeways.

Green is an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University and her husband works at a high-tech company in Sunnyvale, so they want to stay fairly close to work. They've looked on campus but found little that meets their four-bedroom criterion in their price range.

Since January, the couple has bid on a couple of houses but so far has not scored.

"About three weeks ago we put in a pre-emptive bid on a house that was not yet listed on MLS. The seller turned us down," Green said in late March, although they bid close to the ultimate asking price. "They wanted to see where they should price it, and we were the test drivers. We're not really sure. You never know. We may go back and say we're still interested."

They're trying not to get invested emotionally in any house right now.

"We try not to get excited about any of them because even when we bid on a house, we do it knowing it isn't everything we wanted for the money we're willing to spend. That's something you have to learn to deal with; then you're not too disappointed when you don't get the house anyway," Green said.

Green and Turner have taken a look at other Web sites but don't want to take the time to deal with the ones that require constant resetting of criteria <cTypeface:Italic>(see sidebar)<cTypeface:>. They have found houses on Craig's List and tons of linked photos posted on Kodak Gallery <0x2014> and looked through Stanford's housing office as well.

They check out newspaper listings often, as well as Coldwell Banker's online listings.

Compared to 10 years ago, Green and Turner are finding the home-buying market much calmer.

"I don't get the sense that the bidding war situation is as intense as it was even 10 years ago when we bought our house. I actually see houses that sell for the asking price and not more," Green said. They do sell within three or four days of the open house, she added.

"Back then, it used to be that every house had multiple offers, five or more, and were anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 over asking price. I don't get the sense there's quite the feeding frenzy. I could be wrong. That could change tomorrow."

Like most buyers, the couple is constantly re-evaluating just how much they can afford to spend.

"You always get the impression if you just had another $100,000 you could have bought that house. That's what we feel almost every time we look now. The tradeoff is: Could we live hand to mouth, month to month, if we made those mortgage payments on the extra $100,000?"

And, of course, there could just be a whole new cluster of buyers competing in the next price range.

So far, the plan is to buy a house, then sell theirs.

"With two young children and full-time jobs, the idea of renting somewhere until you buy is not practical," Green said, even though she knows people who have done just that. "It's so disruptive to your daily life: we've opted to do it the harder way, which is to try and buy with creative financing, then sell the house we own."

Acknowledging that using the Internet has taken quite a bit of pressure off, the couple still finds the process anxiety-producing, worrying that if they don't drop everything and run and look at a house they might miss an opportunity.

Using the Internet to find their dream home wasn't really a stretch for Green and Turner, who met on Match.com.

"It seemed a natural extension, to get married and find a house," she said. Back then, she even read Turner's resume on the Internet, including locating his unfathomable dissertation title.

"We pre-screened before we met. It all worked out," she added.

As for house hunting on the 'Net, Green said it's not very unusual in this area, compared to her Midwestern home: "The Web is just part of your daily life."

--Assistant Editor Carol Blitzer can be e-mailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.