Spring Real Estate 2007

Publication Date: Friday, April 27, 2007

Surfing the 'Net
So many sites, so little real information

Starting a home search on the Internet can theoretically save time and, potentially, money. Some sites are really come-ons to hook you up with a real-estate agent; others help you see the breadth of offerings in a specific community -- and allow you to plug in specifics, such as price, to help you narrow your search.

In a February talk sponsored by OPES Advisors, a Bay Area financial advisory firm specializing in investment management (including real estate) and mortgage banking, Mark Lesswing, senior vice president and chief technology officer of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), offered insights into how home searches were being conducted on the Web. While Lesswing was mainly addressing brokers, some of his comments were helpful to home-seekers as well.

His advice to local brokers: "You have to look at what differentiates you and what gives you value in your local market. That's something that the national computer-generated analytics can't give. They can't give advice when they're not on the ground in Palo Alto."

Here's a list of Web sites and what they offer. A pre-test of the sites involved looking for a single-family house in Palo Alto, priced between $1 million and $10 million.

www.mlslistings.com --You don't have to work with a broker to gain access to the Multiple Listing Service Web site, which shows single-family, condo or commercial broker-listed properties on the market in individual cities. Specific information usually includes the address, price, property details, photo(s), open-house data and contact information for the agent. On March 22, there were 46 single-family homes listed for Palo Alto, including four pending sales.

www.craigslist.com -- Twelve listings popped up, but only six were actually in Palo Alto. The list included commercial property (and one was listed twice). The photos are tiny.

www.google.com -- Enter "palo alto, ca home sales" and you get a list of sponsored links (ZipRealty.com, EchelonPaloAlto.com) as well as a mishmash of individual property listings, Trulia, cars for sale, one home for sale in Amador County, and the home page of the Kusamura Bonsai Club!

www.yahoo.com -- Enter "palo alto, ca home sales" and you get a list of sponsored links (ZipRealty.com, paloaltoca.condohomeproperty.com -- where you fill in a form and expect a response within 48 hours), plus lots of other links.

http://realestate.yahoo.com/California/Palo_Alto -- This links to a Prudential site and requires signing in with e-mail contact before any information is revealed. "Excellent mapping, if you can find it," said NAR's Lesswing.

www.Realtor.com -- This is the official site of the National Association of Realtors. Forty-seven properties appeared under the original search criteria, but they included East Palo Alto. Information included addresses, property details and estimated house payments.

www.propsmart.com -- This site requires a much narrower search. For example, by entering $1 million to $1.5 million, eight listings popped up; between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, 19 listings showed up, but three were duplicates. The only information was an address, price, photo and map.

www.zillow.com -- Again, this site allowed a narrower search, say $1.5 million to $3.5 million, where there were 12 listings. Information included addresses, number of bedrooms and baths, listed price and a "zestimate" of what the house was really worth. Although "Palo Alto" was entered, results included Menlo Park, Atherton and Mountain View. One drawback: After you click on the address for more information, then return to the list of 12, you have to input all your search criteria again. This was very time-consuming. Lesswing noted that Zillow is "getting people's head into the game. It's SIMS for adults."

www.trulia.com -- Twelve listings appeared, each linked to a broker with much more specific information on the broker's site, including photo, flyer and contact information for the broker. Lesswing noted that this site offers a mix of FSBO (for sale by owner) and Realtor listings.

www.redfin.com -- Eighty-nine listings appeared, but they went way beyond Palo Alto. When the search was narrowed to $1 million to $3.5 million, 72 listings appeared but were still not limited to Palo Alto. Options included new listings, unsold for 90+ days and fixer-uppers. There was plenty of information on neighborhood (by Zip code), including education level and percentage of households with children. Comments on Palo Alto included "distinctive college community" and "moderate residential turnover." This is a discount brokerage, promising two-thirds of the commission will be refunded to the buyer.

www.lendingtree.com -- When you click on Home Sales, you are linked to RealEstate.com.

www.RealEstate.com -- Your first option is to pick a Realtor, but you can also fill in criteria and get some results. On March 20, there were 58 listings (most with photos; none with addresses), including land only and condos. For each listing there were number of bedrooms and baths, square footage and Zip code, but you could drill down for more property details.

http://sf.oodle.com -- When entered "palo alto, ca, single family home" 10 listings appeared; could not search by price range. Some listings were as old as seven months, and the information was pulled from classified ads in local newspapers.

www.homegain.com -- This connects to ZipRealty, which listed 63 homes. One must register to receive full property details, such as address.

www.HouseValues.com -- This is a free service that offers to find a home's current market value and suggested listing price; after filling out a form with details about your house, you get a message that you will be contacted by an agent. (Two e-mails were received within hours with a promise of an estimated house value; the house value came in the next day from an agent in Burlingame.)

www.forsalebyowner.com -- This offers information on foreclosures and auctions, as well as data on the local community (from Sperling's BestPlaces), including median home price (listed $1,073,000 for Palo Alto, years out of date), cost of living index, health-costs index, pupil-teacher ratio and property-crime index (5 out of 10 for Palo Alto!).

www.Streetadvisor.com -- The public beta-testing version was launched in early April. It bills itself as being an "essential guidebook to finding the right street, written by the people who have lived there." Tidbits range from neighborly spirit to cell reception and include cost of living and access to public transportation. (When data entered with a specific Palo Alto street address on March 28, the page included no information.)

-- Carol Blitzer