- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

The National Association of Realtors says that more than 80 percent of potential homebuyers start the search for a new home on the Internet. As anyone who has spent time online knows, the Internet provides a wealth of information, but it is difficult to determine how much of that information is accurate.

Homebuyers and sellers can be overwhelmed by the number of Web sites with information on buying, selling and financing - not to mention refinancing, foreclosures, short sales and auctions. Realtors often have multiple Web sites to promote their listings and services to buyers, in addition to Realtor.com, which is sponsored by the National Association of Realtors.

“Consumers need to look at the Web sites that pop up when they do a search with the understanding that they need to do their due diligence to determine how accurate the information is on each site,” says Monica Parker, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Gaithersburg/North Potomac. “Some Web sites do not have the most up-to-date information on homes on the market and prices.”

Mary Lowry Smith, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Dupont Circle, says that consumers should look at both national and local Web sites to learn as much as they can about the buying process and local housing markets.

“Buyers can start anywhere online, but the most important thing they can do is to gather information and figure out what they need to ask a professional Realtor and a professional lender,” says Mrs. Smith. “In particular, buyers need to meet with a lender so they know where they stand financially before they do anything else.”

Rani Covington, a Realtor with RE/MAX Allegiance in Burke, believes that while many Web sites are good for researching trends and general information, they are less valuable for targeting the true value of a particular home.

“The data shows that most people looking at real estate sites online are either looking for property to buy or to find out how much their own home is worth,” says Ms. Covington. “As an ancillary benefit, they can often find other information by following the links on various Web sites about schools, transportation issues, taxes and crime reports.”

Ms. Covington’s site includes updates on the Wilson Bridge project and other transportation topics of interest to local sellers and potential buyers.

The Fair Housing Act states that Realtors cannot directly provide clients with information - such as specific schools or crime reports - that could steer clients to (or away from) certain neighborhoods. The Internet has made it easier for consumers to gather information on their own by searching local school-system or police Web sites.

“Since Realtors cannot ethically provide some information on communities, it is great to be able to provide clients with Web sites where they can get their own information,” says Ms. Parker. “If buyers know they want to live in a particular neighborhood or subdivision, they can do a search and find the homeowner association’s Web site and sites for other neighborhood groups.”

Ms. Parker says there is Web site (www.walkscore.com) where people enter an address to receive a “walk score” rating for the walkability of that neighborhood and a list of how close the home is to schools, stores, a library and public transportation.

“When people know their priorities, they can dial in more closely on the sites that will be valuable to them,” says Ms. Parker. “Some of the bigger national Web sites really just touch the surface of what consumers need to know.”

Ms. Parker says that while first-time homebuyers can benefit from reading guides online, she believes they should meet with a professional real estate agent as soon as they have an understanding of the “big picture.”

“Buying a home is complex, and so many people got into trouble recently because of a lack of understanding that I think everyone needs to have human interaction with a professional,” says Ms. Parker. “Sellers, too, can benefit from reading articles online and looking at home values on Web sites, but they need to realize that this will not always give them a perfect snapshot of their own market.”

Mrs. Smith says that Redfin (www.redfin.com), which is an online brokerage for buying and selling homes, has become one of the most popular Web sites for homebuyers.

“Redfin is pretty up to date with their information, but I find that the agents who buyers find through Redfin are not always as knowledgeable as other Realtors,” says Mrs. Smith.

Yet Ms. Parker says that a lot of the buyers she sees at her open houses have found them on Redfin.

“Redfin offers a new business model,” says Ms. Parker. “I think it’s great if consumers want to use Redfin as a search place and then engage a Realtor when they are ready to act.”

Mrs. Smith says that Realtor.com has made improvements and is consistently up-to-date, along with her company’s Web site (www.coldwellbanker.com).

“While national sites and general real estate guides are useful, I think, especially in the D.C. area, that buyers and sellers really need to work with a Realtor with local knowledge of the market,” says Mrs. Smith.

Mrs. Smith adds that some popular Web sites - such as Trulia.com and Zillow.com - can provide valuable information, but she cautions that some often make mistakes by listing properties that are off the market or showing prices that are not accurate. Both Ms. Parker and Ms. Covington also mentioned that these sites can be good for general trends and neighborhood information, but they are not always accurate with current listings.

“Local consumers need to be very understanding of their local market and the regional market,” says Ms. Parker. “Consumers need to analyze what they read and not just accept everything at face value.”

General Web sites for homebuyers:

www.frontdoor.com

www.homesdatabase.com

www.redfin.com

www.localism.com

www.cyberhomes.com

www.zillow.com

www.trulia.com

www.realtor.com

www.walkscore.com

www.realestate.yahoo.com

www.yourstreet.com

http://realestate.aol.com/neighborhood-index

Web sites with guides for first-time homebuyers:

www.homesteps.com/homeshoppers.htm

www.hud.gov/buying

www.realtor.com/home-finance/buyers-basics/home-buyers-basics.aspx

www.realtor.org/realtororg.nsf/Pages/PrepHomeownership

Local housing Web sites:

Maryland

www.dhcd.state.md.us

Virginia

www.vhda.com

www.dhcd.virginia.gov

The District

www.dchfa.org

www.dchousing.org

www.dhcd.dc.gov

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