- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

Figuring out where you should buy your next home is difficult in any city, but it is particularly challenging in the Washington area. It's a region made up of two states and one would-be state. It is divided by rivers, connected by bridges, crisscrossed with highways and spread out from Frederick, Md., to Fredericksburg, Va., and Ashburn, Va., to Annapolis.
How do any of greater Washington's 3 million residents ever find the right town to live in, let alone the right home to buy?
Most buyers have a few determining factors that help a lot. How much you can afford may be the most important question to ask yourself, but others include: place of employment, location of schools and houses of worship, preference for urban or rural setting, and proximity to mass transit.
Buyers who have lived in the Washington area for some time probably can synthesize these factors into a rough picture of where they want to live. Once they do that, they are ready to find a good buyer's agent and start home shopping.
But what if you are new to the area, as so many Washingtonians are? How do you begin making sense of such a huge area? The Internet is a great place to start.
The real-estate oriented Web sites that have sprung up during the past few years are a tremendous help to consumers who want to conduct neighborhood research. Much of the information is general, so you wouldn't want to base your entire buying decision on what is on line. But sites such as Realtor.com, Move.com and Iplace.com provide shoppers who are new to an area a overall sense of how things are laid out.
"Someone who is relocating to a new city often has no clue about where they are going to live," says Jyoti Nanda, public relations manager at Move.com. "Before they can do anything, they will want to know a little about how the different parts of the city compare."
Move.com provides some of the most comprehensive information of all the neighborhood sites, because it is operated by Cendant Corp., the same company that owns Century 21, ERA, Coldwell Banker and Welcome Wagon. By pooling information from these companies, the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources, Move.com is able to offer everything from average utility costs to the frequency of hail storms. School data, demographics, weather, taxes and home-price information are all offered for free.
Visitors also can view home listings in the area they are interested in, but only if the properties are listed by Century 21, ERA or Coldwell Banker. These companies make up 25 percent of home listings nationwide, somewhat less than a complete picture.
This is the kind of shortcoming you will find on almost every real estate Web site. To make money, each site has formed an alliance with realty firms, lenders, movers and other professionals. You may find the help you need, but be aware that most sites aren't showing you everything or everyone out there. (See the "More info" box for snapshots of several neighborhood-information Web sites.)
The data found on the Internet is a great way to begin your house hunt but it often is limited to ZIP codes. Although this gives you more detailed information than county or city data, ZIP codes usually encompass several if not dozens of individual neighborhoods that may vary widely.
For example: Even though the average price of a home in ZIP 22314 (Old Town Alexandria) is $325,500, great town homes are available in that area for $200,000. If you look just two miles away, you will find homes for $100,000.
This is where the need for a Realtor becomes so apparent. Even if you are quite sure you want to live in College Park, nothing beats a good buyer's agent who knows the lay of the land and who has your best interests in mind.
"You really need to look at everything available that makes sense for you," says Stephen Israel, president of the Buyer's Edge. "Almost everybody has some factor that is location-related that really helps us zero in. But often, the location they want doesn't match up with what they can afford or the homes that are available."
Especially in today's competitive market, buyers need information on homes for sale, not just neighborhoods. Homes that are on the market sell quickly these days, and the number of properties for sale is very low. Driving around neighborhoods may help you identify a few areas you would like to live, but how do you know what homes are for sale?
"You really have to start with some basic criteria, and then go right to the listings," Mr. Israel says. "We try to establish the broadest possible search criteria even broader than our clients might initially expect."
Mr. Israel says his average client wants to live near the Metro, spend $350,000 and be near shopping and good schools. Those criteria can be met in hundreds of neighborhoods throughout Maryland, Virginia or the District, so it helps to work with an agent who is licensed in more than one jurisdiction.
"We literally will print every home on the market, often 85 or 100 listings," Mr. Israel says. "We won't, of course, visit all of those homes. But buyers really should take an hour to read through all the listings. If they don't do that, and have their hearts set on Bethesda, they will never learn about the cute little bungalow in Alexandria that is perfect for them."
Once you have found a dozen or more homes that have some potential, a driving tour is a great next step. Whether you go with your agent so you can visit the homes, or if you just drive around to see them from the outside, no Internet service can beat a firsthand look at real communities and real homes for sale.
What if you like the neighborhood you drive through, but know nothing about the schools? Questions about schools are often a sensitive issue for real estate agents, because they are somewhat limited in the help they can provide.
"A Realtor should never make limiting choices for a consumer," says Laurie Janik, general counsel for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). "When a client asks to be shown houses near a good school, the agent should ask: 'What makes a school good to you?' For one family a good school might be one with a big athletic program. For another, it might be one offering many foreign languages. It's not the Realtor's job to say: 'This is a good school.' "
Many first-time buyers are surprised and confused when they don't get the answers they want from their agent. The problem is, they are often asking the wrong questions.
Realtors are not allowed, under federal fair housing laws and the NAR's code of ethics, to "steer" their clients' home-buying decisions. Agents sometimes get themselves in sticky situations that could be avoided if buyers and sellers better understood fair housing laws.
The point of all this regulation is to ensure that buyers determine where they will live, not real estate agents.
"Let's say you are a Roman Catholic, and want your children to be able to walk to a Roman Catholic school," Mrs. Janik says. "In this case, you have made all the choices. So your Realtor can mark up a map with red dots, indicating the location of every Roman Catholic church with a school in town. That's not steering."
The problem comes in when the neighborhood of choice is the Realtor's idea, not the buyer's. Realtors should never suggest a church, school or neighborhood based upon opinion or personal experience.
These laws were not, of course, created simply to prevent folks from finding neighborhoods near churches they might like. The fair housing laws exist to prevent, for example, an agent steering a white family away from Hispanic neighborhoods.
Agents cannot respond to your questioning along this line. Don't expect your Realtor to be helpful if you say, "I don't want to live near any" members of a particular minority group.
Many Realtors make certain there is no confusion by handing out brochures explaining the Realtors' code of ethics.
All of these codes and restrictions may seem confusing, but it really is common sense. If you are looking for a home based on fair and reasonable criteria, your agent will be able and happy to assist. If you seek to be bigoted or irrational in your house hunting, don't expect any help.

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