How to Use Internet Based Real Estate Sites
As with anything you find on the internet, the critical thing to keep in mind with internet real estate is that it is subject to input control. In plain English, you only see what they want you to see. If they don't want you to see it, it's not going to be put into the internet so that you can see it there. The vast majority of the time, there is no check upon this simple fact of life. If the owner or listing agent don't want you to see something, it's not going to be available to you on the internet. You're going to have to get out and look at the actual property.
What is put onto the internet is a representation. It could be a good accurate representation or it could be an intentionally distorted representation. The online information is never all there is to see. Kind of like a facade - front facade, back facade, and now, internet facade. Online pictures, home for sale websites, virtual tours - they're all subject to any number of tricks that alter how the property is perceived.
You should never put an offer in without having looked at the property in person. I'm very good at what I do as a buyer's agent. Nonetheless, it is most disconcerting on those rare occasions when someone sounds like they might be intending to put an offer in without looking at it themselves in the flesh. To date nobody has done so through me, but I have had to talk a couple people out of it. There is no such thing as a perfect property, and it's very difficult to point out all of the things I believe buyers need to be aware of when they're not there to see me point.
A lot of the most important things are never online. Even if there is a floor plan (rare), it's very difficult for people who are only looking on-line to get a good grasp of internal sightlines. It's also very hard to convey the full sense of the external environment. What can you see? What do you hear? Are there other environmental distractions? Do airplanes fly right over the house on departure when the wind changes? What's the neighborhood like, are there any obviously disturbed neighbors, what are traffic patterns like, how close and how good is freeway access, where is (are) your grocery store(s), and anything else that might be important to you? How accessible is the neighborhood via public transport? Note that some of these questions are double edged swords by definition. Public transport means your friends who don't have a car can get there, as well as making any public transport excursions you may have need far more bearable - but it can also be a conduit for undesirable visitors.
Nor can you really only visit one or two properties. The key to relative value is how the various properties on the market compare to each other, and that includes that whole list in the previous paragraph. No matter how much you make, if you figure you're going to visit an absolute minimum of ten properties before you put in any offers, the probability is pretty much 100 percent you'll end up glad you did.
The internet can profitably be used to narrow your search, by throwing out all of the obviously unsuitable properties. Doesn't have what you need? Asking price way too high? From the pictures, there's no way your family could live there? There's no reason to waste time and gas going to see those properties. You still need to go out and look at not only the properties that are left, but enough properties to give them context. I don't know how often I've heard from people who only wanted to view one property, but in such cases it always seems to be a property I wouldn't buy if the owners paid me to take it off their hands.
The internet can also make it easy to find properties to look at. It certainly beats driving around all the neighborhoods you might like to live in trying to find "For Sale" signs. But it cannot replace physically going to look at properties that might fit the bill. If you're short on time, might I suggest a buyer's agent, or several? That time is their job, the mileage is a business expense, and nothing is so precious as the time people give us to look at property. It's quite likely that a good buyer's agent will narrow your search a lot more, because going out and looking at property gives a lot more information than the internet, and we do it constantly. Getting a good buyer's agent first will make more difference than anything else to how happy you end up (Here's how to find a good buyer's agent)
Property always needs to be evaluated in the context of the area it's in. A lot of what might sell for $500,000 in my area might be less than $100,000 in other locales. This doesn't mean San Diego is overpriced. It means that there's a lot of people who want to live here very badly, these people make comparatively large amounts of money, it's hard to get permission to build, and the prices for the area reflect those factors. If you've decided you want to live in a particular neighborhood you're going to have to pay about the prevailing prices if you want housing. A good buyer's agent can make a big difference, but nobody can find you something that doesn't exist, and in order to really understand what a good bargain is, you've got to go and actually look at some properties that aren't bargains before you understand what a bargain looks like.
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