Over the last several weeks I have been engaged by home buyers in numerous conversations about online real estate search websites. Many home buyers are trying to understand which sites are best, while others are wondering why they are finding a particular home on one site, but not on another, or why the “Zestimate” for a home says one thing, but I am suggesting they offer something else.
At the root of all these questions is the reality that online real estate search presents a vast and diverse playing field, with each site bringing its own business model, and consumer facing approach. That said, for the sake of simplicity we will look at three core models for online real estate search, the pros and cons of each, and what the best choices are for buyers in the Washington, DC area.
1. The Agent Centered Model:
In this model, the site will do all that they can to drive consumer traffic: vast marketing efforts, tools on the site, home estimates, agent ratings, and more. The idea is that by driving enough traffic they can then entice real estate agents and real estate brokerages to, A: submit their listings to the site, B: pay for premium placement of those listings, and C: pay for advertising on the site. These sites can then create a sense among agents and brokers that they are missing out on precious leads if they are not doing A, B, and C. The sites can also leverage that same consumer traffic and agent supplied data to entice burgeoning agents, who may not have listings, to advertise as well in order to obtain more buyer leads.
These sites do have something to offer the consumer, and are continuing to improve those offerings. However, often what they lack is an accurate and complete set of real estate listings. See item A above. The listing data these sites receive is solely that which is provided to them by agents and brokerages. So, these sites such as Zillow, Trulia, or even Realtor.com can be a great place to get some forms of information, but they are not a good place to settle into for conducting your actual home search.
2. The IDX (Internet Data Exchange) Model:
In this model you are largely talking about individual agent websites, or the websites of small brokerages. This service is provided through a 3rd party vendor that designs the user interface seen on the site, as well as the back-end features for the agent, and they merge this interface with a direct link to the full data set from the local MLS (MRIS in our case here in the DC area).
The good part about the IDX approach is that it does pull fully and directly from the MLS, so buyers are seeing an actual representation of available homes for sale. I use an IDX solution on here on this site, and in many parts of the country an agent provided IDX based search can be a great alternative to the sites that fall in the 1st category. However, here in the DC area we have a 3rd model at our disposal that IDX solutions have a difficult time competing with, and for good reason.
3. The Direct MLS Feed:
Though this may sound similar to the IDX solutions at first, the key variable is that you are talking about a fully customized user interface that typically includes a more complex set of search criteria options, and more advanced options for saving and categorizing your searches. The two major players in this field in the DC area are HomesDatatbase.com, which is a consumer facing site created by our MLS provider, and Redfin.com, which is technically a competitor, but hey, they’ve created an amazing property search function.
If a buyer in the DC area is getting into the thick of their home search, these are the sites they want to spend their time on (although, IDX solutions can be a reasonable alternative if working with an agent who has streamlined that into their client care process). Of these two sites however, I have to put Redfin.com out there as the clear leader. In this era of mobile devices and mobile real estate search HomesDatatbase.com has yet to release a mobile version of their site, whereas Redfin.com has release one of the top two (in my opinion) mobile apps for real estate out there.
4. Agent Curated MLS Feed:
Yes, I know I said there were three models I wanted to touch on, however there is a 4th that includes all the data, but is typically the most efficient. Once you select a real estate agent to help with your search that agent can access the full MLS on your behalf and, based upon your criteria, generate automated emails that will only come to you when there is something to see. Rather than dredging through the entire set of MLS listings themselves, home buyers are being fed only what is appropriate to them, their budget, and their selected criteria. Ultimately this saves countless hours of their time and assures that they are not missing out on any opportunities.
Though the length of this post may suggest otherwise, that just scratches the surface. However, I hope you have a better understanding of what you are getting when you decide which sites to search for homes on. For the record, I am not intending to disparage sites like Zillow and Trulia in anyway, I just think consumers have a right to understand what they are getting and not getting on such sites.
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If you would like to talk with me about your own home buying process you can fill me in here, and we can schedule a time to discuss your search in greater detail.