From right angles to the right feng shui, real estate apps deliver

When looking to buy a home, you can find some of the best tools for the search in the palm of your hand, now that the number of real estate apps for smartphones has exploded.

One third of all U.S. adults own smartphones — such as the iPhone and Android software-based phones — and the real estate apps they can access provide the take-along convenience that a home computer simply cannot.

Some apps are free. Others are not. But you can download them from Apple’s iTunes Store, the Android Market and BlackBerry’s App World store.

Here are some of the free ones that might come in handy and feedback from people who have used theses apps or similar ones:

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION


Zillow’s app allows you to figure out what your mortgage payment would be with real-time updates of average 30-year fixed interest rates. (Scott Eells/BLOOMBERG)

Redfin (for iPhone, Android)

Features: Redfin updates its listings by the minute with full picture galleries, home details and agent contact information. Like Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com and other listing sites, it uses global-positioning systems to pinpoint a user’s location and tailor that person’s home search accordingly. Want to find open houses within a three-mile radius of where you’re standing or a list of nearby homes that have been recently reduced in price, built after 1950 and priced below recently sold homes? This app and others like it can process the details and serve up the listings. The GPS function also enables users to see listings pop up as they drive or walk through an area and the timing of related open houses. Results show comparable prices for nearby homes and distinguishes if a home is listed by an agent, a bank or an owner.

The app is synchronized with data saved by users accessing the site on other devices. It’s only available in major metropolitan areas, including the Washington region.

The buzz: Jennifer Taxson of Haymarket said she particularly liked Redfin’s e-mail alert function when she was searching for a home late last year. “It was easy to scan on my iPhone,” Taxson said. “It had good photos, and it clearly listed the address and neighborhood.” Richard Bridges, an ERA real estate agent in Woodbridge, said he especially likes Redfin’s search features. “You don’t have to go through a whole bunch of clicks to get to the property you want,” Bridges said.

Trulia (for iPhone, Android)

Features: This home listing site for buyers and renters also offers insights into neighborhoods. When searching by location, users can find reviews by locals of nearby restaurants and area schools. To gauge a neighborhood’s purchase activity, Trulia’s heat maps shows the concentration of sales in a community. Its Android app highlights in red the areas with the highest crime rates, too. The maps also show nearby pools, libraries, public transportation and walking trails. The Washington Post partners with Trulia for content both online and in print.

The buzz: Angie Copp, who lives in Vancouver with her family, used Trulia when looking for a home in the Washington area. She wanted a place that was close to many amenities. “I didn’t want to be driving 20 minutes to get a container of milk from the grocery store,” Copp said. When she saw a home of interest, she used the Trulia map to search for nearby stores and schools. Sometimes, nothing popped up. “I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe that’s not right,’ ” she said. Other times, she immediately found what she was looking for. “That really helped me eliminate some homes for sure,” she said. As for the listings themselves, she also used Trulia while her husband, Tim, used Zillow. They noticed that some listings showed up on one app but not the other and vice versa. When they hired an agent, they found that some listings showed up earlier on the local multiple listing service than they did on either app. Still, the apps were a huge help, Tim Copp said. “I
was on vacation, on business trips, on
the bus looking at different houses as they hit the market and narrowing down my search to figure out where I wanted to be,” he said.

WHAT’S INSIDE

iHandy Level (for iPhone, Android)

Features: Does it seem like the living room floor might be a bit off kilter? This app, one of the most downloaded level apps in the iTunes and Android app stores, allows you to measure the slopes and angles of a home. Fire up the app, put the phone wide-angle on the surface you are inspecting, and let it calibrate the angle of the floor and kitchen counters and the verticality of walls and windows.

The buzz: Joan Caton Cromwell, an agent at McEnearney Associates in the District, said she regularly uses a similar app, the Clinometer, when she’s out with clients. Most recently, she was checking out a D.C. home when her client noticed that the counters looked sloped. Cromwell fired up her app. “Sure enough, not only was the counter not level, the floor was not level, either,” Cromwell said. “It’s a fun little tool to whip out.”

Compass Free
(for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry)

Features: The house has everything you’re looking for: two bedrooms, one bath and an easy commute to work. But does your door face the right direction? This app, one of the the most talked about apps in the iTunes store, can be of real value to prospective home buyers who practice feng shui (the Asian philosophy of how objects correspond with the flow of energy around them) and similar principles. Most phones have compasses loaded in, but there are many apps with the Chinese feng shui compass, which is used to analyze energy in a room. Fortune Compass’s Feng Shui Life Compass calculates the most positive directions for arranging the desk, bed or other furniture.

The buzz: Several real estate agents say direction matters to some of their clients. “So many cultures have an issue with which way their front door faces or if the house is higher in the southeast corner,” said Susan Minnick, an agent for McEnearney Associates in Arlington, who uses Oscoway’s Compass app. Mike Rosen, a real estate agent at Frankly Real Estate in Falls Church, said he, too, has had several clients with similar issues. Besides, “some people just want to know what kind of sun exposure they’re going to have in different rooms, and this kind of app helps,” said Rosen, who uses the Catch’s Compass, which is Android-compatible.

DOLLARS AND CENTS

Zillow Mortgage Marketplace
(for iPhone, Android)

Features: The app allows you to figure out what your mortgage payment would be with real-time updates of average 30-year fixed interest rates. First, filter by the basics: the price of the home, percentage of money down and the interest rate. Then, put in your income level and Zip code and the app will serve up rates being offered by brokers, such as Roundpoint Mortgage, Myers Park and CBC Bank. Users can show offers by order of lowest to highest APRs and lowest fees. Want to search by what you can afford? Input your income, how much money you want to put down, the projected interest rate and your debts. It will tell you, based on projected taxes taken out and other living expenses, the home price you can afford.

The buzz: There are many similar apps out there, some geared to professionals and others toward consumers. Dave Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said he uses an HP-12c application — a finance calculator that’s the standard for mortgage professionals. “I used it to buy my home but also have it ready anytime someone wants advice on mortgages,” Stevens said. His group just released the Home Loan Toolkit app (available on iPhone and Android phones), which he describes as consumer friendly. But in the end, it’s not just about finding the lowest rates and fees, Stevens said. Work with a professional who knows the lending rules and can process the loan in a timely manner. “A great rate is worth nothing if the loan is not approved,” he said.

Complete Foreclosures
(for iPhone, Android)

Features: This new app lets users search Realty Trac’s 1.5 million foreclosure listings by city or Zip code. The results are displayed on a map or in list form with details about each home such as price, number of bedrooms and baths, square feet and address. Pictures are typically available, and the app gives an estimated market value range and the status of the listing. Users can share listings via e-mail and contact agents. Beyond basic details of the home, users can pay 99 cents for more information. Tap on “Single Property Details Purchase,” and the iTunes store will charge for the in-app purchase and give more details on the property, such as financial history.

The buzz: “We’ve made it incredibly easy for users to find foreclosed properties that meet their needs,” said Daniel Burrus, chief executive of Visionary Apps, the creator of Complete Foreclosures. “They simply tap their screen for detailed listing data or to be connected directly to a local real estate professional associated with the property who can answer their questions about the home or foreclosure buying process.”

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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