The mobile way to buy or renovate a home

April 25

The old-fashioned method of driving around to check out homes and neighborhoods hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it’s definitely received a 21st-century makeover with the introduction of mobile apps.

A variety of apps are available to help potential buyers look for a home, check out the neighborhood and local schools and connect with a Realtor from their mobile devices. In addition, home buyers and homeowners who intend to upgrade their dwellings can rely on apps to help their renovation plans.

“What I like about this app is that it gives you all the nearby rentals [and nearby for-sale properties] based on your location,” says Sheena Price, 29, who uses an app created by Avery-Hess Realtors. Price and her husband, Frank, have been searching for properties to either rent or buy.

“Once you click on nearby sales, you get a list of properties, photos and it tells you how much they are,” Price adds.

According to “The Digital House Hunt: Consumer and Market Trends in Real Estate,” a 2013 study by the National Association of Realtors and Google, 89 percent of home buyers use a mobile search engine and 68 percent use a mobile app at the onset and throughout their home search.

If you’re a buyer, it can be tough to decide which app to download onto your smartphone, but here are a few that are useful at different points during the home-buying process:

Apps for buyers

Doorsteps Swipe: If you’re uncertain about whether you’re ready to buy a home or just want to get a feel for your local market, Doorsteps Swipe, a mobile app introduced this spring, offers an entertaining way for renters to learn about homes, says Michele Serro, founder of Doorsteps.com.

“The goal of Doorsteps overall is to turn a curious buyer into a confident buyer,” Serro says. Many apps for buyers can be overwhelming, so Swipes is geared to people early in the process who want to look at homes in their location or in a specific area. They only get the photo and address and then swipe left or right to show whether they like the house. After they save five listings, they receive a summary of information about what they have said they liked.

“It’s designed to be fun yet educational, like wrapping a textbook in a piece of chocolate cake,” Serro says.

After two months or so, Serro says, Swipe customers are ready to graduate to the Realtor.com app for more information.

Homesnap: Homesnap works as easily for inexperienced buyers as it does for those further along in the buying process. Users take a photo of a home with their smartphone and the app instantly generates a variety of data, including the most recent sale price, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, a tax assessment and school boundaries. The data available vary according to how recently the home sold or whether it’s listed for sale.

“You can use it for something as casual as snapping a photo of a friend’s house to see what he paid for his new home or more seriously when you’re looking for a home,” says Guy Wolcott, chief executive of Homesnap. “You can use it collaboratively and send the photo and data with your mobile device to your brother, your wife or your real estate agent.”

Wolcott says real estate agents are also using the app to interact with their buyers or to get information on a property. Buyers can see the same information as agents, such as photos; how long a property has been on the market; and school information, including ratings.

Matthew Rathbun, a Realtor and executive vice president with Coldwell Banker Elite in Fredericksburg, Va., uses Homesnap to find out the history of homes.

Agent-branded buyers’ app: Rathbun recommends that buyers ask their agents about apps they are using, including those providing third-party information about schools and neighborhoods. He says MRIShomes or an agent-branded app with MRIS information will typically provide the most up-to-date listing information.

Avery-Hess Realtors’ agents use personally branded apps that include data updated directly from MRIS.

“Buyers get an edge over the competition for homes because they can click on a house that’s for sale and get all the available information instantly,” says Amy Cherry Taylor, an associate broker with Avery-Hess Realtors in Fredericksburg. “Buyers can hit ‘share’ to send to their Realtor, spouse or anyone else or hit ‘contact’ to get in touch with their buyers’ agent.”

This app, like most mobile apps, functions with your smartphone’s GPS navigator so you can find properties at any time near where you’re driving or walking. Buyers can get e-mail alerts through the app for new listings that meet their search criteria and also use the app for regular property searches when they’re at home.

Sitegeist: “My favorite app for questions I’m not allowed to answer for clients because of laws or because they’re subjective discussions is ‘Sitegeist’,” Rathbun says. “It tells you the average income, education level and even the average donation to charity in a neighborhood. You can find out the average number of males and females, demographics about whether people are single or married and even the average number of kids per household.”

iPMT: Rathbun recommends the iPMT app for financing questions because you can include property taxes and homeowner association fees in the mortgage calculator.

“The app can help you decide to rent or buy and can demonstrate the tax savings if you buy and bring up a 30-year amortization schedule,” Rathbun says. “It’s great, too, because if you make an offer and the sellers want you to counter with $10,000 more, you can instantly use the calculator to see how little difference that may make in your monthly payment.”

Close It!: This app “is like Turbo Tax for real estate transactions,” says Todd Ewing, president of Federal Title & Escrow in Washington. “The app immediately produces a cash-to-close estimate along with an estimated mortgage payment and a shareable HUD-1 Settlement Statement similar to what the buyer will see on the day of the closing. All the buyer has to do is enter a purchase price and a property jurisdiction.”

Sellers can use the app, too, to calculate their net proceeds based on the sales price and the property jurisdiction. The app allows users to modify the details of each transaction for individual accuracy.

Apps for renovations

Houzz: The Houzz app is consistently mentioned by real estate agents as one of the best sources for information about home-improvement projects. “Houzz has a variety of articles on projects, and it’s easy to look at and understand, with great photos,” Rathbun says. “It’s really user-friendly.”

iScape: If you’re looking to ramp up your curb appeal, Rathbun recommends the iScape app to create virtual landscaping. You take a photo of your house and then use the app to see what it will look like with landscaping.

HomeZada: The app provides a library of information about home improvements that can be used to create a list of materials, a timeline and a budget for your project. You can also use it as an organizational tool to remind yourself of home-maintenance chores and to create a home inventory.

EasyMeasure: It allows you to use your smartphone to instantly take measurements of rooms, doors and windows that you can use when making your remodeling plans, Rathbun says.

MagicPlan: Rathbun says that the app works better on a tablet than on a smartphone, but that buyers can use it to take photos of a room and instantly create a floor plan. The app shows you the dimensions of each room and the location of the doors and windows. The floor plan can be used for estimating the materials you will need for a project and for furniture placement decisions.

Handy Man DIY: The Handy Man DIY app, similar to HomeZada, provides information on home-improvement projects through written and video lessons and lets you create a file with the data you need, such as room measurements and a list of materials.

Whether you’re a buyer or a homeowner, your mobile device can provide the information you need to make smarter decisions.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

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