Okay, okay: When it comes to computers, I am more Neanderthal than nerd.
The idea of using the Internet to search for a house and apply for a mortgage would never have occurred to me.
But spurred by an insistent editor and an avalanche of predictions that this is the dawning of the age of electronic real estate, I became almost as motivated an online house surfer as someone who really needs to buy a house in a hurry. The assignment was to try out major real estate sites and put together a chart [See Page G5] of useful ones.
Surprisingly, the experience turned out to be less painful and more educational than a computer Luddite might imagine. Many sites are even fun to navigate, with various tables to fill in with income and debt calculations. Plus, a pretend home buyer can load up on features like extra bathrooms, deck and garage. (It helped that I didn't have to use my real earnings profile when it came to padding the plantation. But it was also reassuring to see that on a more modest menu, I could afford to buy my house again.)
Also, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see what neighbors had paid for their houses (check out www.homegain.com, www.homepricecheck.com or, for Northern Virginia, www.propertyvaluenow.com), how my local schools shape up, how various sites rate my creditworthiness and how my buying power would change if I were to pick up a chunk of change in the lottery.
The biggest problem was the Internet learning curve, which for a reluctant World Wide Web browser is steep. Only after visiting several sites, reading reference material and consulting with Web-savvy colleagues did I feel comfortable with the process.
With so many real estate-related sites, the task seemed daunting. We developed a working list containing just about every real estate site we saw or heard about, including those used by Post employees who had just moved here. Media Metrix and Nielsen/Net Ratings, two companies that rank Web sites by the number of unique visits registered, ranked the sites we listed and added a few popular ones of their own. The decision was made not to list sites maintained by real estate companies such as Century 21, though several turned up on the Media Metrix and Nielsen lists of popular sites.
Because of space limitations, some other valuable sites also didn't make it. The accompanying chart, therefore, is not exhaustive. After all, we're talking 200,000 sites in the real estate universe, drawing on search engines such as Yahoo. We're also talking about a moving target: Only this week Homeseekers.com announced it will launch a Spanish-language site for real estate agents and consumers (www.RealEstateEspanol.com) on Jan. 15.
The accompanying resources box above covers some interesting sites not on the chart.
But this Luddite concludes that the Internet definitely can help you navigate your way to the biggest purchase you're ever likely to make.
And the circle of Luddites is apparently shrinking. Joe Biegel, Fannie Mae's vice president for single-family mortgages, recently told reporters that the number of borrowers who have access to the Web and are using it for education and shopping for mortgage rates is rapidly approaching 100 percent. Many of these people now use the Internet at work and in libraries, but with the number of wired homes expected to grow to 60 percent from 33 percent in the next five years, the number of Web users presumably will become an even more impressive number.
While people are expected to be slower in applying for mortgages online--Biegel pegs the current percentage in the low single digits and predicts it will remain that way for a long time--Internet optimists see a very different future. Various online prognosticators are predicting that 10 percent to 30 percent of all mortgages will be completed electronically in the next five years. The most likely to bite are those with the soundest credit. People with credit blemishes or those who can only afford low down payments frequently find the Internet kicks them over to a real human being for financing finessing.
In the meantime, I extend my sympathies to anyone coming to the Washington area in the more immediate future, for what the house-hunting sites on the Web show most dramatically is how few houses are available.
More Resources: From Credit to Rentals
Here are some other useful Internet real estate-related sites and resources:
* For general information, check Money.com's fall 1998/winter 1999 magazine's "Buying a Home Online" (also available online at www.money.com: Click on "Real Estate") and "homesurfing.net: The Insider's Guide to Buying and Selling Your Home Using the Internet," by Blanche Evans, editor of Realty Times (Dearborn, $17.95).
* For apartment rentals, visit Apartments.com (www.apartments.com), maintained by Classified Ventures Inc., a consortium of more than 130 newspapers, including The Washington Post; Rent.net (www.rentnet.com); and SpringStreet (www.springstreet.com), part of HomeStore.com.
* To find an appraiser, check the Appraisal Institute (www.appraisalinstitute.org), which certifies appraisers. Of interest to house hunters in Northern Virginia is www.propertyvaluenow.com, which sells instant online appraisals, based on comparable sales in property records. The first appraisal is free for a limited time.
* To get your credit report for $8, check Experian (www.experian.com), Equifax (www.equifax.com) and Trans Union (www.tuc.com). A report merging information from all three sites can be obtained from Quicken Mortgage (www.quickenmortgage.com) for $26.95.
* To find a home inspector, check the Web site of the American Society of Home Inspectors, www.ashi.com.
* To look at property assessment information in many states--including all of Maryland and parts of Virginia, but not the District--visit www.people.Virginia.edu/ dev-pros/Realestate.html.
* For reports on local schools, Montgomery County has the most comprehensive site (www.mcps.k12.md.us), where you can type in an address, find the school your child would attend and get test scores. Fairfax County also has a good site at www.fcps.k12.va.us. The District's site (www.k12.dc.us) is more basic, but an additional site, www.dcschoolsearch.com, has been set up by the State University of New York and local nonprofit groups as part of a research study on how parents pick schools. Also check sites for the state education departments (www.msde.state.md.us and www.pen.k12.va.us). And see the article "Public Web," by Debbi Wilgoren in the Nov. 14, 1999, issue of The Washington Post Education Review.
* To check on windows, doors or other building products, check Building Products magazine's November-December issue. Its annual report, "Surfing the Web," lists more than 3,000 manufacturer Web sites and focuses on the top 50. A single issue of the magazine can be ordered for $10 by calling 1-888-269-8410.