If you're looking for a new house in 2019—for the first time or not—you know that the game isn't what it used to be. There is so much more information out there for buyers and sellers. The story your parents told you about finding a hidden 3-bedroom gem for $40k? Yeah, that doesn't happen anymore.
Using digital tools is no longer optional—it's critical if you want to compete with the crowd and make the most of your search. There are tons of websites out there, many of which do the same (or similar) things. Which is the best for house hunting? And what other sites do you need to know to help make your offer and find more information about your new home?
It's not easy. My wife and I bought our first home last year, and it was truly a grind for months until we found exactly what we needed. Without these helpful tools, I don't think we would've managed it. But you can do this, and these are the best websites and tools to help you get there:
1. Redfin: the best for actual house hunting
Of all the websites I've used to house hunt, Redfin has consistently been the most user-friendly, accurate, and fast. As with other websites, Redfin primarily takes information from local Multiple Listing Services (aka MLS) and organizes it into a more readable, usable format.
Redfin works much the way you'd expect a house hunting website to work: You can view listings on a map, draw a boundary where you'd be willing to live, and search by things like city, bedrooms, bathrooms, price, how long it's been on the market, square footage, etc.
Listings include a price estimate from Redfin (though it's usually higher than Zillow's popular Zestimate in my experience) all the photos from the MLS, as well as tax info, local school ratings, and a very helpful (if rough) outline of the lot's property lines and where the home is located.
In my experience the moment homes appear on the local MLS (at least for Massachusetts) they appear on Redfin—something that wasn't always the case with other websites. It can be used easily without making a user account, though if you do you can set up "saved searches" that will alert you when new homes appear that meet your pre-set criteria.
Redfin is a real estate company, though, so it is a little more upfront about the services that it offers than some competitors. It also uses the company's distinctive red coloring to distinguish its own agents' listing. Redfin's features for contacting and setting up a showing are also designed to set you up with a local Redfin agent and not the home's actual selling agent.
One pro tip: the actual Redfin.com website is still more informative than the app, pulling in all the info from my local MLS, including disclosures and other things the app doesn't show. The site also has archived listings (with photos) of homes so you can see not just what it sold for, but potentially the condition it was the last time it was shown—so you can see if any major repairs have been made.
2. Zillow: to see what your home might be worth
Though my wife and I primarily used Redfin to organize our house hunt, Zillow is an extremely helpful backup that pulls in a few homes that Redfin and other sites may miss.
This is mostly limited to things like Zillow's exclusive "Make Me Move" homes (where an owner sets a price that they'd be willing to sell for) and foreclosures/pre-foreclosures. We weren't interested in purchasing a foreclosure and never found the "Make Me Move" prices realistic, so Redfin still won out for us. Zillow also pulls in rentals, though it's nearly impossible to compare rental prices vs home prices in one search.
Perhaps the most useful feature on Zillow is the Zestimate, which is Zillow's own estimate range of what a home is worth. Redfin does the same thing, but Zestimates are the number I see cited most often in the Boston area. Just know that home price estimates are a very tricky business, and actual selling price depends heavily on the condition of the house, potential work that will need to be done, and how many competing buyers there are.
Near as I can tell, Zillow more heavily weighs the actual prices of local home sales, while Redfin looks primarily at the price per square foot and how frequently nearby homes sell for above list price. I have found that Redfin's estimates change more frequently over time, as homes that sit on the market will have their estimate dropped after 1-2 weeks.
It's tough to tell which will be more accurate in every market, and an algorithm can't replace the advice of a good real estate agent—especially since you need to account for how much competition you'll be up against. But when everyone else (including the seller) knows the Zestimate for the home you're looking at, it's information you need to have.
3. Google Maps: to see the neighborhood and how it's changed
Though other real estate listing sites like Realtor.com, Trulia (owned by the same company as Zillow), HomeFinder, etc. are useful in their own right, there's more to buying a home than just finding one: you need to figure out how it'll fit into your life.
In particular, the browser version of Google Maps is super useful for seeing how long it'll take you to get from your new home to school, work, the grocery store, and how walkable it is to things like parks and train stations. The browser version even lets you preview a route for certain times of day, so you can see that a 40-minute drive at night turns into a 1+ hour drive during rush hour.
Google Maps of course also has satellite and Street View, which lets you see what the neighborhood is like. Most of these photos are taken in the spring, summer, and fall so it can give you a good idea of how a house will look if the listing only has photos from the winter.
Best of all, the web version of Street View even gives you the ability to zoom out and look over the property with a 3D effect, which in my experience gives you a much better sense of the scale of a neighborhood compared to satellite or Street View alone.
4. GreatSchools.org and your local public schools website
Zillow and Redfin both provide ratings for local schools right in the listings, and in both cases these ratings are pulled from GreatSchools.org. But while you can see the parents' rating (out of five stars) and GreatSchools' rating (out of 10) right on the listing, it's worth going to GreatSchools.org to get more information.
While this is a useful starting point, in my experience you also really need to visit the public school website for the home's district if you want the most up-to-date information. GreatSchools tends to work by pulling in the closest school, for example, but lots of school districts use lotteries or school choice, so you'll want a clear idea of where your kids might end up.
Also, don't forget that in many places things like pre-school may cost more money—even if you go to one at the public school. You'll want to visit the district website to get an idea of how these costs may change the financial picture for you.
Don't have kids? You still should check out what the local school district is like. You may not mind a great home in a poor district, but when you try to sell you may find that many families simply won't make offers knowing their kids may get a poor education.
5. BroadbandNow.com: to see what cable and internet costs are
One thing people don't always consider when buying a home is what kind of access they'll have to cable, internet, and phone services. Though it's unlikely you're buying a home with no service at all, having multiple providers is huge; I recently was able to switch from one provider to another and I'm saving $600 per year as a result—while getting faster service.
There are a number of sites meant to show you all the internet providers in your area, but the best one I've found so far is BroadbandNow.com. It was the most accurate for my area by far, including speed ratings and pricing data on available plans (both the promo rates and the regular rates one the promotional term runs out).
It may seem like a small thing, but being able to save $50-60 a month on this stuff can really help when you first move in and money is tight. Either way, double-check the offers by also contacting the companies themselves. Just know that even if you're staying with the same provider, moving to a new address is often like being a new customer. If they want you to sign a new "price agreement" (read: contract), make sure you're getting the same perks as a new customer.
6. State and local housing departments and non-profits
Though some states are more generous than others, many states offer some kind of housing assistance to low- and moderate-income families.
Here in Massachusetts we have access to a number of programs for first-time home buyers, veterans, and those looking to rehab properties that allow you to buy a home with 3% or less down, low interest rates, and usually no private mortgage insurance.
Federally, websites like the US Department of Agriculture can also be a great resource for other mortgage programs—including zero-money-down mortgage products.
Most of these programs have credit and income qualifications that are based on your area's median income, but in the Greater Boston area that can be well over $100,000 so it pays to do your research—avoiding private mortgage insurance alone can save you thousands of dollars per year. Just note that some programs have restrictions on refinancing and may require you to pay back some assistance if you sell in a year or two.
7. Your state's GIS mapping website
A GIS (or Geographic Information System) is basically a framework for combining massive data sets (like property taxes, parcel information, weather, topography, etc.) and matching it up geographically—usually to display it in a map form.
These systems exist in most states and in the last few years have increasingly been put online for the public to use. Chances are your state (or your town, in many cases) will have digitized and put all of its property maps and parcel records online.
Though you can usually see a property's boundary lines when you look on Redfin (which I believe pulls most of this same info from various sources), it can help to see what the state has to say about where a given property begins and ends.
State maps may also show you if your home is in a potential flood zone, and what kind of risk level you're taking on. It also can show you if the vacant lot behind your new house is actually vacant, conservation land, or if it's going to turn into a factory in three years.
8. Other state, town, and county websites
This will vary wildly depending on where you're buying property, but for any home you buy, your local government will provide some basic informational services online about things like utilities, services, bylaws, taxes, liens, sex offender registries, etc.
Is all this stuff necessary if you're buying a home? Not for everyone. But buying a home is a huge, life-altering decision; you'll want to have all the info available to ensure you make the right one.
It's also important to consider the what-if scenarios? Does your home have a septic system? What if it fails? Is your flat backyard going to become a 4-foot mound? What if you want to purchase flood insurance? What if you want to build an addition? What is the town's water quality like? You won't necessarily find all the answers to these questions online—you may want to call around and ask the town officials—but there's more information out there than you might think.