The Digital House Hunt: 5 Best Online Search Tools for Homebuyers

I’ve been assisting my daughter Jennifer in her search for a house. She’s a first-time homebuyer and, as the mother of twin infant boys, she yearns for her piece of the American dream.

This week, I was using a few online home-buying search tools on her behalf when it occurred to me: I should share the best of these sites with my readers.

Below, I examine five of the top online search tools. I’ve highlighted these sites because they’re among the most popular and from my personal experience the most useful. Consider these tools “road tested” by me.

My daughter isn’t alone in catching the home-buying bug. Real estate agents report droves of aspiring homebuyers hitting the pavement this season. The housing sector is hot.

A pile of money…

Jim Pearce, chief investment strategist of Personal Finance, has this to say:

“The U.S. housing market is projected to appreciate 3% – 5% over the next year… That’s less than the 6.8% increase reported by Zillow for 2016 but still large enough for landlords to raise rents. Of course, the huge ‘x-factor’ is President Trump’s proposed income tax overhaul plan, the details of which are still being hammered out.

Under the currently proposed version of the plan, most itemized deductions for individual taxpayers would be eliminated, but the deduction for home mortgage interest payments would remain. In that case, demand for residential property could escalate if mortgage interest becomes one of the few itemized deductions available…

Given those circumstances, residential real estate may be one of the few asset classes that perform well no matter how the economy plays out over the remainder of this year.”

Dr. Stephen Leeb, chief investment strategist of The Complete Investor, Real World Investing, and Aggressive Trader, observes:

“Homes are the largest U.S. household asset, far more widely distributed than stocks. A decline in home prices is the fastest route to the kind of vicious circle seen during the Great Recession, when lower home prices and mass foreclosures cut consumer spending, leading to shrinking corporate profits and a concomitant thud in stocks. That further hit spending, corporate profits, and housing. It posed the harshest threat to American capitalism since WWII and perhaps ever. No halfway sane policymaker would risk triggering a replay…

Clearly, housing is a good bet. Not only will policymakers avoid any action that could hurt it — even if commodities are rising as in the first part of this century — but the internal dynamics of the housing market’s underlying drivers are strong.”

Virtual home tours…

Before the emergence of online search tools, prospective homebuyers would have to drive around neighborhoods with a real estate agent, seeking “for sale” signs. You still have that option, but the Internet can turbocharge the process for you.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), about 90% of homebuyers now search online looking for homes. There’s been a proliferation of web-based search tools for you to find the right home, at the right price and in the right neighborhood. You can even take “virtual tours” of homes that particularly interest you, without having to get out of your chair.

Through free, downloadable apps, you can even use these online search tools on your smartphone. NAR reports that 27% of homebuyers found their homes through a mobile app. You can set-up alerts indicating when a new property that meets your specifications has come onto the market.

These online search tools empower you to do your own homework and cover miles of territory, at your speed and convenience. Now, instead of agents sending you listings, you can send listings to them.

The digitization of the home-hunting process hasn’t made real estate agents obsolete; it has merely transformed their roles from gatekeeper in charge of listings to the value-added role of adviser and negotiator.

Real estate bird dogs…

I’ve used all of these tools and each one has been beneficial in its singular way:

1) Zillow

Zillow contains data on more than 110 million homes across the U.S. Its vast database provides value estimates of homes, value changes of each home within requested time frames, aerial views of homes, and prices of comparable homes in the area.

Zillow also provides essential statistical profiles of homes, such as square footage, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, yard size, etc. You can get data on whether the value of the home has changed because of improvements or renovations. Zillow even provides data on homes that aren’t for sale, allowing you to put your search into context.

Among all online search tools, Zillow carries the most thorough history of a home’s transactions, which is useful when negotiating price with the seller. Zillow derives its data from a broad range of sources, including multiple listing services (MLS), public records, real estate agents, homeowners, and tax assessors.

Because of Zillow’s scope, text-operated mobile version, and integrated Yahoo Maps capability, the site is considered the online search “standard” and probably the best place to start your search. But as you’ll see below, you shouldn’t restrict your endeavors to just Zillow.

2) Redfin

If any search tool has made real estate home-buying a digital experience, it’s Redfin. In addition to providing brokerage services and an online real estate database of homes for sale, Redfin puts online all of the relevant documents as soon as you’ve signed a contract. Say goodbye to cumbersome and expensive faxing and photocopying.

Most real estate agents are independent contractors, but Redfin’s real estate agents are employees. Quality-of-service ratings from customers are used to calculate their level of commission, which makes them highly motivated to meet your needs.

Redfin’s listings come from the MLS, which makes them up to date. Keep in mind, though, that Redfin doesn’t disclose exact addresses unless the seller agrees. Nor does it reveal valuation data if the listing agent wants to keep that data close to his vest.

3) Trulia

Interested in a neighborhood, but concerned about the crime rate or the quality of the schools? Trulia uses a matrix of thermal maps that allows you to gauge factors such as crime, schools, police and fire services, availability of shopping, etc.

Interactive maps also allow you to calculate driving, commute times and traffic patterns. You can even determine the likelihood of a natural disaster, such as a flood, hurricane or earthquake.

Trulia allows you to search for homes by ZIP code or metropolitan area. Based on your search history, Trulia can send you alerts on appropriate homes that have come onto the market. The site also provides home price trend statistics, which depict how the price of a home has changed over a period of time. It compares that house price with comparable homes in the same ZIP code.

4) is the official listing site operated by the NAR. If you’re looking for a truly comprehensive source of data, is it.

This site pulls data on over 900 MLS sources to provide about 3 million listed homes and land plots, representing 99% of MLS-listed properties. allows you to browse home photos, get updated listings in real time, driving directions, etc.

That’s all fairly basic, but what lacks in specific features it more than makes up for in sheer scope. Because of its direct relationship with NAR, has more homes for sale nationwide than any other online search tool.

5) Craigslist

This well-known classified advertisements site can help you with your home search. Navigate to the Housing category and click the “Real Estate for Sale” section. Using the tabs at the top, you can target your search by state, city and county. Then narrow your search by price range, as well as key words tied to neighborhood, number of bedrooms, square footage — any parameters you choose.

Craigslist is a broad-brush approach you can use to supplement the above online search tools. It’s prudent to use more than one of those online search tools, to give your efforts an extra boost. What’s lacking in one tool, you can compensate for by using another tool. Think of each site as an arrow in your quiver.

Comments or questions? I welcome emails from readers: Every week, I answer the standout queries in my Monday Mailbag issue. — John Persinos

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