Homebuying Tools (We’re looking to buy in Atlanta)

As I recently mentioned, my wife and I are moving back to Atlanta. Our “move,” which is a mere shifting of clothes into a temporary living arrangement until we find something permanent, is actually commencing this weekend.

So what’s this about buying a house?

Despite the ongoing housing bust (we haven’t reached bottom yet in my opinion), the time is right for us to take the plunge into homeownership. Something I came to accept over the past few months is that putting your life on hold indefinitely due to exogenous events (such as an imploding economy) is no way to live. Unlike many homebuyers in the boom, I don’t believe in flipping properties. I see a house as the embodiment of a fundamental human need — that of shelter. I don’t want to grossly overpay for a house, which is why I pushed back on all the “You should buy now!” friends and family over the past few years.

It finally makes sense for us to buy, so we are actively looking for a home. I don’t want to get into too many details as to where we are looking and certainly not which houses we are looking at because the internet makes the world a much smaller place. Suffice to say that we are looking for a home preferably close[r] to the city, meaning inside-the-perimeter by a decent margin, that is north of I-20. Is that vague enough?

To date, we’ve got a handful of viable options though we are still in the early stages of our search. Since we have no home to sell and are working around temporary living arrangements in ATL, we can afford to be patient — patience may even pay off big as home prices are likely to fall further. I expect real estate to be a relatively ho-hum asset class for the next decade.

And now a word from our sponsor: I encourage anyone out there to stay abreast of ongoing economic events via any one of my company‘s Implode-O-Meterslenders, home builders, banks, or funds.

Having explained “why,” here are some useful tools for the would-be homebuyer

The following websites frequently used in concert have been particularly helpful in our quest for housing. In no particular order:

  • Zillow.com — zillow is a satellite-interfaced housing search tool that allows you to find properties by doing any sort of locational search. You can search by zip code, city, or street name. The results will turn up on a satellite map and you can zoom in and out of whatever area you are interested in, pan across the map, etc. For example, see the results of a search for 238 Peachtree Cir 30309.

    What makes zillow so useful is that it combines data on both active listings as well as listings for properties recently sold. Typically, this results in the zillow page for a certain property for sale displaying relevant pictures from the official listing if they are available. Whether a property is for sale or not, it has a listing page on zillow.com that typically provides public tax data on the property. This typically means square footage, how many beds/baths, the year the house was built, what the house sold for last and what the most recent taxes on the property were.

    Trulia.com has a similar service to zillow — sometimes if I didn’t find the data I needed I’d check trulia for it. Trulia also lists the last two sale prices per the tax records — perhaps useful for a deep dive on a particular property.

    One zillow.com tip for you mobile users, check out mobile.zillow.com. It allows mobile phone users with data plans to search for property information. Good for checking stuff like square footage while out checking out properties.

  • Google maps and streetview (and to a lesser extent, google maps real estate advanced search) — periodically you come across a listing that has no picture of the exterior of the house (never a good sign, mind you). Google streetview comes to the rescue. What is fantastic about streetview is that it enables me to get a real sense for what the surrounding houses look like. Thanks to streetview, you can pan up and down the street to look at would-be neighbors, get a sense for the width of a street, and even guess at the demographics of traffickers if any cars are parked or happened to be driving by.

    For an example, return to 238 Peachtree (Where we used to live in Atlanta):

    Some streetview tips: streetview utilizes the following hot keys (there may be more, these are just the few I’ve discovered by accident): up/down arrow keys take you up and down the street. Left/right arrow keys allow you to scan around your current view. WASD all work as well, except the W and S function as looking up or down. Finally, the + and – keys allow you to zoom in and out.

    Streetview is one of those things you don’t realize is awesome until you suddenly find that Google missed a street — or worse, an entire area!

    One seemingly obscure function in Google Maps is that you can do an “advanced search” on real estate. Google seems to be crawling the various real estate listings and then mapping them for you. To see this in action, check this link. Here are the results of that search:

    To access Google Maps real estate search, search for a location or area. Then click “show search options.” From the dropdown menu, select “Real estate” and click “Search Maps.” Voila!

    Sometimes Google Maps finds properties that Zillow misses, so it can be useful that way. It also has search parameters you can use to narrow down the search. Finally, the interface on google maps is smoother than zillow, so it has that going for it, as well.

    Final Google maps tip, be sure you have the latest mobile app for Google Maps as it now incorporates streetview (Works well on my Blackberry 8320)!

Zillow and Google Maps serve as my primary artillery. I use both in concert using multiple tabs in Google Chrome.

One site I’ve had mixed luck with is realtytrac.com. I signed up for a free seven-day trial of realtytrac.com and initially thought it was the cat’s pajamas: I could see properties that were entering into foreclosure or bank-owned (REO). However, come to find out, the data in realtytrac.com can be dated, and if you already have a resource to look up MLS listings, they are able to pull REO properties already.

Realtytrac may be useful for taking snapshots of how an area is doing with regard to foreclosures. Similar to zillow, you can employ a “map view” that lets you see REO and foreclosed properties in an area. Therefore, if you see a ton of foreclosures in a certain spot, that helps give an indication of what house prices should be doing there (in that case dropping like a rock). The only thing about realtytrac is that it costs $50/month to maintain your subscription. Thus, it aint cheap for such questionable value (or maybe I just haven’t discovered its great uses!).

So that’s all I’ve got for now. Even when our realtor sends us MLS reports, I still use zillow and Google maps to flesh out missing details on the MLS listings. Score one for technology making homebuying a much more informed process (and maybe eventually eliminating the need for realtors almost entirely).