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Real Estate Agents and the Internet – How to Buy and Sell Real Estate Today

Then and Now

Ten years ago, a search for real estate
would have started in the office of a local real estate agent or by
just driving around town. At the agent’s office, you would spend an
afternoon flipping through pages of active property listings from the
local Multiple Listing Service (MLS). After choosing properties of
interest, you would spend many weeks touring each property until you
found the right one. Finding market data to enable you to assess the
asking price would take more time and a lot more driving, and you still
might not be able to find all of the information you needed to get
really comfortable with a fair market value.

Today, most property
searches start on the Internet. A quick keyword search on Google by
location will likely get you thousands of results. If you spot a
property of interest on a real estate web site, you can typically view
photos online and maybe even take a virtual tour. You can then check
other Web sites, such as the local county assessor, to get an idea of
the property’s value, see what the current owner paid for the property,
check the real estate taxes, get census data, school information, and
even check out what shops are within walking distance-all without
leaving your house!

While the resources on the Internet are
convenient and helpful, using them properly can be a challenge because
of the volume of information and the difficulty in verifying its
accuracy. At the time of writing, a search of “Denver real estate”
returned 2,670,000 Web sites. Even a neighborhood specific search for
real estate can easily return thousands of Web sites. With so many
resources online how does an investor effectively use them without
getting bogged down or winding up with incomplete or bad information?
Believe it or not, understanding how the business of real estate works
offline makes it easier to understand online real estate information and
strategies.

The Business of Real Estate

Real estate
is typically bought and sold either through a licensed real estate agent
or directly by the owner. The vast majority is bought and sold through
real estate brokers. (We use “agent” and “broker” to refer to the same
professional.) This is due to their real estate knowledge and experience
and, at least historically, their exclusive access to a database of
active properties for sale. Access to this database of property listings
provided the most efficient way to search for properties.

The MLS (and CIE)

The
database of residential, land, and smaller income producing properties
(including some commercial properties) is commonly referred to as a
multiple listing service (MLS). In most cases, only properties listed by
member real estate agents can be added to an MLS. The primary purpose
of an MLS is to enable the member real estate agents to make offers of
compensation to other member agents if they find a buyer for a property.

This
purposes did not include enabling the direct publishing of the MLS
information to the public; times change. Today, most MLS information is
directly accessible to the public over the Internet in many different
forms.

Commercial property listings are also displayed online but
aggregated commercial property information is more elusive. Larger MLSs
often operate a commercial information exchange (CIE). A CIE is similar
to an MLS but the agents adding the listings to the database are not
required to offer any specific type of compensation to the other
members. Compensation is negotiated outside the CIE.

In most
cases, for-sale-by-owner properties cannot be directly added to an MLS
and CIE, which are typically maintained by REALTOR associations. The
lack of a managed centralized database can make these properties more
difficult to locate. Traditionally, these properties are found by
driving around or looking for ads in the local newspaper’s real estate
listings. A more efficient way to locate for-sale-by-owner properties is
to search for a for-sale-by-owner Web site in the geographic area.

What
is a REALTOR? Sometimes the terms real estate agent and REALTOR are
used interchangeably; however, they are not the same. A REALTOR is a
licensed real estate agent who is also a member of the NATIONAL
ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS. REALTORS are required to comply with a strict
code of ethics and conduct.

MLS and CIE property listing
information was historically only available in hard copy, and as we
mentioned, only directly available to real estate agents members of an
MLS or CIE. About ten years ago, this valuable property information
started to trickle out to the Internet. This trickle is now a flood!

One
reason is that most of the 1 million or so REALTORS have Web sites, and
most of those Web sites have varying amounts of the local MLS or CIE
property information displayed on them. Another reason is that there are
many non-real estate agent Web sites that also offer real estate
information, including, for-sale-by-owner sites, foreclosure sites,
regional and international listing sites, County assessor sites, and
valuation and market information sites. The flood of real estate
information to the Internet definitely makes the information more
accessible but also more confusing and subject to misunderstanding and
misuse.

Real Estate Agents

Despite the flood of real
estate information on the Internet, most properties are still sold
directly through real estate agents listing properties in the local MLS
or CIE. However, those property listings do not stay local anymore. By
its nature, the Internet is a global marketplace and local MLS and CIE
listings are normally disseminated for display on many different Web
sites. For example, many go to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS Web
site, http://www.realtor.com,
and to the local real estate agent’s Web site. In addition, the listing
may be displayed on the Web site of a local newspaper. In essence, the
Internet is just another form of marketing offered by today’s real
estate agent, but it has a much broader reach than the old print
advertising.

In addition to Internet marketing, listing agents may
also help the seller establish a price, hold open houses, keep the
seller informed of interested buyers and offers, negotiate the contract
and help with closing. When an agent provides all of these services it
is referred to as being a full service listing arrangement. While full
service listing arrangements are the most common type of listing
arrangement, they are not the only option anymore.

Changes in the
technology behind the real estate business have caused many agents to
change the way they do business. In large part, this is due to the
instant access most consumers now have to property listings and other
real estate information. In addition, the Internet and other
technologies have automated much of the marketing and initial searching
process for real estate. For example, consumers can view properties
online and make inquires via email. Brokers can use automated programs
to send listings to consumers that match their property criteria. So,
some agents now limit the services they offer and change their fees
accordingly. An agent may offer to advertise the property in the MLS but
only provide limited additional services. In the future, some real
estate agents may offer services in more of an ala carte fashion.

Because
of the volume of real estate information on the Internet, when people
hire a real estate agent today they should look at the particular
services offered by the agent and the depth of their experience and
knowledge in the relevant property sector. It is no longer just about
access to property listing information. Buyers and sellers historically
found agents by referrals from friends and family. The Internet now
provides ways to directly find qualified agents or to research the
biography of an agent referred to you offline. One such site,
AgentWorld.com, is quickly becoming the LinkedIn or Facebook for real
estate agents. On this site an agent can personalize their profile,
start a blog, post photos and videos and even create a link to their web
site for free. Once unique content is added to their profile page the
search engines notice!

Some have argued that the Internet makes
REALTORS and the MLS less relevant. We believe this will be false in the
long run. It may change the role of the agent but will make
knowledgeable, qualified, and professional REALTORS more relevant than
ever. In fact, the number of real estate agents has risen significantly
in recent years. No wonder, the Internet has made local real estate a
global business. Besides, Internet or not, the simple fact remains that
the purchase of real property is the largest single purchase most people
make in their life (or, for many investors, the largest multiple
purchases over a lifetime) and they want expert help. As for the MLS, it
remains the most reliable source of real estate listing and sold
information available and continues to enable efficient marketing of
properties. So, what is the function of all the online real estate
information?

Online real estate information is a great research
tool for buyers and sellers and a marketing tool for sellers. When used
properly, buyers can save time by quickly researching properties and,
ultimately, make better investment decisions. Sellers can efficiently
research the market and make informed decisions about hiring an agent
and marketing their properties online. The next step is to know where to
look online for some of the best resources.

Internet Strategies

In the sections that follow, we provide
strategies and tips on how to use the Internet to locate properties for
sale and research information relevant to your decision to purchase the
property. There are many real estate Web sites from which to choose and
although we do not mean to endorse any particular Web site, we have
found the ones listed here to be good resources in most cases or to be
so popular that they need mention. One way to test a Web site’s accuracy
is to search for information about a property you already own.

Finding Real Estate for Sale

Despite the
widely available access to real estate listings, many believe that MLS
databases continue to offer the most complete and accurate source of
real estate information. Most MLSs now distribute content to other Web
sites (primarily operated by real estate agents). An excellent starting
point for MLS originated content is the national NAR Web site,
realtor.com, which is also the most popular web site for searching real
estate listings. Virtually all local and regional MLSs have an agreement
with realtor.com to display much of their active listing inventory.

Some
local and regional MLS systems also have a publicly accessible Web
site. However, to get complete information you will most likely still
need to find a qualified local REALTOR. Many local real estate agents
will also provide their customers (via email) new listings that are
input into the MLS that match their predefined criteria. This can be
very helpful to a busy buyer.

There are also many Web sites that
display both real estate agent listed and for-sale-by-owner properties.
Some of the more popular Web sites include zillow.com and trulia.com.
These sites offer other services too. For example, zillow.com is best
known for its instantaneous property valuation function and trulia.com
for providing historical information. Another source of properties for
sale is the state, regional, and local Web sites associated with
brokerage companies; for example, remax.com or prudential.com. Search
engines like yahoo.com and classified advertising sites like
craigslist.com also have a large number of active real estate listings.

One
key difference between these sites is how much information you can
access anonymously. For example, at trulia.com you can shop anonymously
up to a point but then you will need to click through to the agent’s Web
site for more information. Many new real estate search engines allow
you to sift through listings without having to fill out a form. The best
strategy is to browse a few of the sites listed above to find
geographic areas or price ranges that are interesting. Once you get
serious about a property, then that is the time to find a qualified
REALTOR of your choice to conduct a complete search in the local MLS.

It
also never hurts to search the old-fashioned way by driving through the
neighborhoods that interest you. There is no substitute for physically,
not virtually, walking the block when you are making a serious
investment decision. In this sense, real estate is still a very local
business and standing in front of the property can lead to a much
different decision than viewing a Web page printout.

Valuing Real Estate

As
we mentioned, one of the most popular real estate tools is zillow.com’s
instant property valuation. Just type in an address and in and you get a
property value. It even charts the price ups and downs, and shows the
last date sold (including price) and the property taxes. There are other
sites that provide similar tools such as housevalues.com and
homegain.com. Unfortunately, many people use these estimated values
alone to justify sales prices, offers and counteroffers. However, these
are only rough estimates based on a formula that incorporates the local
county sales information. These estimates can swing wildly over a short
period of time and do not appear to always track actual market changes,
which are normally more gradual. In addition, these estimates do not
automatically take into account property remodels or renovations or
other property specific or local changes. This is not to say these sites
are not useful. In fact, they are great starting points and can provide
a good ball-park value in many cases.

When it comes to getting a
more accurate value for a particular property, there are other
strategies that are more trustworthy. One is to go directly to your
county’s Web site. More often than not the county assessor’s area of the
Web site provides sales and tax information for all properties in the
county. If you want to research a particular property or compare sales
prices of comparable properties, the local assessor’s sites are really
helpful. When you visit a county’s Web site you are getting information
straight from the source. Most counties today publish property
information on their Web sites. Many times you cannot only see the price
a previous owner paid, but the assessed value, property taxes, and
maps. Some county assessors are now adding a market and property
valuation tools too.

Given the importance of valuation to
investing, we are also going to remind you of the two most important
(non-Internet) valuation methods: real estate agents and appraisers.
Working with a local REALTOR is an accurate and efficient way to get
value information for a property. While one of the primary purposes of
the MLS is to market the active property listings of its members, the
system also collects sales information for those listings. REALTOR
members can pull this sales information and produce comparable market
analyses (sometimes called CMAs) that provide an excellent snapshot of a
particular property’s value for the market in a particular area.

Finally,
the most accurate way to value a property is by having a certified
appraiser produce an appraisal. An appraiser will typically review both
the sold information in the MLS system as well as county information and
then analyze the information to produce a valuation for the property
based on one or more approved methods of valuation. These methods of
valuation can include a comparison of similar properties adjusted for
differences between the properties, determine the cost to replace the
property, or, with an income producing property, determine a value based
on the income generated from the property.

The Neighborhood

There
are many ways the Internet can help you get the scoop on a particular
neighborhood. For example, census data can be found at census.gov. You
can also check out the neighborhood scoop at sites like outside.in or
review local blogs. A blog is a Web site where people discuss topics by
posting and responding to messages. Start by looking at placeblogger.com
and kcnn.org/citymediasites.com for a directory of blogs. Trulia.com
has a “Heat Map” that shows how hot or cold each neighborhood is based
on prices, sales, or popularity among the sites users.

Schools

When
it comes to selling residential property or rental properties that
cater to families, the quality of the area school district makes a huge
difference. There are many Web sites devoted to school information.
Check out greatschools.net or schoolmatters.com. Most local school
districts also have their own Web site. These sites contain a variety of
information about the public schools and the school district, including
its district demographics, test scores, and parent reviews.

Finding the Right Real Estate Agent

A
recent addition to the Internet boom in real estate information is Web
sites that let real estate agents market their expertise and local
knowledge by displaying their professional profiles and socially
networking with blogs. You can search to find an agent with a particular
expertise, geographic area of specialization, or an agent offering
specific services. The web site AgentWorld.com lets users quickly and
easily find an agent with the right expertise using keyword searches and
clean and simple agent profiles. AgentWorld.com also enables agents to
post personalized blogs, photos and videos to help consumers find the
best agent for their needs. Plus, many agent profiles include a direct
link to the agent’s web site where you will likely find the local MLS
listings.

Maps and Other Tools

The Internet has made
mapping and locating properties much easier. To get an aerial view or
satellite image of a property or neighborhood, go to maps.live.com or
maps.google.com or visit walkscore.com to see how walk-able a particular
property is. These sites can give you an idea of the neighborhood
characteristics and the types of entertainment, restaurants, and other
facilities that are within walking distance of the property.
Maps.Live.com provides a view at an angle so you can see the sides of
houses and Maps.Google even gives you a 360 degree street-level view for
certain neighborhoods. If you have not tried one of these satellite map
Web sites, you really should if only for amusement.

Final Thoughts on Internet Strategies

The
Internet is a very effective research and marketing tool for real
estate investors but is not a replacement for a knowledgeable
experienced real estate professional. The Internet can save you time and
money by enabling quick and easy property research and marketing
options. Sites like AgentWorld.com also help you efficiently find a
REALTOR who fits your buying or selling needs.

Always remember,
when it comes to Internet strategies for real estate: More knowledge is
better. You need to use the Internet to build your knowledge base on a
target property or to find a real estate agent with expertise you need.
However, the big caution here is that the Internet should not replace
human judgment and perspective, expert advice or physical due
diligence-keys to successful investing.

Ottawa Neighborhood Tips When Purchasing Real Estate For Investment

It is important for you to investigate the city neighborhoods when you have made up your mind to invest in a property. Ask yourself this question: ‘Will investing in a swanky neighborhood be cost-effective as a form of investment?’ Generally homes in an expensive part of town will cost too much and are not worth your money. While you may be able to find rare gems and bargains once in a while, it is safer to purchase a home in a less classy Ottawa neighborhood.

At the same time, you should not focus on real estate in a low class neighborhood either. Some homeowners don’t take proper care of their property in these areas. Not only are the properties more difficult to rent, it may also be challenging to sell them in the future.

Be cautious of communities where there are too many homes for sale. There could be an underlying reason for this situation. Perhaps everyone is leaving the town for greener pastures elsewhere since they do not feel safe living there any longer. You do not want to come in and take over such a property.

Visit the local police to ask for crime statistics of the neighborhood to determine if it is a safe place to reside. If you take a look at the multiple listing service or MLS, you can also assess recent property sales in the area. Make an appointment with a real estate evaluator to check for the price averages in recent years and ask if that neighborhood is a good place to invest in property.

Network with fellow real estate investors and get a feel for the value of certain neighborhoods. Ask for recent trends of a given Ottawa area and find out its future potential value.

Overall, you need to look for gems in Ottawa neighborhoods that are not too luxurious but at the same time are not low-value areas. If an area appeals to you, evaluate its market value as a community and start looking for a property. Remember, the better the area, the better your chances are for landing a great investment deal.

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