Simple tricks for how to look for houses online without getting sidetracked or overwhelmed. A smart house-hunting strategy can give you a leg-up on the competition.
So you want to buy a home, and you’re finally ready to start house hunting. Naturally, the first thing you do is look for houses online (as if you haven’t been doing that for months already). But then you start to feel overwhelmed.
There are so many houses online. How do you know if one is worth seeing in person? Or if you can afford it? Or if it will even be available by the time your agent schedules a showing?
Deep breaths. We’re going to tell you how to look for houses online in a way that gets you beyond scrolling and into the home of your dreams. Plus, we’ll give you some tips for jump-starting your home search in real life without needing a formal appointment.
First things first: Have you gotten preapproved?
Getting preapproved* is a must in the current real estate market. Sellers and real estate agents often require a preapproval letter before they’ll show you homes, because they want to know you can qualify for a loan – one large enough to cover the purchase price of the properties you’re seeing.
More importantly, a preapproval letter will include the maximum amount you can borrow. In other words, it tells you how much house you can afford. And that’s information you want to know before you start scrutinizing Zillow or Trulia listings or frantically sending them to your real estate agent.
After all, you don’t want to fall in love with a $400,000 home if the lender will only approve you for a $300,000 mortgage.
Make a list and check it twice (maybe even three times)
Once you’re preapproved, there’s one more step before you start to look for houses online. Make a list of your must-haves in a home. Note that this is different from your list of wants. The must-have list should include the absolute minimum you’ll accept on features such as:
- Square footage
- Number of bedrooms
- Number of bathrooms
- Amount of yard space or property
- Proximity to work, schools, grocery stores, hospitals, and other local services and amenities
Then you can make a list of wants, or nice-to-haves that would sweeten a house for you but wouldn’t be a dealbreaker. For instance, it would be great to buy in a condo development that has a community swimming pool. But if a great deal comes up in a development without a pool, you’d probably opt to buy in the pool-less community and do your swimming at the gym.
Review your must-have list frequently before you start looking at houses. If the list is vague or you’re not committed to it, you’ll end up wasting time looking at properties that may have plenty of curb appeal or interesting fixtures but are lacking your non-negotiables.
How to look for houses online: 7 Time-Saving Hacks
More than half of prospective homebuyers look for houses online, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). And it’s no wonder. Looking at houses online allows you to pre-vet properties far more efficiently than seeing them all in person.
But there are better and worse ways to look for houses on your favorite real estate website. As fun as it is to look through lots of properties, scoping out houses that aren’t great candidates is a waste of time.
And in today’s market, you don’t want to waste hours or days looking at the wrong properties because houses are going fast. That means you want to zero in on a handful of serious contenders, then book in-person showings ASAP.
So how do you do it? We’ll tell you.
Bookmark your go-to homebuying sites
You’re going to spend a lot of time on real estate listing sites, so you might as well give yourself a shortcut. Bookmark them for quick access on your laptop or desktop, and you can also download their mobile apps.
A warning on the mobile apps, though. If you enable app notifications, good luck getting anything else done. Every time you hear that ping, you’re going to be checking the listings, so make sure to set specific search criteria so you’re only notified when a truly viable option comes up. Otherwise, you’ll spend your whole day looking at listings and burn yourself out on homes you’re not actually going to buy.
It should go without saying that your search criteria should only include homes within your preapproved price range. Nothing good comes from looking at houses you can’t afford.
Want a pro tip? Find out how much your monthly mortgage payment will be if you buy a house at your maximum preapproved amount. That can be an eye-opener because although you technically may be able to afford it, it may be much higher than you’re actually comfortable paying each month.
Use our mortgage affordability calculator to run a few different scenarios and find a monthly payment amount that really makes sense for you.
But back to looking at houses online. Here are some good go-to home listing sites:
- Realtor.com: The most accurate and comprehensive site, sponsored by NAR. Information comes primarily from multiple listing services (MLS), a database of homes for sale by Realtors that uses both their observations and publicly available data, such as county records
- Zillow: The popular home listings site features both MLS and non-MLS sources. Note that the estimates can be based on user-supplied information, which can be less reliable than MLS data
- Trulia: A large database owned by Zillow, with both MLS and non-MLS listings. While all these sites some offer neighborhood information, Trulia advertises a specialty in neighborhood insights
Check the property against your must-have list
Before you open the professionally-shot photos and get sucked into the aesthetic, read the property details. What is the square footage? How many bedrooms and bathrooms are there? Is it the type of property you want to buy (townhouse vs a house, for instance). If there are any deal-breakers in those details, it’s best to move on to the next listing.
If you’ve thought carefully about your must-haves, there’s no reason to look at properties that fall short, as you may end up compromising on something that’s important to you and end up with homebuyers’ remorse.
Look at the street view
Google Street View is your friend. Use this tool, which is often embedded in the maps on real estate listings, to check out the property and the surrounding area. There’s no guarantee the view will be up-to-date, and you may see an older shot of the home if it was recently renovated.
But you can get a sense of how close or well-maintained neighboring houses are, whether the area is shadier than you’d like due to dense tree cover, and how near to the road the house is set.
Look, too, for signs of neglect and disrepair such as deep potholes or cracks in the street. Again, these may not be the most current images, but they should give some idea of what the area immediately surrounding the property looks like.
Use Lot Lines view to scope out the property lines
This is a handy feature if you’re looking at listings on Zillow. When you’re in the map on a property listing, toggle to the Lot Lines view. If you zoom in, you can see the property lines, which is really helpful if you’re purchasing a home with a large amount of land.
A listing might seem exciting because it comes with a couple of acres. But it’s less appealing if the property lines are divided in such a way that you won’t be able to use the land the way you intended (for a large garden, for instance).
When you look for houses online, sure to check whether the property backs up to a creek or riverbed as well. Depending how deep the body of water is, and how close to the house, you may need flood insurance. Or, the land closest to the water may not be suitable for whatever you plan, such as extensive gardening or building a workshop.
Get an aerial view
Look at the house and area from an aerial view as well, such as Google Earth. Is there anything that could affect the livability or eventual resale value of the home? An airport a few blocks away, for instance, is likely to raise the noise level, which many people don’t like.
If you’re buying in a rural area, close proximity to a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) can be a turn-off for many buyers, as the smell from the plants can be very strong.
Also, look at the neighbor’s back yard. Something as simple as a small basketball court or chicken coup could annoy the noise-sensitive. And abandoned cars could mean a visual or environmental nuisance right over the fence.
All these might be deal-breakers for you. Know beforehand what you can tolerate and what you can’t.
Research the neighborhood
There’s no sense getting your heart set on a house if it’s in a neighborhood that doesn’t suit you. Before scheduling an in-person tour of a property, find out what you can about the area:
- How far is it from work or school?
- Are there restaurants, shops, and entertainment nearby?
- Is it more rural or more built-up than where you want to live?
- What types of medical services or community organizations are there?
- Is it safe, crime- and traffic-wise?
Home listing descriptions often include neighborhood information, such as nearby parks, access to major highways, shopping, and other amenities.
But social media is a great place to learn about an area as well. Look up accounts of people who live there and see what they share about local eateries, parks, and entertainment. Follow different restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues, too. You can get a feel for what life will be like there and decide whether you want to take an in-person look.
If you have a neighborhood in mind, it’s prudent to visit at different times of day. Neighborhoods that seem inviting during the day may feel desolate at night. Traffic congestion may be very apparent at certain times in the morning or evening, but nonexistent other times. Coming back to explore the area a few times will help you decide whether you really want to live there.
Keep your loan program in mind
This is another reason to get preapproved before you look for houses online. The type of home loan you’ll use to buy a house will dictate the properties from which you can choose.
For instance, USDA loans only allow you to buy single-family residences – unlike conventional, FHA, and VA loans, which allow you to buy multifamily properties with up to four units, as long as one of them will be your primary residence.
USDA loans can also only be used in qualifying rural and suburban areas.
Additionally, FHA and VA loans have strict property requirements that must be met. It’s best to work with a real estate agent who understands the ins and outs of your loan type so they can help you narrow down your list only to places likely to qualify.
How to look for houses without having a formal appointment
Keep an eye out for For Sale yard signs
Looking for houses online isn’t the only game in town. Roughly 7% of homes bought are found when homebuyers spot a For Sale yard sign, so don’t discount hitting the pavement. You can’t just show up and ask to see a specific house, but if you spot a For Sale sign at a home that piques your interest, take down the number and contact information.
While you’re there, walk around the neighborhood to get a sense of what it might be like to live there. And observe the external condition of the property:
- Does it look well-maintained?
- Are there signs of recent renovation?
- Is the yard nicely kept?
- How much outdoor space is there?
- When you look at the house from the side, does it appear to have more square footage than you’d expect looking only from the front?
There’s a lot you can learn about a house before stepping foot inside. there are ways to look without a formal showing.
Attend open houses
You don’t need a formal appointment to attend an open house. You can just show up, explore the property, and chat with the real estate listing agent about the home’s specifics and history.
Even if you’re not enamored by the home, it’s still a great learning opportunity. Make a note of which features you liked and didn’t like, so you’ll know what to look for when searching for your perfect home.
Open houses are also a good chance to see new neighborhoods. Maybe this particular house isn’t right for you, but you might find the perfect area for you to live, and you can focus your search on other available properties there.
So, keep your eyes peeled for open house notifications. Open houses can be advertised on social media, on property listing sites, signs in the neighborhood or outside the home, or in local newspapers.
Taking your home search into your own hands
Your real estate agent is an invaluable resource and advocate for you throughout the homebuying process, and they can help you find the perfect home. But there’s a lot you can do on your own to ensure that you’re only going to see houses that you can actually see yourself buying.
After all, you know your preferences and finances better than anyone. So why not take your home search into your own hands right off the bat?
How to look for houses online FAQs
How do I find a property on the internet? Real estate websites such as Realtor.com, Zillow, and Trulia.com all feature homes for sale, searchable by price range, city and neighborhood, and important home features such as number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, and other key details.
What is the best website to find a house? There really isn’t a “best” site. Realtor.com is likely the most comprehensive and most accurate, as the information comes from public sources (such as county records) and professional Realtors. But Zillow offers an extensive database of home and land listings, and Trulia specializes in providing neighborhood information along with property listings.
Is Zillow accurate? Zillow is best used for finding listings of homes that are currently on the market. Focus on the official sales price listed, rather than the “Zestimates” of home values. These are not necessarily accurate or based on the most current information about the home’s condition or the local market.
How to prepare to search for homes online
Sometimes you know the minute you see a house that it would be a good one for you. But if you’re not ready to make an offer, you’ll miss out.
Getting pre-approved puts you in a solid position to make a serious offer and go after the right home for you. You often only get one chance at a home. Make it count.
*Pre-approval is based on a preliminary review of credit information provided to Fairway Independent Mortgage Corporation, which has not been reviewed by underwriting. If you have submitted verifying documentation, you have done so voluntarily. Final loan approval is subject to a full underwriting review of support documentation including, but not limited to, applicants’ creditworthiness, assets, income information, and a satisfactory appraisal.