5 services to help you buy a house

You already know where to find properties on the Web; now let us take you through sites that will help you find the best value for your money.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
7 min read

Last week, I looked at five real estate search sites and discussed their merits as tools for searching for a home. So now that you have that dream house picked out, it's time you get down to the business of finding a real estate agent and researching both the home itself, and the neighborhood it's in--just to make sure it's still a place you want to live.

After all, moving to a new home can't be as simple as finding a home you like and buying it immediately, right?

Find your real estate agent with DoorFly
Once you've found the home you like on sites like Trulia or Realtor.com, you have to find a real estate agent to help you look at homes, secure the best deal, and get you into your new abode. But finding the best real estate agent isn't always easy.

That's where DoorFly comes in. Instead of calling different real estate firms to find the best agent, you can use DoorFly to explain your needs and watch as real estate agents bid to work with you.

When you first sign up for DoorFly, you're asked to provide the area where you'd like to live, your home-buying needs, an affordable price you're willing to pay, and desired home features. That information is then posted on the site and will be viewed by real estate agents who also signed up. Interested agents will contact you and inform you of their knowledge and experience. But here's the kicker--they will also offer an incentive rebate from their commission at closing to sweeten the pot. I found that sometimes that discount is 5 percent of their fee, but it can be up to 20 percent off, depending on the market. Either way, it's a great way to save some money.

Real estate agents bid for your business on DoorFly. DoorFly

As interesting and useful as DoorFly can be, I was disappointed with its general lack of support. Granted, it's a start-up that few people have heard about, but so far, the site only has real estate agents from Indiana, Missouri, Texas, and North Carolina using the site. That's obviously an issue for those who wish to move elsewhere in the U.S. and one that DoorFly can hopefully address at some point in the future.

DoorFly is a compelling and unique service, and you should look at if you want to buy a home in one of those locations. It's easy to use, the real estate agents offer good deals, and generally, they seem to be knowledgeable.

Research mortgages and neighborhoods with HomeThinking
HomeThinking is designed quite well. When you're brought to the main page, you can quickly and easily find a real estate agent in any of the 50 U.S. states, perform research on mortgages in cities and towns across the country, or gain knowledge about different neighborhoods in major markets. It's a great resource if you're unsure whether you want to move to a specific location.

Heat maps give you a good idea of where property is selling. HomeThinking

When I started evaluating HomeThinking, I first looked for a real estate agent in both big cities like New York and San Francisco, as well as small suburbs in my area. In all cases, the site returned a slew of real estate agents from companies both big and small. It was outstanding.

HomeThinking's neighborhood search is also a great feature that allows you to compare big cities, as well as mid-level markets like Akron, Ohio. When you perform a comparison, the site delivers a slew of results that examine which areas of the new city resemble your current city, as well as reviews by those who live there.

For example, HomeThinking claims that those living in the Castro-Upper Market area of San Francisco will find a similar lifestyle in New York City's West Village. It's a nice feature, but it would have been nice if more information was available. Simply telling me where to move if I like the scene I live in now won't help all that much.

But HomeThinking's best feature is its mortgage resource page, which takes an in-depth look into everything you ever wanted to know about mortgages in the location to which you're planning to move. Whether you're researching suburbs or big cities, the site will deliver the risk of a sub-prime mortgage crisis, leading lenders in the area, the average loan size, number of rejected applications, and much more. It even shows a heat map detailing where the majority of people are trying to buy homes. HomeThinking's mortgage research tool is best I've seen.

Learn about neighborhoods with StreetAdvisor
Finding a home you like is only half the battle. That's why StreetAdvisor provides users with the opportunity to research particular neighborhoods to find out if they're a place they would want to live and raise a family.

Reviews help you find properties. StreetAdvisor

StreetAdvisor couldn't be any easier to use. Simply surf to the company's homepage, type in a specific address, and within seconds, you'll be brought to a slew of reviews by those who have lived or currently live in a particular neighborhood. You should be aware that some people are bitter for their own reasons and find fault in almost anything. In fact, I researched my own neighborhood and found one review by someone who said it was overrun with crime. I contacted my local police department and found that they hadn't been called to my neighborhood in years.

Once you get over individual bias and bitterness, you'll find a wealth of information on StreetAdvisor. Some folks discuss what it's like to raise a child in a particular neighborhood, while others mention how fun their area is. But for every glowing review, there are usually a few bad reviews, so you can always see both sides of the story.

For as valuable as StreetAdvisor is, it suffers from the same issue as DoorFly--it requires the participation of the community. And although there are a lot of results for some areas--20 for my small community--there are none for some locations I looked up. Because of that, StreetAdvisor may be hit or miss as you research different neighborhoods.

Find out everything with PropertyShark
Once you have finally found a few houses you would consider moving to, you'll need to research the particular property to learn about its history. That's when PropertyShark provides the most value.

Loads of information makes PropertyShark an ideal research tool. PropertyShark

I was blown away by the amount of information PropertyShark provides. Not only does it offer a great design and some outstanding functionality, it delivers the most raw data on a particular home. Period.

When I looked for specific properties, PropertyShark didn't just return its location, square footage, and assessment information, it featured its fair market value, livable square footage, current owners, appraisal history, and a full building description including number of rooms, type of home, and overall condition.

But that's not all. The site also provides information on the property's desirability, land value, expected cost of improvements you would need to pay if you moved in, and how densely populated the neighborhood is. Honestly, you won't believe how much information is at your fingertips when you go PropertyShark.

PropertyShark is easily my favorite site in this roundup and a must-use if you want to find every last bit of information about a home. I should note that it doesn't have every county in every state uploaded yet and many towns are still unaccounted for. But as PropertyShark continues to add information, its usefulness will only increase.

Unlike the other services in this roundup, which perform a few functions well, Zillow offers a handful of features that are worth exploring before you get ready to make an offer on a home.

The forums on Zillow come in handy. Zillow

Zillow's property search service is fine, but it's difficult to find homes, thanks to a poor design that leaves all the results on a Live Maps display. I found that extremely annoying and hard to use.

But Zillow's real value is in determining the value of a particular property as quickly as possible. You may be able to learn more about a home with PropertyShark, but if you don't care about all the extra information you'll find there, Zillow is the perfect place to determine a property's tax assessed value and its Zestimate, which is Zillow's best guess at the real value of a home. It's an ideal tool to consider as you prepare an offer on a home.

Zillow's main function is that valuation tool. It works well, but the site also features a new advice tab that comes in handy when you want some of your questions about real estate answered quickly. In fact, I used the site's real estate advice function, which is basically a forum for users to share advice and research the protocol for finding the best rates through mortgage lenders. A few of the folks in that forum provided outstanding information that I couldn't find elsewhere on the Web.

Zillow also features a directory to find local experts on real estate, as well as companies that specialize in home improvement. The feature works well and I found small businesses in any area I searched. That said, I'm not convinced that it's really that useful of a feature, since I can find that information sooner (and quicker) with the help of a search engine, like Google.

Regardless, Zillow provides nationwide coverage of properties and covers more ground than any other service in this roundup. Because of that, it's a must-see site when you're trying to buy a home.