The Internet is a boon to home buyers. Instead of personally visiting listing after listing, you can shortcut the home search process by previewing listings online in the comfort of your own home. The Internet is not as useful, however, when it comes time to decide how much you should pay for a home you’d like to buy.

There are Internet sites that provide information about home sales in an area. This information is often sketchy and occasionally misleading. One home buyer relied on comparable sales information that she obtained online to help her decide what price to offer on a new listing. She asked her real estate agent to include the information with her offer. The seller was miffed when he reviewed the buyer’s offer, which was for considerably less than his asking price. The price seemed reasonable to the buyer in light of her Internet sales data. The problem with the data was that it included sales from an adjacent neighborhood where homes sold for much less. The Internet search was based on ZIP code, which doesn’t necessarily provide reliable information about market values in niche neighborhoods.

When the seller countered the offer, he asked his listing agent to include comparable sales information that was appropriate for his home. The buyer accepted the counter, relieved that there weren’t multiple offers. If there had been, the seller probably wouldn’t even have considered her offer.

The best way to learn the market value of listings in your target area, and to avoid making a costly mistake, is to preview a lot of properties in person. This is a more time consuming but far more productive approach.

Buying a home is a big investment. It’s almost impossible to know with certainty whether you’re offering too much or too little without intimate local market knowledge. If you rely on inaccurate or insufficient data, you could offer too little and lose a coveted property to another better-informed buyer. Or you could pay too much, which would diminish the return on your investment when you sell.

A good real estate agent can shortcut the learning process by feeding you information about new listings. You should plan to look at every listing that might work for you. Hitting the Sunday open house circuit is a good way to canvass a lot of listings in a short-time frame. Make sure your agent knows what listings you’ve seen. Ask your agent to let you know when the listings you have seen sell. Some buyers find it useful to keep a file of the listing flyers from the properties they’ve seen. Mark the selling prices on the flyers and refer back to this information when you’re deciding what price to offer. Don’t toss the flyers from listings you didn’t like. Knowing what these listings sold for will add to your store of knowledge.

Before you make an offer, ask your agent to prepare a Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) for the listing you’re considering. Be sure that your agent includes photos of each comparable sale. This will help you remember the listings that you personally previewed. Learning local market value is equally helpful for homeowners who will shortly be sellers. Visiting open houses in your neighborhood is an excellent way to become familiar with home prices in your area. Sellers often depend on their agent to provide a CMA to help them decide on a list price. Although useful, the text data may not paint the whole picture.

THE CLOSING: Important valuation factors such as natural light, outlooks, the layout of the house and the condition of the adjacent homes may not be apparent from the comparable sales data.

Dian Hymer is author of “House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers,” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide” Chronicle Books.

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