I usually write columns for an audience of real estate professionals and the vendors and service organizations that work with them. But for the next couple of columns I’m going to switch perspectives a bit to the part of the real estate industry that matters the most: the people looking for houses or wanting to sell them: consumers.

In my work I consult with a pretty broad spectrum of the real estate industry around issues of reaching and helping consumers, and hopefully this discussion of the consumer’s search experience will be beneficial to industry practitioners as well.

Starting with search

There are a lot of different ways a person can go about finding a new house to live in. One of the first ways to sort of window-shop for a place to live is to hit up a search engine.

Data from Google points out searches for real estate in the U.S. relative to the total share of searches in the U.S. has a big spike in January and then starts to fade over the course of the year. So it makes sense to start by looking at search as an entry point for finding a house.

Different kinds of search sites

Google is the dominant, by far, generic search engine. As you likely already know, you can search for just about anything on Google and it will give you some sort of result — a suggestion of a site to visit as well as some advertising sprinkled around those "search results."

The results of a search for real estate on Google can contain a wide variety of sites: real estate brokerages, individual property-for-sale sites, news articles about real estate, or specialized real estate search sites.

But generic search engines aren’t the only place to search for property online. There are websites known in the real estate industry as "aggregators." These sites get lists of properties for sale and create a specialized search interface for sifting and sorting based on a variety of criteria.

Sites like Trulia.com, Zillow.com and Realtor.com are classic examples of real estate aggregators. On each of these sites you search for a property by selecting a location or size or price or other physical characteristic of the kind of house you want to buy.

The results of a search for real estate on an aggregator site will be a list of properties. The quality of the data presented (whether it’s accurate or whether the house listed in the results is still for sale, for example) is hotly debated within the real estate industry, however.

In terms of your search for a house, the way that generic search engines and real estate aggregator sites connect you to someone who can sell you a house is different, as well.

Generic search engines send you to a website that, sometimes, is owned by someone who can sell you a house. There are also ads on the search results page that will lead you toward an individual who has paid money for the opportunity to assist in your home search.

Aggregation sites vary, but most will encourage you to contact someone who has paid money to the aggregation service to receive all inquiries based on a specific price point of the search, or location of the search, or something like that.

There will also be a mention of the real estate agent who is selling the property (the listing agent), but you might have to hunt for that information a bit.

In both cases you will most likely find yourself connecting to a real estate agent who is either the listing agent for the house or who is a buyer’s agent and wants to help you find the right house to buy.

Using either type of search engine — generic or real estate aggregator — can be useful depending on what your end goal is in searching for a house.

Using search in house hunting

Whether real estate consumers use an aggregation site or a generic search site, there are some things they can do that can speed up how quickly and efficiently they find a house using search.

1. They must know what they’re looking for. Search engines require visitors to know what they’re looking for before they work. Users must type that into the search bar or select the attributes of the house in the search interface somehow. They should spend some time away from the computer thinking about what physical attributes they absolutely must have in their new house.

2. They must know where to look for it. A house, as you know, exists somewhere specific. In most markets there are large differences between neighborhoods. Prospective buyers should take some time to get to know which specific neighborhood they want to live in. If they’re moving to a new town, they should take some time to get to know the neighborhoods before getting too far along (I’ll give some tips on how to do this in a future column).

3. They must know whether they want to work with a real estate agent. If they aren’t sure if they want an agent’s help to find a house or not, they should ask their friends or even ask a real estate professional what’s better about working with an agent versus conducting the whole house search on their own.

If the answers make sense, then the real estate consumers may choose to go with an agent — if the answers don’t make sense to them, they may not. Consumers should ask real estate professionals a few questions to find out if it’s a good fit — some agents specialize in certain areas or in working with certain kinds of houses, for example.

Armed with those three bits of knowledge, consumers will be much, much better prepared to find a house using generic search. The first two items — what they’re looking for and where they’re looking for it — can help to greatly narrow the search.

For example, instead of searching for "Burlington Vermont real estate," the prospective buyers could search for a specific neighborhood and kind of property, such as "Five Sisters Burlington house" or "Old North End Burlington condo."

This will get you to a website that lists the kinds of properties you want in the neighborhood you want to live in. Most likely, this will be a website of a real estate professional who wants to help you find a house, or else it will be one of the aggregation sites.

If home searchers look at a few of the results, they will find that most of them all list the same results (unless they are searching outside of the U.S. or in New York City). So they should use the site that they personally find easiest to search, and sift the results into something usable for their house search.

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