Because of the inherently brick-and-mortar nature of real estate, real estate-related decisions often start with online information but end up being very manual and offline.
Real estate matters can get more physical than most other major decisions we make in this digital and information-centric era: driving around town physically visiting open houses; signing papers with your signature and your fingerprint (!) in what insiders call "wet ink"; and even knocking down some walls or painting others.
But there are a number of online resources that are often given short shrift in terms of their power to help buyers and sellers realize their vision of home. Here are five digital resources I think are underutilized by real estate decision-makers:
1. Mint.com goals tracker. With 7 million users, it would be nuts for me to suggest that Mint itself is overlooked. Mint is an uber-popular Web app that consolidates all your financial accounts into one place and spits out pretty fabulous visualizations of how your account balances, spending patterns, savings and investments trend over time. Many tech-savvy house hunters are already using Mint or something like it to manage their monthly finances.
What is overlooked, though, is Mint’s capability to help you set, track and realize various goals, including saving a certain amount of dough, buying a home or remodeling your current place.
Mint has interfaces built right into its goal tracker for home improvement and homebuying goals, as well as an area where you can create a custom goal. It walks you right through the process of calculating what you need to save; allows you to specify which of the accounts you have connected with Mint is the home for the funds for this goal; empowers you to set a monthly savings goal or a target date for achieving the goal; and then tracks your progress over time.
Mint then gives you regular status updates, letting you know when you’re off-target or ahead of schedule, and, by mapping it to your other Mint money trackers, you can even spot where cutting back on your restaurant bill might be the means to your end.
2. Facebook. If Mint’s 7 million users are impressive, consider this: Facebook has more than 700 million users at last count! But what people don’t do as often is use it for one of the toughest tasks in real estate: finding an agent.
Those in the know when it comes to real estate tell novices all the time: Don’t just search online for an agent. Ask people you know. So, you might go to work or call a couple of friends who you know own homes or are house hunting.
But the most comprehensive way to canvass the people you know and trust and surface their referrals to agents you love is to ask all of them, and the most efficient way to do that is on Facebook! You might be surprised at the rave reviews you receive.
One caveat: Before you post, think through whether you will mind everyone knowing you’re in the market for a home. Because once you post the request on Facebook, everyone will know!
3. Yelp. Once you actually get those referrals, it’s essential to do some investigative work on your own. Visit the agents’ blogs and websites, visit their Facebook pages, talk to their past and present clients, and meet with them to see how your personality meshes (or doesn’t) with theirs.
But there’s one step that many buyers overlook, and that’s searching for the agent’s profile on review sites like Yelp or even some of the real estate search websites that offer agent reviews.
Now, these sites do not all have national adoption, so it really doesn’t mean anything if you go there and the agent has no profile or no reviews at all.
But in many areas, you will find at least a couple of reviews for many real estate agents just by searching online for their name and Yelp — and these can inform your agent selection process, or at least give you something to talk with the agent about during your live meeting.
4. Real estate search websites’ Q-and-A boards. Most people go to real estate search websites to search for listings. But a couple of the larger sites have very robust question-and-answer communities on which it is completely commonplace to see a thoughtful homeowner in your precise neighborhood ask a question that’s been on your mind, only to receive detailed, articulate answers from a dozen agents with unique and otherwise tough-to-find local expertise.
Not only that, but you can ask your own questions, and get answers from local experts, on subjects like standard practices for negotiating in your area, or common condition problems in homes in a particular district: things you’d never be able to find on a national news site.
These Q-and-A forums, like Trulia Voices (full disclosure: I do have a business relationship with Trulia), the "Ask a Realtor" section at Realtor.com, and Real Estate Advice at Zillow, among others, also offer ways to surface and select an agent who is willing and able to spend time educating buyers and sellers.
5. City, county and state websites. At this stage of the game, there are very few national first-time buyers’ programs still available. However, many city, county and state governments do offer down payment and other homebuying — or home-saving! — assistance for first-time buyers, low- to moderate-income buyers, and even homeowners just struggling to avoid foreclosure.
The most reliable way to ensure you have left no helpful stone unturned in this vein is to work with a local agent, consult with a local mortgage pro, and visit your city, county and state websites to prowl their housing, homeowner and homebuyer resources.