Real estate search engines are multiplying like bunnies. So, in the mega-mall of homes for sale, where is the best place to shop? Like any store, no one offers every product at any given moment, so it is important to know who their suppliers are and how often they are restocking their inventory.
The idea of posting this little “home store” shopping review occurred to me recently when a client gave Steve a list of properties to “check out” in a typical moment of “you can’t possibly be showing me everything” frustration. In this particular case, the list of properties came from a local real estate company (or agent, I’m not sure which) website, and all were off-market. If, as a consumer, you prefer to fill your shopping cart online, whether it be for the purpose of annonymity, as a matter of control, or as a checks-and-balances approach if you suspect your agent is missing something, following is a short summary of your options.
The local Multiple Listing Service (MLS) to which your agent presumably (but not necessarily subscribes) is obviously the most comprehensive source of listing data. Only an agent who is a member of the local Board of Realtors (keeping in mind that we are speaking of San Diego County here) has direct access to this data base. Of course, not every home for sale in the geographic universe will appear here. The listings of agents with exclusive arrangements with the seller (no agreement to pay compensation to the cooperating broker in the transaction) will not be represented in the MLS, and the For Sale By Owner listings will obviously be absent. In this more difficult selling market, however, you can expect the number of these “secret” listings to be very small.
If you have a relationship with an agent, you do not need to rely on your agent to call you each time something new happens in your market. In San Diego, your agent can set you up with your own web page brought to you directly from within the online MLS database which is repopulated with listing data, including price and status changes, as new entries are made. While this tool is helpful, nothing in my opinion is as valuable and “real time” as an agressive and attentive agent searching on your behalf. For instance, when working with a buyer waiting for X, we will be checking the MLS Hotsheet (summary of listing changes) many, many times daily. And, of course, your agent should have a broad network and the ability to hear of new listings before they are ever entered into the MLS.
For our illustration of the differences of the following resources, I did a quick search this morning (Thursday) of detached homes in the 92131 zip code. This morning, the Sandicor MLS shows 82 active single-family detached homes for sale, and I thought it would be an interesting way to see just how some of the other, more popular, search options compare.
COMPANY WEB SITES
Our Sandicor MLS allows dissemination of their database in accordance with the Internet Data Exchange (IDX) agreement which, in effect, allows member Brokers to agree to allow their listing information to be displayed on other Broker’s web sites. Sandicor’s IDX Rules can be found here. Although Sandicor provides an IDX product which Brokers and agents can subscribe to for use on their sites, most site search features are provided through third-party vendors. Therefore, the presentations and relevance you see on different web sites will vary. The rules state that the displayed listings must be refreshed a at least once a week. This is important to recognize, since some search features will be updated daily while others every several or more days. In other words, the home you are looking at online today could have in theory sold a week ago.
The rules state that individual Brokers may opt out of the program, but I do not see any evidence that opting out has occurred to any significant extent. Following are some cases in point.
- Prudential California Realty: The IDX search feature on their site returned 81 active listings versus the 82 shown in the MLS. Not bad, considering there is an obvious margin of error here. (I can’t achieve all of my searches simultaneously).
- McMillin Realty: My 92131 search returned 106 records here. The difference is that “under contract” listings by all Brokers are displayed as well. I am not sure how they are able to do this, since the Sandicor IDX rules specifically state that only active listings from other Brokers may be displayed. Hmmm.
- Coldwell Banker: This site showed 87 listings in 92131 this morning. Here, in addition to active listings, homes in escrow are shown, but only pending homes represented by this Broker (no violation, at least).
INDEPENDENT SEARCH SITES
To say that these are abundant is an understatement. I will speak to just a handful of the more popular, or at least, well-known sites.
- Realtor.com: This is the old granddaddy of consumer home search sites. Their database is populated through feeds from the various MLS’s. San Diego’s Sandicor participates, but not all local or regional MLS’s do. The problem I have found with Realtor.com is that their data is not always refreshed daily. I used to accuse them of taking weekends off, which they in fact may. As a member of Sandicor, all of my listings are automatically “swept” to the site. However, as a subscriber to their enhanced listing feature, I must wait for my new listings to appear before I can log on to the system and add enhanced text, photos and visual tour links. Sometimes I find that my listings are showing within hours, yet I have often had to wait several days to see them represented on the site. This morning, Realtor.com showed 89 active listings versus the 82 actual MLS listings, the difference likely being a result of this delay in processing.
- Trulia: Their site is populated through direct input from agents and brokers. The advantage to this type of format is of course that For Sale By Owner and exclusive (non-cooperative) listings can be included; the disadvantage is that such a site will fall far short of providing a complete inventory. Another important thing to keep in mind is that individual input can and will result in duplicate listings, and therefore you may find yourself seeing double. For instance, Prudential feeds all company listings to Trulia automatically. As an agent, I also am feeding my listings to Trulia. This morning, their total 92131 detached home tally was 49.
- Yahoo!: 82 out of 82 homes this morning were represented when I checked. Yahoo! Realty Times posted a very good interview with Yahoo! Real Estate’s Ryan Roslansky which talks about the site. While agents and brokers may pay to include listings in Yahoo!’s classified forum for subsequent aggregation to the site, our San Diego MLS provides all listings to the site. It appears that duplication of listing information is not an issue for our region at this time.
- Google: Google Base allows Brokers, agents, MLS’s and IDX vendors to partner with their site by supplying listing data. Last March, Dustin at Rain City Guide wrote:My impression of Google’s latest features is that the data is VERY incomplete and the interface is ugly“. I couldn’t agree more. So far, Google Base is extremely underpopulated with data and navigating the site is laborious at best. It took me a good ten minutes to even find one of my listings posted there. However, Dustin’s article was primarily intended to draw attention to the inadequacies of Zillow, which at that time did not offer listing search capability. Fast forward to today…
- Zillow: They recently rolled out their new homes for sale search functionality to much hoopla. Greg Swann recently had to ask, Where’s the beef?, noting that Trulia has over one-million listings populating their site. Now, this morning, Zillow had only 23 listings in my sample zip code, yet in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that 4 of these were actually my listings which are pending. You see, listing information here is manually entered and remains “live” until it is either manually deleted or it expires. For agents putting multiple listings on tens of sites, it is inevitable that homes in contract will be left on these sites until expiration. Listing capability is not restricted to agents and Brokers, of course, which is one potential plus, so non-MLS properties will appear here. Although we are in the early days of Zillow as a homes-for-sale search tool, the new functionality has been somewhat underwhelming so far.
- Craigslist, Backpage, etc, etc. These are but two of the many, smaller fish in the real estate search engine pond. The shear number of these sites with their varying posting procedures and “sunset clauses” is enough to make any agent committed to complete, online listing exposure pull their hair out. Listings on Craigslist expire every seven days; Backpage adds must be refreshed every 45 days to remain active, but may be reposted every seven days to stay “at the top of the list”. Multiply that by a dozen or more listings, and it’s enough to make a girl’s Outlook scheduling calendar explode.
AGENT WEB SITES
Finally, there is the agent web site, but beware: Not all sites are created even “sorta” equal. The look, feel and content of agent sites run the gamut. Any agent worth their salt, however, will offer both a “Search for Homes” option offered through an IDX arrangement and enhanced information on their own listings including photos, visual tours, maps and more to put these homes in the spotlight (the latter being what your seller clients are paying you for). Many, my own site included, allow users to sign up for automatic email notifications of updated listing information for homes meeting their search parameters. Usually these features require that the user “sign up” for the feature, but in my case I assure you that searches are performed annonymously and no one is lurking or plotting to contact you unless you specifically request to be contacted. My particular IDX program comes complete with “campaigns” that, unless disabled, automatically enroll users in a drip program consisting of “helpful” homebuying and selling ideas (spam)- I have disabled these. The one auto-generated message I can not seem to eliminate is the first “welcome member” email that is automatically sent, purportedly from me, but I will eventually find a way to slay this beast. My advice to consumers is that if you find yourself on a hit-list after having subscribed to one of these email tools, take the agent out back and beat him mercilessly or, at the very least, unsubscribe. You are undoubtedly online in part due to the anonymity you enjoy, and that should be respected. (Disregard my first “welcome” email, of course. It’s not coming from me, and it’s not my fault). Oh, and the listing count for 92131 on my site this morning? 82, which means I am batting a thousand.
There are many, more geek-inclined people in the industry who are much more qualified to address the functionality of some of these sites, and I hope you will chime in.