April 19, 2012 at 9:50 am EDT | by Valerie Blake
How much info is TMI?

Online real estate options have changed as much as early computers. (iStock image)

I remember buying my first IBM personal computer from government surplus in 1988. A handsome beige monster, it sat stoically on my desk, periodically winking at me with a green eye against a charcoal face.

My dream machine had a whopping 20 MB of storage. If you needed more, I was told, you could keep documents on something called a 51⁄4-inch floppy disk. Until then, I thought hardware was comprised of nuts and bolts, software was lingerie and that most people preferred their 51⁄4 inch-disks hard, not floppy.

There is no comparison between my first computer and the one I have today. Ditto the way we search for homes.

Years ago, each local real estate association would publish a weekly, phonebook-sized tome of listings for its agents. Each page would have very basic information on a dozen or so homes: the address, number of bedrooms and baths, square footage, a black-and-white photo of the exterior and instructions for setting a viewing appointment and picking up the key.

Enter the information age. Little by little, real estate listings were released from the exclusive domain of the agent and given to the public. In the beginning the changes were subtle. Property addresses could not be published. One exterior photo of the home was still the norm, although in color this time, even though most printers still cranked them out in black and white.

Now, agents could take the basic requirements expressed by a potential buyer, type them into a multiple listing database and — voila! — up would come a list of suitable properties to tour. If a buyer made adjustments to his search parameters, a few keystrokes could provide a whole new list of homes.

Real estate firms began developing their own websites to share information and promote their services. E-mail became the media of choice for drip marketing campaigns and transmitting information. “Alas,” agents lamented, “we are soon to be obsolete!”

Fast forward to multiple search engines, a plethora of interior photos, virtual tours, map coordinates, earth views, videos, talking houses and QR codes. Am I the only one who thinks that somewhere along the way, we went from informing the consumer to confusing the consumer?

The National Association of Realtors® (realtor.org) tells us that 89 percent of consumers today begin their search for homes on the Internet. That’s a pretty powerful number. So how does a buyer know where to look and what to look for to learn the lay of the land without frustration?

First, seek a search engine recommendation from your agent, then use it and stick to it. An Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feeds information from the local (and still proprietary) multiple listing service to any website that subscribes to IDX, so when your agent recommends a particular search site, it is because she knows it will contain the most current information.

Next, know how to interpret the data. Ask your agent to explain acronyms, current status codes and how MLS numbers are assigned. Most sites will continue to display properties with contracts on them until all contingencies are satisfied, so make sure you are reviewing properties that are fully available.

Look at interior photos but don’t believe everything you see. The actual home may look better or worse. Don’t summarily exclude properties that don’t have extra photos thinking that there must be something wrong with them. There may be legitimate reasons that photos aren’t included. If you see a virtual tour button, try clicking on that. The photos may be there instead.

Recognize that most properties that are for sale by owner (FSBO), short sales and foreclosures will be listed in the local MLS and IDX feed. There is no secret cache of properties we’re not sharing. Even the banks use this tool and hire local agents to market their distressed properties.

Above all, let your agent guide you as you gather and analyze available data. We want you to be motivated, discerning and proactive, but we also want to help. Like the Internet, we have lots of valuable information to impart to make your self-directed house hunt efficient and enjoyable.

And unlike my 1988 computer, we will never be obsolete.

Valerie M. Blake can be reached at 202-246-8602 or at Valerie@DCHomeQuest.com. Prudential PenFed Realty is an independently owned and operated broker member of BRER Affiliates, Inc. Prudential, the Prudential logo and the Rock symbol are registered service marks of Prudential Financial, Inc. and its related entities, registered in many jurisdictions worldwide. Used under license with no other affiliation with Prudential. Equal Housing Opportunity.

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