Whether buying a mutual fund or an appliance, savvy folks often consult online resources before making a big financial decision. Not only do online resources allow you to compare prices on just about anything, they can also provide useful information about how to best handle a big transaction.
There’s a wealth of information about real estate online–everything from home prices to relocation backgrounders. But it can take time to sort through a mountain of websites. Not all of them will tell you what you need to know, and it’s easy to get buried in too much information.
In the years that I’ve been writing about personal finance in general and real estate in particular, I’ve found that some sites are more reliable and insightful than others.
Here’s my pick of the litter of the most comprehensive online sources for those buying or selling real estate.
Best Site: International Relocation
This is such a difficult subject because there are so many factors to consider when retiring outside of the U.S. How much will healthcare cost? What’s the political climate like? Does the location you’re thinking about have long-term care services?
International Living is a good place to start. Supplemented by daily e-newsletters, the online version of the nearly 50-year-old magazine tallies a “World’s Best Places to Retire” list every year that rates countries based on cost of living, crime rate, and a host of other factors. (This year Mexico, Panama, and Ecuador topped the list.) They also spotlight individual countries and host companion conferences.
Best Site: Relocating in the U.S.
If you have a choice of where to live, there’s a lot to consider. Do you want to live in a big city or a small town? How important is cultural life? What about healthcare and accessibility?
While no single site will tell you everything you need to know, one site that comes close is Livability. Since finding an ideal relocation locale is a subjective process, livability gives you a number of ways to evaluate a move. They break down their ratings by categories such as entrepreneurship, city living, climate, and health. You can also search individual states. Helpful articles give you a broader perspective.
Best Sites: Real Estate Pricing
Even if you’re not moving, it may be helpful to know what your home is worth. And when you’re buying, you should be able to shop by individual neighborhood, price range, and community characteristics.
There are a plethora of pricing sites that pretty much do the same thing. You can pull up home prices by address, get tax information and even get mortgage broker referrals.
Sites like Realtor.com offer pretty much everything you need if you’re buying, selling, or refinancing, and recent upgrades make the site even more user-friendly. And like most of the other real estate sites, you can get home estimates and rent information. And, as you might expect from a site owned by the nation’s largest real estate trade group, you can get direct referrals to local real estate agents.
But for sheer ease of use, I’ve found that Trulia provides better access to useful information like neighborhood characteristics, crime rates, schools, and market trends. You can also post your home for sale on the site. What I found most useful is a “Get to Know Your Neighborhood” button on the homepage that gets you right to vital information on local median sales prices, prices per square foot, and rent. You can also move your cursor along a map to instantly see similar information in surrounding communities. Then, if you want to drill down into community demographics, average commute time, schools and nearby communities, you can just scroll down the page. It’s a handy tool for buyers and provides plenty of insights for sellers as well.
For those interested in home prices in the future, I would consult Local Market Monitor, which gives detailed information on local economic conditions, construction, job growth, supply/demand, and other factors that will help you decide if buying in a particular area will be a good investment over time.
Best Sites: Senior Living and Long-Term Care Facilities
For many older Americans, considering long-term care options is a necessity. What if you eventually need a continuing care community or need assistance living or memory care? Many of the newest complexes combine all of these features in one setting, so you’re often making a one-stop real estate decision.
For general information on how to work through the process, there are few better resources than the generous AARP site. They cover nearly every aspect of this challenging subject.
But to help you locate appropriate communities, you need a comprehensive search engine like the one found at Caring.com. The site can not only help you locate local assisted and independent living communities, but it also provides useful articles on in-home care, memory care, caregiving, and support groups. It’s a solid place to start whether you’re looking for a community for yourself or a loved one.
You can supplement your research on senior living at A Place for Mom, which also has a senior living search engine, but can provide detailed information on local long-term care costs.
Best All-Around Real Estate Education/Rate Sites
Sometimes you just want one-stop shopping for most of your real estate needs. While Bankrate doesn’t provide home listings, it will give you a sampling of mortgage and savings rates from around the country.
I’m always pleasantly surprised by what Bankrate has to offer. If you’re a buyer, you can shop for the lowest mortgage rates. You can also find the lowest refinancing rates in their refinancing “channel.” They also have mortgage and retirement calculators, a special section for veterans, and information on reverse and home-equity loans. Hundreds of articles cover subjects ranging from closing costs to relocation, and articles are easy to find via the site’s reliable search engine.
What I like most about Bankrate is that it makes a big effort to integrate a number of financial planning decisions with user-friendly information. You can do basic things like locate the best mortgage deals and get important background on whether to rent or buy.
Another all-around site that can give you a general perspective on how your real estate decisions integrate with banking, insurance, retirement, and relocation is Smart Asset. The site even offers instructive articles such as “The Best Cities for a Relaxing Retirement.”
Don’t Get Overloaded
How do you best use these sites without suffering from information overload? First, don’t try to do everything in one sitting. Staring at a computer screen for hours will be tiring and you won’t be able to make a good decision. Sample a few different sites first to see if you can use them with ease.
Also, break down your decision into pieces. For instance, if you’re looking for a home, start with a state and city and create lists of the most desirable and affordable places. Then search by neighborhood.
If you’re selling, use the home pricing sites to see how much your home may be worth, but don’t take those price ranges as gospel. The final selling price on your home depends upon the condition of your home, its curb appeal, local supply and demand, and other local market factors.
Once you have some initial findings from these sites, put down your lists and walk away for a day or two. Let the information cool off, then narrow down what you want to do. Then you can talk to real estate agents and brokers. Nearly every site I listed has calculators built in, so if you need to run some numbers, you can just go to another page on their sites.
Just keep in mind that while the sites provide a wealth of information, the best decisions come from seeing and visiting. The picture on a computer screen isn’t the same as a walk-through. You still need a competent agent who can bring in buyers–unless you choose the for-sale-by-owner route.
While you can get a reasonably good picture of where you want to be, the best route is letting the online information provide some initial guidance; the sites are just starting points. The best financial choices come when you compare and contrast the best and worst of what’s out there. And that takes time and patience.
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