You Can Get There From Here: ‘Home’ Shopping On The Internet

How the Internet can make a relocation more palatable.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 11/1/1998; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

My company recently relocated me and my family to the Denver area. And except for brief stints in Finland and Texas, this would be my first time living outside of New England. So we had a lot to learn about our new home town – including where that home town would be! My wife and I set aside a couple of nights to surf the Web to learn what we could learn about the area, and we were both stunned with just how much information we were able to find. Simply put, the old New England adage “You can’t get there from here” proved false in our search for a home town, house, mortgage to buy the house, schools, and community organizations.

FINDING FINANCING

By searching Excite (http://www.excite.com/) for “mortgage calculator,” I found several online mortgage calculators. The one I used, by Bloomberg Online (http://www.bloomberg.com/cgi-bin/ilpc.cgi), enables you to calculate either your loan amount (based on monthly payment information you enter) or the monthly payment (based on the loan amount information you enter). Most mortgage calculators only let you calculate one number or the other. From this site, we were able to determine how much we could afford to spend on our new house.

Finding a lending institution was easy on the Web. I searched Yahoo and Excite for things like “‘mortgage banker’ AND Denver” until I found the Colorado Mortgage Lender’s Association (http://www.cmla.com/). It is also helpful to consider searching Web-based Yellow Pages sites, because before there was a Web, the you local Yellow Pages directory was essential. And even in the age of the Web, Yellow Page sites are quite helpful, because they frequently include addresses and phone numbers of vendors who are not yet on the Web. So I also visited BigBook (http://www.bigbook.com/) and searched for “mortgage banker.” These two searches resulted in four or five mortgage bankers with e-mail addresses. I e-mailed all of them and started working with the one who was the most responsive to my questions. Oddly enough, the particular mortgage banker I chose was not able to receive Microsoft Excel attachments, and her e-mail account was a personal account – it was not provided by her employer!

FINDING A HOME TOWN

We started our search by looking for a community with good schools near my office. A friend recommended Microsoft’s HomeAdvisor site (http://homeadvisor.msn.com/nsm/) for school and community information. From HomeAdvisor, I was able to find the communities whose test scores were in the 80th or 90th percentile. Using Yahoo Maps (http://maps.yahoo.com/), I was then able to locate those communities near my office. This enabled us – right off the bat – to limit our search to one or two towns.

FINDING A HOUSE

After we had determined which towns we wanted to live in, and how much we wanted to spend, we then had to determine what house features we required. Three bedrooms or four? A study? A finished basement? Once we made these decisions, our house hunting became a simple process of elimination based on which houses were available in the window of time available for us to move.

We started our house hunting at – where else – Yahoo. Whether you call sites like Yahoo and Excite search engines or “portals” (whatever that means), these sites that are excellent places to start no matter what you are looking for. So Yahoo Real Estate (http://realestate.yahoo.com/) was where our house hunting started.

Yahoo Real Estate is a front-end to several Web-based real estate services, none of which offers complete listings. For whatever reason, the official real estate Multiple Listing Service (MLS) database is not available in its entirety on the Internet. Each real estate office has some listings online, and none of the Web-based listings are as up-to-date as the MLS listings. But Yahoo Real Estate is as good as it gets for searching for resale homes for sale by brokers.

For new homes, Yahoo Real Estate is a front end to New Home Search (http://www.newhomesearch.com/), and for new homes, it is easier to use New Home Search directly than to use Yahoo.

Yahoo also lets you search for houses for sale by owner, but we were unable to find any houses for sale by owner whose listings included a photograph of the house. Most of the resale houses included photographs, and the new home listings generally included elevation drawings and floor plans, but the houses for sale by owner included none of this information. When you don’t have a lot of time to look, it’s easy to limit to search to those houses with either photos or floor plans, so we quickly decided not to seek a house for sale by owner.

BUYING A HOUSE

Searching Yahoo Real Estate for resale homes – and New Home Search for new houses – we selected four or five houses that met our requirements. Our next step was finding a real estate agent. For this, we did not use the Web. Instead, we used the relocation service from a financial services and insurance company with we’ve been doing business for 12 years. And, as it turns out, the real estate agent who was referred to us does not have or use e-mail. After discussing (yes, on the phone) our requirements, our agent found nine houses that met our requirements. I flew to Denver and spent an afternoon looking at five of the houses (the other four were either sold or under contract), and that same day we made an offer on one of the houses.

My wife was unable to accompany me on the house hunting trip, but I was able to “show” the house to her by e-mailing URLs to her including 1) the listing, with photo, found via Yahoo Real Estate, 2) floor plans that I found at the New Home Search Web site, 3) inside photographs of a model home from the house builder’s Web site, and 4) the location via Yahoo Maps. I made sure to ask our real estate agent the name of the builder (although I neglected to ask the name of this particular plan), and even though this was not a new house, I figured (correctly) that I could find floor plans via New Home Search. Finding the inside photos at the builder’s site was a bonus.

FINDING COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS

I also used BigBook to find local schools, houses of worship, and hospitals. In fact, one Web site allowed us to enter a Zip code and find the houses of worship that were closest to our new home town! And since my wife and I are both of Finnish heritage, we also looked for – and found – information about the Colorado Chapter of the Finlandia Foundation (http://www.finland.org/conorg.html#fin). In fact, my wife has begun an e-mail dialog with Finnish Americans and Finnish nationals from the Denver area!

WHAT WE COULDN’T FIND

So you CAN get there from here. But there are some things that you cannot get from the Web. About the only thing we were not able to get from the Web was a sense of perspective about the area. How close are shops to our new home? Is there a view? What does the neighborhood look like? These things can only be learned by visiting in person. Which is just as well, since our real estate agent didn’t have an e-mail address!

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