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Tired of doomscrolling on Zillow? The best way to use real estate sites

A model of a Victorian home with a heart at its top left.
(Reina Takahashi / For The Times)
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You’re finally far enough into the home-buying process where you can start having some fun. Scrolling through homes is such a good time that it’s become a hobby for people not even interested in buying a place; the obsession has been mocked on SNL and birthed one of the best real estate accounts on Instagram, “Zillow Gone Wild.”

For the casual shopper, these sites are a fun jaunt into the market, a voyeuristic way to spend an afternoon. But to the grizzled veteran who loved and lost, the one who has been outbid countless times, scrolling through listings becomes work. At this point, you’ll want to find the fastest, most efficient way to narrow your search.

Wherever you are in your home-buying journey, it makes sense to start online, where you can browse hundreds of homes in the same time it would take to tour a single open house.

Real estate websites have become more informative and easier to use over the years, and advancements in 3-D technology enable you to virtually tour many listings. It’s not quite the same as stepping through the door yourself, but at least it gives a better understanding of the layout — and combats that camera trick photographers use to make a room seem bigger than it actually is. (The right lens can make a closet look like a bedroom.)

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Strategy alert: When browsing through these sites, some will have a little tag that identifies a popular home that more people are clicking on or touring. These properties are usually charming, well-photographed and aggressively priced — the perfect storm for a bidding war. Fall in love with them at your own risk. An alternative is to look for the homes with ugly photos at an odd price point that have been on the market for months.

If you recently became a first time home buyer — or are planning to buy a home for the first time — The Times would like to hear from you.

March 7, 2022

There’s a bevy of websites and apps to choose from, but dozens of interviews with home buyers revealed that most people in Southern California prefer three: Zillow, Realtor.com and Redfin, all of which include every property posted on the Multiple Listing Service.

Zillow — The Biggest Name

There’s a reason Zillow is the first name that pops into your head when you’re thinking about searching for a home.

The real estate giant pioneered the concept of an instant home value estimate with the Zestimate, which pairs public data with user-provided information to put a price tag on any property. Of course, the number is only as good as the data behind it, so it’s far from foolproof. But the concept helped make it the most popular real estate search engine by far.

“Zillow was our go-to,” said Kaitlynne Sanfilippo, who bought a house in Long Beach in June 2020 after months of searching. To save time, she signed up for Zillow email alerts for Long Beach houses that hit the market within certain parameters: single-family homes listed for less than $600,000.

An email or two would hit her inbox every day with a new option, so there was always something to choose from without having to conduct her own searches.

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What does it really take to buy a house in Southern California? A Long Beach couple share their story, from strategic job moves to Realtor regrets.

March 29, 2022

Realtor.com — The Most Informative

Realtor.com functions as a search engine both for homes and real estate agents.

Zillow offers a similar agent-search function, but also offers agents a “Premier Agent” program that gives them more branding and exposure on the site if they buy in.

Realtor.com’s system seems a bit more equitable, and a simple ZIP Code search will show how many homes an agent has listed and how many that person has sold. You can also search by credentials; for example, you can see only agents who’ve received certifications such as “Real Estate Negotiation Expert” or “At Home With Diversity,” two of many distinctions awarded by the National Assn. of Realtors.

The site also shows data on past listings. Whereas Redfin tends to hide the previous list prices, Realtor.com shows each time a home has been listed and for how much — so you can see when a house is being flipped for a quick profit, when a home’s price has gone down or when a seller has just relisted the property over and over with no reductions.

The app version also offers a Sign Snap feature, so if you’re on a walk and come across a listing sign, you can take a picture of it and pull up all the property information immediately.

Five homebuyers tell us how they chose which neighborhood to commit to in Greater Los Angeles — no small feat.

March 29, 2022

Redfin — The Easiest to Use

Real estate shopping should be fun, and simply put, Redfin looks the nicest. It has a clean, simple interface that doesn’t bombard you with information, but offers almost everything you need to know if you’re willing to dig a little for it. The site also has a handy “Hot home” tag that gauges how many people are looking at a listing. If it’s hot, you may have to make an offer soon — and a good one.

Redfin also serves as a brokerage, and it charges a lower commission than traditional real estate companies. If you choose to buy with a Redfin agent, it promises a rebate of the commission that can stretch north of $1,000, depending on the sale price. (In Southern California, for better or worse, the sale price will always be high enough for the buyer to get a healthy kickback.)

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Honorable mentions

Trulia

Although not as popular as the three mentioned above, Trulia’s unique feature is polling residents to get a feel for certain neighborhoods. For example, one recent Eagle Rock listing cheerfully reported that 72% of residents say they would walk alone there at night, while 70% say there’s a sense of holiday spirit — so you won’t have to be the only person with a blow-up Santa Claus and reindeer on the front lawn come December.

Next: Find and vibe with your real estate agent

Agents have expertise, tactics and contacts that newbie buyers need, and they’re everywhere — even on TikTok.

Foreclosure.com

Looking for a deal? Foreclosure.com searches for homes in foreclosure, pre-foreclosure or bankruptcy. It’s not as straightforward as the traditional home-buying process, but if you don’t mind a project, it’s an alternative entry into a market that can be brutally expensive.

FSBO.com

FSBO.com — which stands for For Sale By Owner — cuts out real estate agents altogether and connects buyers and sellers directly. There’s more risk, but if you’re looking to save money and work directly with a seller, this site makes the most sense.

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