Best real estate Web sites
Sixteen addresses that can save you time and money.
NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Unless you've bought, sold or refinanced recently, you may not realize how much the Internet has changed the game in real estate. It wasn't all that long ago that you had to actually phone banks to get mortgage quotes or had to physically show up at an open house to get a look inside it.
Now, information that once was closely held by high-commissioned professionals is just a mouse click away.
Want to access the multiple-listing service without seeing an agent? Check.
Plan a dream home without hiring an architect? Check.
Find out the value of every home in your neighborhood (or any other)? Yep, you can do that online too.
But that's not all. Read on for a download of our favorite "home" pages.
Best site to find out if you can afford a house
There's no shortage of mortgage calculators out there, but this one ranks high for efficiency. No ads, no pop-ups, nothing but straight number crunching. Here you'll find the standard offerings: What will your mortgage payment be? When will you pay it off? But the site also features more advanced arithmetic:With "prepay vs. invest," for example, you plug in the amount of a recent windfall to determine whether it's better used on your mortgage or on stocks.
Best site to satisfy your inner Bob Vila
You could pay someone else to install a door, rip up your carpet or clean your gutters. Or, with coaching from DoItYourself.com, you can roll up your sleeves and, well, do it yourself. Founded by the son of a hardware salesman, the site provides step-by-step instructions for almost every home project - from removing adhesive (warm vinegar) to building an addition. Should you realize, mid-job, that you're not so handy after all, you can find support in the site's moderated forums.
Best moving calculator
About 40 million Americans move annually, according to the Census Bureau. Next time you're breaking out the packing peanuts, ballpark your budget with the moving calculator at Move.com. Estimates are based on how far you're going and how many furnished rooms you have. If you're taking the contents of a two-bedroom house from Seattle to Sioux Falls, S.D., expect to pay between $4,200 and $5,100.
Best insta-estimate of your home's value
At any given moment, you can look up the value of your stocks. But what about your biggest asset, your home? Launched earlier this year, Zillow.com delivers a free instant estimate, based on public records. Type in your address, and the site returns a value quicker than you can say "town assessor's office."
It's no substitute for a professional appraisal, as the records used can be outdated; and for now the site can give estimates on only 47.4 million homes, so it's hardly comprehensive. "But we're a starting point," says chief financial officer Spencer Rascoff - not to mention a great resource for nosy neighbors. Who've you "zillowed" lately?
Best site for seeing how far your equity will go
Now that you've zillowed your house, maybe you're considering cashing out and moving on. Here's a nifty tool that shows what you can get where: The Home Price Comparison Index spits out the equivalent value (circa 2005) for houses in more than 300 cities. A $400,000 property in Basking Ridge, N.J. would go for about $304,000 in Boca Raton, Fla., leaving you a little extra for sunscreen.
Best way to save money building a dream home
You have the perfect Dutch Colonial in mind. But how do you turn your mental image into a four-walled reality? You could hire an architect to design something - and pay, at minimum, 2% of construction costs. Or you can go to Homeplans.com, which sells thousands of readymade blueprints, each $1,000 or less. Search by style, square footage or number of rooms. You can even customize a plan using the in-house design team; it'll cost extra but may still save you in the long run.
Best listing site for sellers flying solo
Agent, schmagent. If you want to go it alone and deal exclusively with buyers doing the same, this is the place to do so. This site is the most heavily trafficked in the world of FSBO; in fact, the average listing sells in just over two months, according to chief operating officer Colby Sambrotto. For about $200, you can add your home to the site's listings. Or pay a higher fee (up to $900) to have it put on the multiple-listing service. If an agent approaches you with a buyer, you'll have to pay his commission (between 2% and 3%), but that's half the cost of working with a full-service brokerage.
Best site to jump-start your renovation
Bigger bathrooms and custom kitchens are the stuff of homeowners' dreams. Actually remodeling, on the other hand, can be a nightmare. Not to worry. LetsRenovate.com guides you from the first decision - renovate or move? - to the final inspection. The site aggregates function (check reviews of ovens), fashion (see how others painted their bedrooms) and finance (learn how to do the whole thing under budget).
Best way to steel yourself for a remodel
If you love watching Extreme Home Makeover but aren't sure you'd like to live it, get inspired at HouseBlogs.net. Run by a Chicago couple who are recording their bungalow's overhaul on houseinprogress.net, this site brings together a bunch of remodelers-cum-bloggers, all of whom chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of their undertakings online, complete with pictures. Once you're emotionally ready to begin your own renovation, consider joining the fray. Says founder Jeanne Olson: "This community can keep you motivated long after your offline friends think you've gone completely nuts."
Best site for real estate window shopping
So you're not in the market for a home. Well, that's no reason not to look. For shameless real estate voyeurism, there's no better site than Realtor.com. Just plug in the zip code and let the ogling begin. The biggest online listing service, this site has more than 2.5 million homes for sale or rent across the country. So whether you're imagining a waterfront condo in Hilton Head, N.C., or a five-bedroom in the Chicago suburbs, you'll find something to covet.
Best hourly rate for an attorney
With entries on easements, mortgages and more, the real estate law section of FreeAdvice.com covers common issues that buyers, sellers and owners face: Should I sign a letter of intent? What kind of taxes am I subject to on my home? Should I put my kids on the deed? Lawyers write the entries and, as is legally prudent, they steer clear of specifics that vary from state to state. "If you're involved in a dispute, you need an attorney," acknowledges founder Gerry Goldsholle. "But we can give you the basics."
Best bird's-eye view of a neighborhood
Looking at homes online, you can't tell where the nearest Target is or which way to go to get to the highway. HomePages.com can give you an eye in the sky. Enter an address, and the site loads aerial maps with retailers, restaurants, schools and other landmarks plotted. One caveat:Maps are typically more than a year old, so you might miss a Starbucks or three.
Best way to prepare yourself for the worst
Two-thirds of homeowners don't have the insurance coverage they need. Don't be one of them. Log on to the Insurance Information Institute's website, which explains different policies and helps you figure out which are right for you. Use the free home inventory software to assess the value of your belongings - and to create a record in case you ever need to file a claim. You can't get a quote here, but you can find an agent. And thanks to the glossary, you might even understand what the heck she's saying.
Best first stop for mortgage shoppers
It always pays to shop around for a loan, but especially now that rates are on the rise. No single site returns every option, but Bankrate.com gives more than most. Enter your location and the terms you want, and the site returns randomly sorted listings, both paid (updated daily) and unpaid (updated less often). Be sure to hit local banks in person to see if they can match the lowest rates you found online.
Best site to see which schools make the grade
When shopping for a new house, most families also find themselves shopping for a school district. Study up at SchoolMatters.com, published by Standard & Poor's. On it you'll find all the relevant numbers - size, test scores, teacher/student ratio, and so on - by district and school. The site also compares community income, education levels and median home values with state averages. Now if only it told you which teachers to request.
Best site to find a renter for your beach house
At $158 a year, this site isn't the cheapest way to find paying guests. But its easy interface for renters makes it a good investment for vacationhome landlords. Listings, organized by region, feature descriptions and photos. And unlike on other sites, renters can search by availability, which gives them - and you - a better chance of finding a match. In fact, now that you're expecting a little extra income, you might just find yourself planning a vacation of your own on here. Nantucket is awfully nice this time of year....