WANT TO BUY OR SELL A HOME? LET THE NET MAKE YOUR JOB A LITTLE EASIER
By ERIC TYSON

(MONEY Magazine) – Back when the World Wide Web was new and even radical, I and others hoped that it would one day loosen the middleman's grip on many financial transactions, including home sales. After all, for most people, buying or selling a house is the single biggest financial event of their lives. Yet if you sell through a broker, as four out of five homeowners do, you typically lose 5% to 7% of your gross proceeds to commission.

Now that the Web has become huge and commercial, I am sorry to report that only part of that dream has come true. Granted, there are more than 10,000 sites devoted to residential real estate. But the majority are still run by real estate agents and suffer from the same problems--overselling, obsolete listings and the occasional bait-and-switch gambit--that plague real estate advertising wherever it appears.

That said, there are still plenty of reasons to go online if you are thinking of buying or selling a home. Many large cities, including Boston, Dallas and Philadelphia, now have good broker-sponsored online listings where sellers can display their houses and buyers can search electronically for one with the perfect location, price, size and--why not?--hot tub. And even if you don't discover your dream home, you will find plenty of online help with such things as securing a loan, estimating its cost and even figuring out moving expenses. Here's a guide:

For starters, you can skip going to the popular search engines-- such as Lycos, Yahoo or Excite--and keying in phrases like "real estate." Doing so will turn up endless sites run by individual agents--though most of them do little more than toot their own horns. If you must use a search engine, start with its edited list of sites--like Yahoo's "Real Estate Directories."

A better route, however, is to begin your search directly with a catalogue of real estate links, the best of which is the International Real Estate Directory, or IRED (http://www.ired.com). From IRED's home page, you simply choose "U.S. Web Sites" and then click on a state or metropolitan area for links to sites that list homes in that area. IRED places a star next to the ones it likes, such as HomeScout (www.homescout.com), which describes more than 300,000 brokered houses around the country and sends you an e-mail update if a new listing comes in for a town you specify.

How do such sites work? At HomeScout, buyers enter the city and state where they want to live, their price range, how many bedrooms they need and how far they're willing to commute. They get back a list sorted by price, with links that take them directly to the broker's Website. As for sellers, they can add their houses to HomeScout by registering it with a participating broker.

Another page of links that might be worth a visit is the one run by the National Association of Realtors (www.realtor.com). The NAR site offers selected properties from so-called multiple listing services, which are realtor-run data banks around the country. In the places it covers, the NAR often has the most properties--some 18,000 in San Diego alone, for example. And it gives you a sophisticated set of search tools. You can zero in on homes with a swimming pool, for instance, or those located on a cul-de-sac street. Unfortunately, the NAR site includes data for only 95 of the nation's cities (San Diego is the only one in California). And, as with many broker-sponsored sites, the list gives the home's zip code only--not its address.

If you would prefer to buy or sell without a broker, you will be able to find the sites you need through IRED's "For Sale by Owner" directory. The national sites offer thin pickings outside big cities (the largest, Abele Owners' Network at www.owners.com, recently had only 32 homes in all of Idaho), so look for Websites that concentrate on a single area, like the one that's run by For Sale by Owner magazine (www.byowner.com/li), which includes 2,400 homes in New York City and Long Island.

Regardless of whether you find a buyer or seller online, you can always tap a number of other helpful resources. Happen to be looking for a mortgage? Bank Rate Monitor's site (www.bankrate.com) has the best rates for the 50 largest U.S. cities, updated weekly; MONEY's Website (money.com) includes rates for the 100 largest cities from HSH Associates (www.hsh.com), updated monthly. Homebuyer's Fair (www.homefair.com) has calculators that estimate how large a loan your bank will approve and how much you will have to pay the movers to transport your belongings. And both the Homebuyer's and MONEY sites have calculators that compare the cost of living in various cities, so you'll be able to see whether your lifestyle is likely to improve or suffer when you move.

Finally, if the true expense and hassle of buying a home is beginning to sink in, here's one more source of help: Rent Net (rent.net), which lists nearly a million rental units in the U.S. and Canada.

Author of Personal Finance for Dummies (IDG Books, $16.99), Eric Tyson is a financial counselor who teaches personal finance at the University of California-Berkeley.