It may not feel like it outside, but spring -- traditionally the busiest time in the real estate market -- is just around the corner.
For anyone thinking about selling their home, now is a good time to hunker down with a computer or tablet, and perhaps a mug of hot chocolate, and do a little research. There are plenty of online resources available that can provide an overview of the market in a specific neighborhood, guide you to the best listing price for your home and, eventually, help you find the perfect agent. If you feel like braving the cold weather to do your research, many real estate websites also have mobile apps to take with you that provide location-specific information.
MAKE SURE THE PRICE IS RIGHT
A crucial first step for any seller is to make sure your home is priced to sell, and real estate websites offer a variety of ways to test the waters. "When you list a house, the first week is the most important time, and that's when you know it's priced right," says JD Pulice, a Long Island agent with online brokerage Redfin.
Seattle-based Redfin, which has been on Long Island since 2009, rolled out a new feature over the summer called Price Whisperer that lets homeowners get a better idea of what their home might sell for. A Redfin agent helps prepare an email with a few photos, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the estimated square footage along with a possible listing price that goes out to dozens of prospective buyers who have registered on the website and are searching for homes in that location and price range. The buyers are asked whether they would be interested in the home at that price, and can respond by clicking "yes," "no" or "maybe." Homeowners then get a report and are contacted about next steps. "It's a great way to gauge the market," says Pulice, who works out of the company's new Jericho office.
The Price Whisperer tool also might be good for those who have tried going the "for sale by owner" route and watched their home sit on the market, Pulice says.
All agents and appraisers look to "comps," or what comparable homes in a neighborhood have recently sold for, when coming up with a price. Manhattan-based PropertyShark is one of a number of real estate websites -- Including the big ones, like Zillow and Trulia and the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island -- that lets homeowners look up this information. PropertyShark's "comparables" tool allows you to filter results in a variety of ways, including by neighborhood, square footage, building features and lot size. The site also can send out a weekly email newsletter with a list of properties that have sold in the previous week.
"The value of running comps is how timely the data is," says Nancy Jorisch, a senior data analyst with PropertyShark. "Anybody can build a tool that searches for sale prices. The question is, are those sale prices from two months ago, or two years ago, or yesterday? We have what we consider very timely sales data for Nassau and Suffolk."
Redfin's Home Value Tool allows homeowners to choose three recently sold homes most like their own before showing an estimate of their home's value and providing a map of all the homes used to create the estimate, along with a chart for comparison.
"It's a great way for a seller to engage in the process, to understand where we're coming from when we nail a comparable," Pulice says.
The real estate website Zillow may be geared to buyers, but sellers can use the site to their advantage, too. The website gathers municipal data to provide entries for all homes, whether they're listed for sale or not. Susan Daimler, Zillow's general manager for New York, encourages prospective sellers to "claim" their home on the site, uploading their own photos and making sure it has the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms and the correct square footage.
"It's a great first step," Daimler says.
Of course, in general it's important to take information found online with a grain of salt, since there's always the possibility information can be wrong or outdated.
Claiming your home can also affect its "Zestimate," what Zillow calls its estimated market value for a property, based on a proprietary algorithm.
Zillow uses crowdsourcing, or collecting input from a number of people, through a feature on the site called Make Me Move. It allows homeowners to let potential buyers know what they would sell their home for before actually putting it on the market. House hunters contact would-be sellers anonymously to provide feedback on the price or to discuss the sale further.
"You can put your price basically on your rooftop," says Daimler, who used the feature to sell her home in Seattle, where the company is based, before moving to New York. "It gets buyers interested and puts the flag out that you might be interested in selling."
VET AN AGENT
Along with data, some real estate websites help sellers and buyers do homework before choosing a potential agent. Trulia has a comprehensive directory of agents, some of whom keep their profiles up to date, who have featured homes for sale. Some have received recommendations and reviews.
"I think buyers and sellers should empower themselves to get the information they want," says Shannon Field, senior director of product management for San Francisco-based Trulia. "Talk to more than one agent."
Field recommends checking to see how many sales an agent has in your town by looking at his or her Trulia profile.
"If I was selling a home, I would look for someone with a strong track record in my neighborhood," Field says.
Zillow also has compiled more than 450,000 agent reviews over the past three years. There's a system in place that checks for phony reviews, Daimler says. People can't post about family members, and Zillow tracks IP addresses to make sure brokerages aren't posting positive reviews.
In a response to the proliferation of smartphones, real estate websites are constantly updating their mobile apps. They can be used to gather information about the market well before the seller is ready to list a property.
Field recalls that she was in New Hampshire visiting her in-laws, who are considering putting their own home on the market in the near future. With Trulia's app, which uses GPS, Field was able to tell them what a home in their neighborhood had recently sold for while they were driving by it.
The app also can find homes for sale in an area with upcoming open houses, which prospective sellers can use to meet agents in person before browsing the reviews on Trulia's directory.
"The whole process is so different from what it was even five years ago," Field says.