Internet house shopping is a lot like online dating. What’s portrayed online isn’t necessarily what you find when you show up for your first date. I confess — when I’m shopping for houses outside of this area, where I work as an agent, I’m as much of an internet house hunting junkie as anyone. I can spend hours searching MLS sites, broker sites, FSBO (For Sale By Owner) sites and Craigslist, looking for hidden property gems. Even though I know better, I’m particularly drawn to those "too good to be true" bargains.
Last fall, the Sullivan Multiple Listing Service opened up the MLS to enable agents, like me, to incorporate MLS Search on our websites. Its been a blessing and a curse, and very interesting to see how its changed how I work with buyers. Hundreds of people have saved listings and searches, and when I talk with someone I can review the listings they’ve saved and get a good idea of what catches their interest. One of the great benefits of so many people searching is that this ‘collective consciousness’ has brought some listings to my attention that just didn’t hit my radar screen.
But the curse of internet house shopping is that a lot of online listings don’t quite paint an accurate picture of the property. Its not really fraud or deception on the part of listing agents (who take the photos and write the descriptions). They work for the seller and their job, after all, is to feature the house in a positive light. In any given property category there is a wide variation in prices, and buyers are understandably drawn to the lower priced properties. We all want to save money and get a good deal. But lower priced properties are usually cheaper for a reason. Take farmhouses, for example, which is a very popular category. There might be 2 farmhouses, each about 1,800 sq. ft. with 3 bedrooms. One is priced at $225,000, the other at $450,000. But the less expensive one may be located on a busier main road with houses close on either side; the ceiling heights may be low (6 1/2 or 7 ft.) or there may be a significant structural problem. Location is another value factor. A similar house near Woodbourne or Hurleyville is going to be priced lower than one near Jeffersonville or Callicoon, just like a 1BR coop in Inwood is going to be far less expensive than in Chelsea.
The problem, though, is that its difficult for buyers to make those distinctions from the internet. As a result, many buyers are forming unrealistically low price expectations based on the listings they’ve found. Over the past five years, I’ve been out with hundreds of buyers (mostly second home) and seen reactions to thousands of houses. I have a pretty good handle on what different types of people are looking for, in terms of setting, house style and location and have developed a pretty good sense of what that’s likely to cost for different property types. I regularly update a page on "What Houses Cost Here in Sullivan County", with ranges buyers can expect for the most popular property types. If a house you’ve found on the internet is priced substantially below those category ranges, there probably is a reason why.
We’ve become a nation of online bargain shoppers, buying everything from cars to computers to televisions via the internet. I even bought one of my cars on eBay! We’ve become skeptical of "salespeople", believing that they only want to sell us what’s most profitable to them, rather than what is in our best interest to buy. We’ve come to trust the internet as being more objective and impartial, and view intermediaries as biased and self serving.
Buying real estate is different than buying a plasma tv. There may be 30 or 40 models of 42" plasma tvs to choose from, and there are scads of online data, from professional reviews to user opinions, to help you decide. But in Sullivan County alone, there are 1,100 single family homes on the market, and no two are alike. That’s where the guidance of a professional, who’s familiar with the inventory of property, becomes invaluable.
Finding the right house for a client is a collaborative effort. At the outset, I like to have a short 10 or 15 minute phone conversation to help me understand what you’re looking for. I can suggest areas to focus on or type of properties and bracket a price range that you can expect. Then I can email you properties to take a look at, and get your thoughts on what catches your fancy and what doesn’t, and from there can hone in further. I can also look at the listings you’ve found, to give you my thoughts pro and con. From there, we can narrow in on a group of houses to actually go see. The most successful outcome of that process is when someone says to me, "Wow, David, you really nailed it. You showed us five houses, and four of them were right on the mark."
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call, whether its to me or another Realtor. I don’t bite and there’s no obligation. I may be able to help with what you’re looking for, and I may not — I don’t handle every property category or all areas of the county. But if I can’t help you, I can try to direct you to someone who can.
And don’t stop internet house shopping. Its fun, and it can provide whoever you work with invaluable information about the type of properties you’re interested in. But just take things with a grain of salt, and remember the old adage that what seems too good to be true probably is. The vast majority of online listings don’t ‘lie’, but they can be like a well staged photograph — with the right makeup and right lighting, you may not see the wrinkles.