If you've looked at homes online and filtered listings by neighborhoods and amenities (such as air conditioning and hardwood floors), you're part of a growing trend.
More and more, consumers are using tech tools to buy and sell homes. The National Association of Realtors calls it the "digital house hunt."
"Real estate websites have revolutionized the industry because they make data accessible to all," says independent broker Sissy Lappin, who owns Lappin Properties and is co-founder of ListingDoor, a site that helps homeowners sell their own homes without real estate agents (thereby saving on commission).
She says that list prices are more competitive than ever and sellers no longer need an agent to reach buyers.
"Real estate brokers and agents will be a thing of the past in the next few years, because over 95 percent of all homebuyers are using websites to find homes nowadays," says Lappin.
NAR and Google partnered on a study about digital media's role in consumers' searches for homes. They found 51 percent of new-home shoppers use mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) to get general home information; 48 percent use mobile devices for directions to visit a home; 44 percent use mobile devices to compare housing prices; and 35 percent use mobile devices to compare home features. Buyers are also using the tech to read reviews, watch videos and contact brokerages.
Popular online residential sites include Redfin, Zillow and Trulia. Trulia shows buyers and renters nearby properties and helps them get to know the neighborhood with information on schools, commutes and nearby businesses, as well as crime statistics.
*New Way of Doing Business
Agents know they need to have an online presence, including social media profiles, YouTube channels and their own websites, to do business.
Real estate agent Brian Adams runs his own website, HoodHomesBlog.com, where he regularly profiles neighborhoods, posts about local resources for buyers and sellers and lets users search area home listings.
"Buyers and sellers are doing more and more of their research online before they actually take any concrete steps like talking with a Realtor or scheduling to view homes," he says. "I think that is a good thing."
Buyers can reap many benefits from virtual house-shopping. Mainly, it gives buyers the ability to book property-viewing appointments, make offers and ask questions on their own schedule -- all without any pressure from agents.
Still, online tools are not perfect.
"Data is often incomplete or inaccurate," says Adams, because data standardization is still new to the real estate industry.
Buyers often feel in control when searching data digitally, but that's often a false sense of security -- and a false sense of education.
"Even among agents who are relying on the tech to provide accurate up-to-date stats to clients, there is always a variance in percentages and recent sale averages" and more, says Phil Evans, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty. Evan notes that housing information changes quickly. "Go to Zillow, Realtor.com and Redfin and all three will have different numbers for the same market."
Another downside: The tools may not show the full scope of the purchase. For instance, a buyer might forget to include mortgage insurance when using the mortgage calculator.
Additionally, when buyers do all their research online, they miss out on the personalized one-on-one advice and handholding a real estate professional offers.
A drawback for sellers?
"It allows them to think they can market the property themselves and do it properly," says Evans. Evans notes that very few "for sale by owner" sellers are successful at selling their own homes for market price -- and without getting involved in lawsuits down the road.