The advent of the Internet Era has changed the practice of Real Estate forever - and much for the better. The Internet is not generally used to actually purchase Real Estate on-line. While it may be technically possible, the myriad intricacies of the transaction make it a challenge. Even if it were an option, buying property is not like buying a compact disc. It is of utmost importance that before you purchase a property, you see it in person. Get a feel for the area. Listen to the neighborhood, watch the traffic. These are things you cannot do over the Internet.
What the Internet can help you do is learn about the market; it is an invaluable research tool. There are hundreds and probably thousands of web sites with information on Real Estate - and dozens of web sites specializing in the Santa Cruz area.
One thing to know ahead of time is that most web sites will ultimately direct you to a Realtor®. That makes a lot of sense - after all, it is Realtors that provide the system (the MLS) that these sites rely on. Beyond that, though: Real Estate can be tricky, complicated, and confusing. You should have a Realtor there with you to help ensure you get what you pay for, and to keep you from paying too much.
This article explores several real estate web sites that you may come across during your search. This collection of sites is generally representative of the kinds of sites you can find out there.
Individual Agent Sites: many individual agents have their own individual web sites. Many of these web sites are "canned" content that is leased month-to-month from companies that provide such content to Realtors. Other sites employ a "frames" approach, where the left margin of the page remains a constant menu, and the right portion of the page is from another web site - for instance, Realtor.com. Some Agents' web sites are built largely by hand, using only a few canned or frames-based pages. These web sites can really be hit-or-miss; some are quite useful, others are virtually worthless.
Real Estate Brokerage Sites: Real Estate Brokerage sites (for example, that of Realty World Virtuoso) are very similar in nature and character to those of individual Agents. Typically, though, a Brokerage's web site will be larger, better produced, and relying much less on "canned" or "framed" content. As with individual Agent web sites, these sites range from useful to useless.
Realtor.com: This site is an official web site of the National Association of Realtors. You can search the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) database nation-wide. It makes it very easy to find a Realtor® at the same time you look at property for sale. This site also has sections on apartments & rentals, home finance, moving & storage, and home & garden. These take you to the "homestore.com" family of sites, although this is somewhat disguised.
American House Hunting On-Line (House-Hunting.com): this web site is an agent-paid, nation-wide directory of Realtors. If any agent pays to appear on this site, the name will appear in the directory, listed under one or more cities or areas of a state. However, it does show the number of listings that agency has. When you choose to see "All Listings", however - you are only shown listings from those paying agents. A lot of web sites are like this, and they do not provide the most listings possible.
mlslistings.com: This is brought to you by the good people of RE InfoLink. This is the very same system that Santa Cruz area Realtors use every day in their work. It is essentially a read-only database of the MLS system, minus some privileged information that only Realtors have access to. It includes pictures and some detailed information. One useful feature is that you can search for Open Houses. It also provides a list of agents and services (plumbing, painting, etc.). This site loses points for lacking the ability to send you periodic e-mails with new listings.
MSN House and Home: this site is essentially Real Estate Portal: a gateway to much information about Real Estate. It includes much custom content - articles, guides, how-to's, and the like. It also provides a nice front-end to the MLS listing service. To begin you type in the zip code you wish to search, and give a desired price range. After the initial search, you can refine it further - number of bedrooms, bathrooms, swimming pool, etc. There is a "My Homes List", so you can keep track of specific homes. It features a "Home Tracker", that will send you new home listings by e-mail. This does, however, require you to have a Microsoft® Passport - which is "free" provided you supply some information about yourself.
Santa Cruz Association of Realtors: This is the local office of N.A.R. - the National Association of Realtors. This web site is mostly of interest to Realtors. It does, however, provide a "Consumer Info" page. They also provide a "Market Statistics" page, providing county-wide sales data since 1996.
Santa Cruz County Geographic Information System: The highlight of this web site is the GIS Interactive Map. This amazing on-line tool gives you an abundance of information about any parcel of land in Santa Cruz County. It has a highly detailed map that shows zoning, fault lines, major streets, city limits, grassland, coastal zone - you name it.
Santa Cruz Sentinel Classified Ads: For the local approach, consider using the Santa Cruz Sentinel's Classified Ads on-line. When you search for ads, the search result list will have a "Notify Me" section at the bottom. The Sentinel's classified ads are good because they will include properties that are FSBO - For Sale By Owner. These properties will not appear in the MLS system.
Also, check out Real Estate in our links section.
When using any of the many web sites to search the Internet for properties, my advice is to cast a very wide net. You may be missing your ideal property by restricting your search too much. First, geography. You may want to buy a home in the city of Santa Cruz - but why not include Live Oak in your search if you are looking there or in Capitola?
If you are looking for a house with a minimum of 1000 square feet, don't set 1000 square feet as your minmum. Set it lower than that. If the MLS says the square footage is 990 square feet, you will not be shown that property listing. Also, when a Realtor enters the square footage into the MLS, they will usually put the square footage according to the County Assessor's office. It may be that there are areas of the house which have been converted to living space but don't count in the square footage - for instance, a basement or attic that has been finished off and is now perfectably habitable.
If you are looking for a house that has three bedrooms, consider including two bedroom houses in your search. Many houses will have rooms that could be used as a bedroom, or have areas that were converted into bedrooms but are not recognized by the Assessor as bedrooms.
What if you are looking for a house that is only a few years old? There are very few houses in Santa Cruz that are brand new. Many homes that are older have been completely redone over the years. Even though it may have been built in 1960, it's possible it's had wiring, plumbing, roof, foundation, and appliance (heating, cooling, etc.) upgrades over time. You may be missing your best house by looking for one that is, for example, 20 years old or less.
If you have a pre-approval letter from a lender for $600,000 should you set $600,000 as your maximum price? I advise setting your sights a little higher than that, perhaps $620,000. Remember: the list price is the asking price. In many cases, the seller of the house will accept less than a full price offer. Also, you can have your eye on a house, and if it does not sell at its asking price, the price could be reduced and then fall within your range. It's good to keep an eye on all properties close to your maximum purchase price.