Lew Sichelman

Three out of four homebuyers start their house hunt online. But if that’s the extent of your search, you could be missing out on any number of places that fit your parameters.

Some years ago, for example, listings in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, were extremely hard to find online. Agents and homebuyers alike were frustrated when their searches only pulled up listings in nearby Littleton.

The reason: unforgiving technology and a quirk in the local multiple listings service’s software that only a local real estate agent would know about. The problem has since been fixed.

This is not to say online searches are worthless. Far from it. Many buyers find their dream places online at one of the numerous MLS aggregator sites. But while technology has improved greatly since the example above, some sites are still more user-friendly than others.

Not All Entries Reliable

Although all aggregators take their information from the same source – the MLS – each one decides what data to show and in what format. They also differ in what they call “data fields.”

Consequently, your “assumptions can be way off,” said Virginia broker David Rathgeber.

“The search sites are a great help, but compared to the search an agent can do, all the sites are rudimentary,” said Rathgeber.

Many agents have access to sales data that isn’t available to the public, and they may be able to show you homes that don’t appear on search websites.

Beyond that, there are some things you should know about online searches. For instance, if you click on a property you find interesting, you’re just as likely to be connected with an agent who paid a fee to the website as you are to the agent who actually listed the property.

That first agent, Rathgeber said, likely “knows no more about [the listing] than you do.” So, make sure you find the actual listing agent.

House hunters also must realize which data fields are reliable and which are not. Since you can search by practically any criteria, you have to proceed cautiously. You don’t want to miss promising listings, nor do you want to waste time on houses that don’t suit your needs.

As Rathgeber explains it, when agents enter listings into Bright MLS – a huge mid-Atlantic service that represents some 85,000 agents from New Jersey to Virginia – they are required to fill in certain parts of the form, but other fields can be left blank. Some fields are populated automatically; some fields are equipped with “pick lists” or “lookup” functions; some fields can be filled manually.

There are hundreds of fields and thousands of possible entries, the broker said. Consequently, “you are at the mercy of the computer literacy of the listing agent.”

You can’t always count on the photographs that accompany listings, either. Some are professionally done, but others, usually taken by the listing agent, are often too dark, washed out or out of focus.

Caveat Searcher

Most search engines caution that the information in their listings, regardless of the source, should be verified by personal inspection and/or with the appropriate professionals. The fact that the sites do not guarantee any data should be taken as a warning.

Within his local MLS, Rathgeber considers certain search fields totally reliable. Those include the MLS number, county, city, ZIP code, list price, year built, lot size and status (meaning whether the listing is still active, under contract, etc.). You also can pretty much count on the “type of property” to be accurate – whether it’s a single-family house, townhouse, condominium or something else.

After that, though, it pays to be a little cautious. The numbers of bedrooms, bathrooms and fireplaces are usually reliable, he said, while the listing’s style – colonial, split-level and so on – could be more “subject to ambiguity, inaccuracy or judgment.”

His list of error-prone entries is a long one: local schools, number of stories, neighborhood, classification of rooms such as dens or sunrooms, and more. Listing info about basements can be misleading, especially when it comes to townhouses. Square footage can be “very misleading” and days on the market “grossly so.” And value estimates, he said, are “totally worthless.”

Rathgeber’s advice: Search these fields with caution, if at all. “For example, if you search for a condo with a garage, you can miss half the suitable properties,” he said. “If you search for a specific school, it could be even worse.”

Other listing services might work a tad differently, but the idea is the same across the board: Know what you can count on and what you can’t.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com.