By Ali Donoghue
Contrary to what you may have heard, real estate isn’t immune to the information age. Beyond cat memes and up-to-the-second sports scores, the internet offers access to information that previously was not easily available to home buyers.
For example, my brokerage, Redfin, has a website with home listings updated every 15 minutes – in other words, you can see exactly what your real estate agent is seeing, in real-time. That simply wasn’t possible just ten years ago.
In addition to looking for homes online, many of my clients, particularly Millennials, like to do their own background searches on neighborhoods and homes that they’re interested in. As a real estate agent, I’m all for it: two sets of eyes are better than one.
So, here are some of my favorite online hacks for your condo research.
Check out the Neighborhood
Nothing beats walking around a neighborhood in person, during both the daylight hours and at night, to give you a sense of what it’s like. That said, spending half-an-hour walking around won’t capture all there is to know. Use the following tools to learn more:
- A Google News search of the neighborhood name will turn up what’s making headlines. While news reports can be sensational, this will give you a good sense of what’s happening in the area. Also helpful are websites like EveryBlock (available in some cities) and other local neighborhood blogs, such as DNAinfo (available for Chicago and New York).
- Use Walk Score. How many shops, restaurants and grocery stores are in a neighborhood where you might purchase? Walk Score gives you the answer – it also gives each neighborhood a Transit Score and Bike Score. Once you’re considering a particular condo, you can even type in the exact address for a customizable score.
- Check Crime Statistics. Some local newspapers (like the Chicago Tribune) will publish crime data for each neighborhood. Better still, most police departments have crime statistics on their websites.
Check out the Unit
Once you’ve picked a neighborhood and you’re considering writing an offer on a specific condo, you’ll want to get the low-down on the property. Here’s how to dig really deep:
- Pull the Tax Records. Yes, the most recent year’s information is on the listing. But by pulling the records, you’ll find several years of tax payment data, allowing you to see if the current owner is delinquent on their taxes (a problem if you want to buy), if they’re taking a homeowner’s exemption (if not, your taxes may be lower) and when the property was last appraised (if the most recent appraisal is out-of-date with the current rising market, you may be facing a tax hike soon). To look at official tax records, simply find your county tax assessor’s website and use their search functionality. (Note: most, but not all counties have this data digitized.)
- Search for Litigation. Go to your county’s Recorder of Deeds website, and search by the property identification number, the condo association name and the name of the current owner in separate searches. Note what you find. You may also want to check criminal and civil court records. Many counties have searchable court data online – go to the county website and look for a court records search, often through the clerk of the court. (Note: not all counties will have this data digitized, but all counties will have a way for you to request public information. Also note that if you decide to make an offer and get it accepted, your title insurance company will do a similar search before closing and the condo association will be required to notify you of all current and pending litigation.)
- Search for Building Permits and Violations. Homeowners and builders are usually required to file permit requests with the local department of buildings if they want to change their structure. Many jurisdictions also publish building code violations. Find the name of the relevant jurisdiction in your locality and then check out whether your unit was involved in any violations or changes – and make sure that the permitted changes were inspected after completion.
Check Out Your Financing Options
Once you’ve had an offer on a home accepted, it’s time to check out your financing options. Yes, you’ll have already gotten pre-approved by a lender, but that doesn’t mean you need to use that lender to actually fund your loan.
- Find the Current Mortgage Rate. Go to a site like the government’s Freddie Mac page to see current and historic mortgage rates. While this is not necessarily the rate you’ll get (these are the rates reserved for those with the best credit) yours should be in the ballpark. If it’s not, your lender should be able to explain why.
- Research All the Loan Possibilities. Mortgages are complicated and important, so don’t just rely on what a lender tells you. Here is a basic mortgage tutorial to get you started. You should know how each part of the loan works and what type of loan you want before you shop around.
- Get Several Good Faith Estimates. When you apply for a loan, a lender is required to give you a Good Faith Estimate (GFE). Usually they’ll be able to email this to you. Make sure you get the GFEs all in the same day, preferably within hours of each other, as the mortgage market fluctuates regularly and you want to compare apples to apples. The lender should also include the fee worksheet when sending over the GFE. Really look through these details, since most line items are negotiable. Figure out exactly what each fee means and why you’re paying it.
Once you know the prevailing rates, understand what type of loan you want and have several Good Faith Estimates, you can start to negotiate origination fees and work to secure the most cost-effective loan for your needs.
In sum, while real estate agents and lenders used to be the sole gatekeepers of information about the home buying process, that’s no longer the case. A savvy buyer with a good internet connection can quickly learn a lot about the process – as it should be.
I always work as my clients’ best advocate, but having clients who are engaged and informed can really make the home-search process magical – and can help them reduce stress, since they can be confident in their decisions every step of the way.
Ali Donoghue is a Redfin real estate agent in Chicago. She’s an expert negotiator who loves educating her clients about all aspects of the real estate process. In 2013, she was named a Top 1% Producer by the Chicago Association of Realtors. While she’s studied in London and speaks Italian, Donoghue is a lifelong Chicagoan who has enjoyed watching the Windy City’s neighborhoods transform over the years.