Offbeat Home Search Sites & Tricks

I pretty much take it for granted that if you’re looking for real estate these days you’re using Estately, Redfin, or one of the brokerage search sites to search homes for sale. When you’re looking for additional public record information and neighborhood information, you might head to Zillow, or straight to the public record websites. In case you’re not aware of it, I’ve got a resources page with links to a lot of these pages.

Beyond the basics, there are a few other sites I’ve found that can help you learn about the area around a home you might be considering making an offer on.

One site that launched a while ago and has been slowly gaining traction is WalkScore. It’s not particularly useful if you’re looking at homes in the suburbs or a rural area where you know you’re going to have to drive to get to pretty much anything, but if you’re looking at in-city neighborhoods or urban condos, the WalkScore is a great way to quantitatively compare how convenient a given home might be.

Another site that can come in handy in your home search is CrimeReports. As the name suggests, this site maps publicly-available crime reports, including everything from assaults to what registered sex offenders live nearby. If safety is high on your list, this is a great site to include in your home search.

One trick that I often find myself using is actually on Google Maps. Many of the most popular listing search sites are based on Google Maps, but as far as I’ve seen, none of them have integrated the terrain view, which is one of my favorite features. On the main Google Maps site, pull up the address you’re interested in, zoom out a bit, then check the “terrain” box on the “more” drop-down. Finding out how a home sits on the terrain is a bigger deal in the Seattle area, with our many hills, than it might be in Phoenix, but if you’re at all interested in what kind of view a home might have before you go look at it, terrain view is a great trick.

What offbeat sites are you using in your real estate search? I’m always looking for new resources. I’ll add your suggestions to this post as they come in through the comments.

Full disclosure: The Tim is employed by Redfin.

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About The Tim

Tim Ellis is the founder of Seattle Bubble. His background in engineering and computer / internet technology, a fondness of data-based analysis of problems, and an addiction to spreadsheets all influence his perspective on the Seattle-area real estate market. Tim also hosts the weekly improv comedy sci-fi podcast Dispatches from the Multiverse.

30 comments:

  1. 1

    Nothing Beats Looking at the Lot

    If it’s on top of a hill draining on everyone else [especially in the deluges and floods that seem likely this Winter/Spring], buy it.

    If the driveway is slanted downward toward the garage door, assume periodic flooded garage, basement.

    If it’s down in the Green River Valley, let’s put it this way, federal flood insurance is a joke if a national disaster is called in the next few years….it becomes null and void.

  2. 2

    While Zillow isn’t a good site to look for listings (as is implicit in Tim’s mentioning looking at broker sites), their Android app (and possibly other smartphone apps) is good at finding recent solds within proximity of your smartphone. You can even easily pull of the listing photos. That can be useful while you’re at a house you’re interested in, but I’d back up that research later via other means.

  3. 3
    ChrisM says:

    more rural, but soil data available here:
    http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/

    I also check out the various county appraiser sites.

    Zillow’s lot size data is extremely unreliable, so much so that I’ve stopped going there except in the rare case that Redfin/Google can’t show the property boundary.

    Flood plains were recently redefined in the Clark county area. PDF here:
    ftp://ftp.clark.wa.gov/pub/PW-MISC/Revised%20DFIRM/CLARKCOUNTY-INDEX.pdf

    more info here:
    http://www.clark.wa.gov/commdev/engineering/fema/maps.html

  4. 4
    jlb says:

    I like using Bing maps bird’s eye view to check out neighborhoods I’m unfamiliar with. I find I can see a lot more using it than google satellite maps and street view. The fact that you can usually view the house from 4 different angles helps quite a lot. As I’m sure you know, Redfin makes this easily available but not all the other sites do.

  5. 5
    TheHulk says:

    Use google/bing maps to determine if there are large power lines in the vicinity. The bing maps 3D view works particularly better for this.

    The street view on google has better coverage if you want to see what is in the vicinity of the house.

  6. 6
    brainiac says:

    This is good for earthquake hazards.

    http://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/pacnw/lifeline/index.html

    FEMA has some good flood maps.

    https://hazards.fema.gov/wps/portal/mapviewer

  7. 7

    RE: TheHulk @ 5

    Good Point TheHulk

    There’s a PhD at the University of Washington who’s recently developed a substantially believable theory that cell phone electro-magnetic radiation held close to the brain causes significant cancer tumor risk….the elctro-magnetic radiation under power lines is so high it can light florescent tubes held in your hands.

    There was a study about a decade ago in E Wash on pigs living under high powered lines and “they say” no imminent cancer risks….but I don’t trust them either, and I have a NucE post graduate background.

    I use a “ghost hunter” type electro-magnetic meter in my office area. The red risk zones are:

    1. Right in back of your desktop computer, CRT or LCD….all about the same.
    2. Old fashion big adding machines that plug in.
    3. The curser spot on a laptop you use to replace the mouse [use a mouse it’s safer].

  8. 8
    Daniel says:

    By softwarengineer @ 7:

    There’s a PhD at the University of Washington who’s recently developed a substantially believable theory that cell phone electro-magnetic radiation held close to the brain causes significant cancer tumor risk….the elctro-magnetic radiation under power lines is so high it can light florescent tubes held in your hands.

    There are many studies about that rolling in and so far most results are negative. The main effect of cell phone radiation as well as wireless networks is that they heat surrounding tissue. One claim was that this can actually raise male infertility rates. For people using their phone/laptop moderately this is no issue.

    Power lines are probably quite harmless on the other hand. There are many studies and many risk groups (including my fellow physicists working at accelerators) and there is no indication of higher cancer rates in those risk groups that I am aware off.

    1. Right in back of your desktop computer, CRT or LCD….all about the same.

    No this is NOT the same at all! CRT emit low amounts of soft x-rays which are mostly shielded to the front meaning you get the radiation mainly to the back. This is much more harmful than the frequencies emitted by other types of displays.

    3. The curser spot on a laptop you use to replace the mouse [use a mouse it’s safer].

    I may get the source of this wrong (as I said wireless adapters are also to blame) but this depends purely on your laptops design and emission there is pretty low. This is usually the spot the processor sits and the radiation from that is microwave. Most of this cancels due to the multilayer setup used in the chip and a lot of it gets also shielded. In a desktop almost none survives but in laptops its measurable.

    There is a whole industry out there selling you equipment to reduce radiation and giving helpful advice. 99% of that is scientiic nonsense and some sold equipment even makes things worse. Buy some snake oil instead, it works the same well.

  9. 9
    ARDELL says:

    Searching by a particular elementary school has become more common in recent years, and not by “School District” alone.

    My clients use these two school ranking sites to choose which schools are “good enough”:

    http://www.greatschools.org/search/search.page?search_type=0&q=kirkland&state=WA&c=school

    The above site ranks the schools from 1 to 10,and most of my clients look for an 8, 9 or 10.

    Another site used in conjunction with the one above is

    http://www.schooldigger.com/go/WA/city/kirkland/search.aspx?level=1

    Which ranks from 1 to 5. Usually a 10 school on one, is a 5 on the other, but a good double check system. Most don’t use the stars vs the numbered system.

    Once you identify the schools, the best way to search for homes is to put the name of the school in Estately.com because Estately shows all homes for sale in the school boundary lines, whether or not the agent who listed the property noted the school in the mls system.

    http://www.estately.com/map#map

    You should always double check with the School District, especially if the home is near one of the boundary lines.

    Estately added this feature back on November 3rd of 2010 and it is extremely helpful to parents looking for homes served by only particular schools, and not by School District alone.

  10. 10
    Hugh Dominic says:

    The city of Seattle has a great interactive tool to search for nearby permitting activity. Very important for the property itself as well as to see if the cute bungalow across the street is about to be bulldozed for a mcmanse.

  11. 11
    EconE says:

    Google streetview is pretty cool.

  12. 12

    RE: Daniel @ 8

    I Agree With You to Some Degree

    I’m a believer that whatever we do to lengthen our lives, “it won’t be that that kills you”.

    On the other hand I still avoid seafood for its mercury, take flax oil to thin my blood, multi vitamins with 18 minerals that the food likely omits, etc, etc…

    I believe we all have a DNA sand glass and when the sand runs out, it’s over….albeit, avoiding toxic situations is still prudent and perhaps adds some time [even if its small] to our lifespans.

    BTW, do you use cell phones near your head frequently and live closely under power lines?

  13. 13
    TheHulk says:

    RE: Daniel @ 8

    From a scientific and/or health perspective I don’t have any concrete information either way about living close to power lines. From a real-estate and housing perspective, most people view them as either an eyesore or annoying (due to the noise). Regardless, it seems to decrease the number of prospective customers to whom I may have to sell the house in the future. Hence it is a no-no for me personally. A split entry on the other hand is a complete showstopper.

  14. 14

    RE: Daniel @ 8

    The EMF meter I have goes off the scale into the red on all desktop computer backs, CRTs and LCDs [I imagine plasmas too]. I wonder what it would do in a full body x-ray devise at an airport? The laptop finger curser makes it go off the scale into the red too [pegs it].

    Does this mean doom?

    The trouble with finding a cure for cancer IMO is the thousands of toxic situations we subject ourselves too [besides radiation too] and isolating the worst ones from the more innocuous ones. If you and I really knew the answer(s) we’d have a cancer cure, both of us obviously don’t.

  15. 15
    Daniel says:

    By TheHulk @ 13:

    RE: Daniel @ 8

    From a scientific and/or health perspective I don’t have any concrete information either way about living close to power lines. From a real-estate and housing perspective, most people view them as either an eyesore or annoying (due to the noise). Regardless, it seems to decrease the number of prospective customers to whom I may have to sell the house in the future. Hence it is a no-no for me personally. A split entry on the other hand is a complete showstopper.

    Oh I think they are an eyesore AND annoying. There just has been an explosion of claims of adverse health effects that are never backed up. Correspondingly the snake oil salesmen have popped up and scam people out of their money.

  16. 16
    Daniel says:

    RE: softwarengineer @ 14
    1) the type of radiation from the CRT is much worse
    2) Cancer is not one disease it is multiple hundred or even thousands of diseases we all call cancer as they have similar properties. Therefore there will never be a single cure for all. We can however hope that similar approaches help for large classes.

  17. 17

    You can get great demographic info by going to the Census Bureau’s American Fact Finder.
    Among other things, it will tell you within a very narrow area the education level of the area’s residents. If you want to live around smartypantses, you can seek out a neighborhood with a high percentage of residents with postgraduate degrees. If you want to live around hillbillies, you can out a neighborhood with a high percentage of residents who have not finished high school.
    It also has household income information for each neighborhood, by zip code or census tract.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    Bryan says:

    Looking at Estately now. Most of the listings I find are either pending, or are crappy subplat detached townhomes. Yuk.

    I use the John L Scott website.

    Still, the search features are tough. I’d like to create custom polygons to define my target neighborhoods, and I have several core search criteria that are only so-well honored by most sites…

    I am constantly amazed by just how inefficient the real estate market remains, even with all these tools that supposedly help.

  20. 20
    BillE says:

    Snohomish County permit, zoning, and flood map.
    http://gis.snoco.org/maps/permits/index.htm

  21. 21

    By EconE @ 11:

    Google streetview is pretty cool.

    That is true. Very often you can tell just from that the neighborhood will not be suitable.

  22. 22

    RE: Daniel @ 16

    Interesting Theory, Do You have a Reference With Medical Research?

    American medical research has been butcher axed [even the cell phone research at the U of W is unfunded] lately….the Italians did medical research on red wine and discovered it has a chemical [only in red wine] that mitigates cell cancer. I had lunch with an American cancer specialist and she told me that red wine does not reduce cancer risk. I told her about the Italian medical research and she then agreed it was valid….LOL

    Most Wash St doctors will never tell you to drink red wine, until you twist their wrists…LOL

    I heard red wine [in moderation] reduced Prostrate cancer risk 90%….this was a decade old U of W research effort.

    Bottom line: don’t let Wash St politically correct shorten your life….LOL

  23. 23
    BubbleBuyer says:

    Great, Crime Reports shows I have a sex offender living 1 block from me.

    Convicted for RCW 9A.44.073
    Rape of a child in the first degree.

    What is more disturbing is that this guy is living several blocks from
    McClure, Coe Schools, Seattle Country Day Schools

  24. 24
    Lurker says:

    If you live in the city, sadly no matter where you live you are probably going to have a sex offender somewhat near you.

  25. 25
    BubbleBuyer says:

    RE: Lurker @ 24

    True, even Mercer Island has sex offenders. Still, this guy is also living within 1 1/2 blocks of 3 licensed child daycare centers in addition to close to the 3 schools. Guess Washington State has no restrictions on where a level II offender can live.

    I wonder what the impact of discovering the proximity to a registered sex offender has on the decision making process of a buyer. I know what I would do if I was a buyer.

  26. 26
    Lurker says:

    Indeed. With this type of information becoming more readily available I do feel it can make a significant impact. Last year there was a particular SFH rental I was excited about but after seeing the results from a neighborhood offender lookup we quickly retreated from it.

    BTW – Offenders only have a 880 foot restriction from living near daycares or schools.

  27. 27
    Daniel says:

    RE: softwarengineer @ 22 – A reference for CRTs or for what we call cancer?

    I do not read much medical research but most fundamental research about cancer is actually cell biology and genetics. One of the more clear presentations I have seen on this topic is this:

    http://agenda.infn.it/contributionDisplay.py?contribId=345&sessionId=44&confId=2128

    Unfortunately the slides do not help much and the proceedings are not yet published.

    The generally accepted classification of what is cancer is from this seminal paper:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10647931

    Now why is my conclusion that it is many diseases if all types of cancer exhibit the same traits? I have not find my original reference for that but I have found this:

    http://www.netwellness.org/healthtopics/cancer/introduction.cfm

    So If one can actually fight the defects in cell mechanisms at the root of cancer one could cure large classes. Unfortunately so far this is not how successful treatment looks. So I should have formulated my post milder: It is somewhat unlikely that one treatment will cure all cancer.

  28. 28
    ElPolloLoco says:

    RE: softwarengineer @ 7

    There’s a PhD at the University of Washington who’s recently developed a substantially believable theory that cell phone electro-magnetic radiation held close to the brain causes significant cancer tumor risk….the elctro-magnetic radiation under power lines is so high it can light florescent tubes held in your hands. There was a study about a decade ago in E Wash on pigs living under high powered lines and “they say” no imminent cancer risks….but I don’t trust them either, and I have a NucE post graduate background.

    Don’t mean to derail the thread, just wanted to clarify something: NucE is Nuclear Engineering?

    What school was this?

  29. 29
    Greg says:

    I started using this site recently from ESRI:

    http://redlandsbaoapp1.esri.com/ZipCodeLookup/Default.aspx

    This shows “tapestry” segments, which explain (stereotype?) the primary demographic groups by zip code. I found it to be quite fascinating, but it’s only one data point, and it is geared more towards marketers rather than home shoppers. It would be nice to be able to pinpoint it by neighborhood because sometimes you find a wide variety within a single zip code (you can probably dig through the US Census as others mentioned above, but that takes more work).

  30. 30
    Galen says:

    RE: Bryan @ 19 – Bryan, Estately does have townhomes. We also have every home in the MLS.

    You are correct that we have pendings on Estately. We recently made it easier for people to identify them by clearly marking pendings. A lot of consumers want to see homes that may come back onto the market and / or see which homes are actually selling.

    We work hard to make our search fast and easy to use. Feel free to email me with other feedback – galen at Estately.

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