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How to Shop for a Home Online

Attention, Cyber-Shoppers, let your mouse do the walking instead of being dragged from home-to-home by a fast-talking real estate agent. Online home shopping is expanding dramatically, enough to make it worthwhile spending time browsing the web in addition to the Sunday newspaper. But remember the dos and don'ts of the virtual home shopping game.

You just can't beat the World Wide Web for its sheer volume of information and geographical range. You can be sitting at your home computer in Dubuque browsing homes in Denver. Just about anyone can set up a web site, so, of course the quantity and quality of information vary wildly. But a standard, 5-line newspaper ad can't compete with today's well-designed web pages, some of which allow you to take a virtual home tour right from your PC.

A traditional home search involves browsing the newspaper ads or following up on for-sale signs. Most of the time, it's on a "need-to-know" basis, with just enough information to tease you into calling the listing agent. When you're just shopping around, all you want are the facts, not a commitment or a bunch of sales hype. Shopping online is a great shortcut to getting the essential information about home listings, sometimes directly from the seller. Working from your PC, you get to keep your distance from real estate agents or sellers. That's a major advantage to buyers. Naturally, once you make any contact with an agent, you lose your anonymity and become a "sales prospect." But you get to choose when and where to make yourself known.

You're not actually committed to a particular agent until he or she accompanies you to that property in person. Once you do that, the agent becomes part of your baggage. Let's say you don't like the first agent and soon go back and buy the home with a different agent. Under most circumstances, whoever showed you the home originally can stake a claim to at least part of the sales commission, if you end up using someone else a short time later.

Naturally, agents always pump you for information, too. Don't ever give up more than you have to. Never, for example, tell them the maximum amount you're qualified to borrow. That's going to weaken your bargaining position and potentially inflate the asking price.

Web-based advertising has created a bonanza in low-cost advertising for FSBO sellers (for sale by owner) who can't normally compete with real estate brokers. You can browse FSBO listings to your heart's content. It almost puts FSBOs on an equal footing, at least in terms of national exposure. The main reason people choose to sell without an agent is financial-they save 6% in realtor commissions. But remember that they may choose to keep the extra money rather than pass some of it on to you.

The downside to working with do-it-yourselfers is their inexperience and lack of perspective--sometimes they're so emotionally attached they can't set a realistic price or negotiate pragmatically. Any criticism of the home can and will be held against you. Plus they can be clueless when it comes to the specifics of real estate transactions. That's where the computer can be a real shield against a jaded or intemperate home seller. Just remember that e-mail is a very cold medium. It's easy to offend or be offended when you're not facing a person directly or over the phone.

By Cliff McCreedy

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