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How To Search for a Home Online

Searching for a home online is fraught with consumer dangers.This article will address a few of the problems and how to avoid them.

Perhaps the most important FIRST STEP in searching online for a home is finding the best online home listing services  (home search engines) that are complete, impartial and do not direct you to an agent from the listing company (the seller’s broker). We recommend using a combination of search engines in order to get the most complete results. 


For example, the top home sale websites in the U.S. are Yahoo! Real Estate, Realtor.com, Zillow.com, Trulia.com and MSN Real Estate. With the exception of Realtor.com and Trulia.com, all of those search engines have access to For Sale By Owner (“FSBO” houses for sale without a Realtor) properties. By using a combination of the different search engines, you will be less likely to miss a house that meets your requirements. Remember, most Realtors will not show you FSBO properties because they have no compensation agreements with those sellers. 

Traps in selecting an online house searching service

  • MLSonline.com is NOT related to the Realtor owned Multiple Listing Service (“MLS”). Many consumers think that this company is the MLS – it is not. 
  • Realtor firms have their own “portals” into the Realtor owned MLS system.  Do not use these portals as they will almost always refer you to one of their own agents depriving you of the right to have your agent represent you and earn the firm a double commission.
  • Realtor.com is probably the most updated and complete national search engine and its data is sourced directly from the real MLS daily.  However, this resource is tied to the National Realtor Association and does not include FSBO’s (For Sale By Owners – or homes that are for sale without Realtors).

The SECOND STEP is to use these search engines wisely. Search engines that show Realtor listings are properties in which the seller owes a commission to the listing Realtor. That commission is split between the seller’s Realtor and the buyer’s Realtor. If there is no buyer’s Realtor, or if there is a dispute as to who showed the buyer the home first, the seller’s Realtor will typically pocket the whole commission. If you are a do it yourself buyer or working with a buyer’s agent, it is very important that you are very careful about how you set up appointments.  If you are not careful, you will lose your right to representation and will end up giving the listing Realtor a windfall double commission. They call those “hoggers” in the industry.

The easiest way to avoid the problems identified above is to hire your own Realtor. It is not fair and it is not right, but it is simply a fact that the real estate industry is highly protected and embraces a high level of anti-competitive behavior that is harmful to consumers. In many circumstances, the only way to avoid the listing broker from collecting a double commission is to hire your own Realtor (click here to read our article on how to negotiate with a buyer's Realtor).

Tips in setting up appointments to see homes that you found online: 

  • Hire a buyer’s Realtor who is not affiliated with the listing brokerage firm to show you the house you found.  Before using that agent, first negotiate a buyer representation agreement that discounts the fee that they collect from the seller’s broker with the remainder going to you.  Make sure the agent will help you negotiate price and terms and that they disclose all compensation being offered to them by the listing broker. 
  • Try to get the listing broker to pay you the amount that they were going to pay your agent.  Read this linked article carefully for an understanding of the issues that come into play.In some states you can hire an attorney to collect the commission and give it back to you.  Ask your attorney if this is possible.

 Traps in setting up your own appointment to see a house: 

  • NEVER go to an open house or contact the firm listing the house. If you do, you will likely lose your right to hire your own agent and ensure that the listing broker gets paid a double commission “hogger.”   
  • NEVER use an agent who tells you that you do not have to worry about their fee because it is free or the seller’s are paying for it. The fee paid to the buyer broker is negotiable and you can save a lot of money if you negotiate this correctly.
  • NEVER use brokerage websites to search for real estate listings. Many brokerage firms are trying to build up their web traffic so that they can use this data to convince sellers to exclude listings from important house search engines (click here to read an article about this problem).