Don't miss your
Your guide to online searching
These days almost all home buyers search online. There are dozens of sites; some are more user-friendly, some less. All of them get their data from our MLS service. Each site will decide what data to show, in what format, and what to call the data fields. The information below will help your results mean what you actually want them to mean. Your reasonable assumptions can be way off.
The search sites are a great help, but compared to the search an agent can do, all the sites are rudimentary. Nevertheless, it is critical that online searchers understand which data fields might be reliable, much less than reliable, or downright dangerous. Do you want to be sure that promising properties are not excluded? Do you want to be sure that unsuitable properties are excluded, so that time can be saved by not reviewing them? Read on.
When an agent enters a home in the MLS, there are required fields as well as optional fields that can be left blank. Some of the data fields are populated automatically by the MLS system, and some data are selected from "pick lists." Other information is entered by "lookup" functions, and some by manual data entry, which is iffy. In short, you are at the mercy of the computer-literacy of the 10,000 agents running loose in Northern Virginia. There are hundreds of fields with thousands of possible entries, but we will concentrate on the fields that are often searched online.
Very reliable search fields
- MLS Number (see note 1)
- County / City (determines the first 2 letters of the MLS number) (see note 2)
- ZIP code / Postal City (see note 1)
- List Price (see note 2)
- Year Built / Age (see note 1)
- Lot Size (acres / square feet) (see note 1)
- Status (select Active - contingent or pending will waste time) (see note 2)
- Property Type: Detached / Townhouse / Garden condo / Mid-Rise condo / Hi-Rise condo / etcetera (see note 2).
Usually reliable search fields
- Bedrooms (see note 3)
- Baths (half baths are ignored by some sites, totaled by others) (see note 3)
- Style (i.e. colonial, split-level, etcetera) (see note 2)
- Fireplaces (see note 2).
Unreliable search fields
Avoid searching these fields or use with caution. For example, if you search for a condo with a garage, you can easily miss half the suitable properties. If you search for a specific school, it could be even worse.
- Garage / Parking (see note 3)
- Schools (see note 3)
- Levels / Stories / Floors (can be off by 1) (see note 2)
- Neighborhood / Subdivision (see notes 1 and 2)
- Rooms (Den, Sun Room, etcetera) (see note 3).
Fields subject to ambiguity, inaccuracy, or judgment
These fields should not even be searched: Output in these fields cannot be relied upon.
- Basement (can be misleading, especially in a townhome) (see note 4)
- Square Feet (home size can be very misleading) (see note 4)
- Days on the Market (effectively meaningless and can be grossly misleading) (see note 1) We can discuss this important detail later. The focus now is on finding homes to visit.
- All other fields including Features (see notes 3 and 4)
- Value estimates are totally worthless.
Many sites download information in real time, some weekly. There are no perfect search sites but you might check brightmlshomes which is updated in real time. Fairfax and some other counties have online information on school boundaries and precise home mapping.
Review online photos with caution. There are wide quality variations. Some may be too bright (washed out), some too dark, and some way off-color (in the polychromatic sense). Some are from sophisticated cameras with wide-angle lenses, and some are from smart phones and are un-re-touched. There is no substitute for a visit to your candidate homes. Don't rely heavily on the photos.
Be aware of the MLS disclaimer: "Information is believed to be accurate, but should not be relied upon without verification. Accuracy of square footage, lot size, schools and other information is not guaranteed."
An effective online home search will methodically narrow the thousands of available homes down to the handful that are worth a visit. During a visit you can evaluate proximity to major roads, the surrounding neighborhood, and many other details. Give major consideration to the unchangeable features of the homes. Of less importance are the changeable features: The missing deck, unfinished basement, etcetera. Try to see 10 or more homes in a day, all in a tight price range. Check all features and data that are important to you. Happy hunting!
- Required and usually automatically filled
- Required fields filled manually or from pick-lists
- Fields not required
- Fields that are subject to ambiguity, inaccuracy, or judgment.
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Arlington, Virginia, USA
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