Online Sleuthing News Feed

The Web has helped home buyers find places to live for years, through real-estate agencies' sites and classified listings. But now a number of sites have emerged that provide a raft of information beyond price, location and photos.

Among other things, these sites allow house hunters to screen prospective neighbors, evaluate school districts and see how members of the community rate a street's Internet connectivity and cellphone service. Shoppers can keep abreast of the news in a neighborhood they're considering, and get alerts when houses list for sale or restaurants open -- or when a registered sex offender moves to the area. Consumers can find energy-efficient homes and compare locations by levels of toxic waste or drought conditions. And both buyers and sellers can join discussions with others who are in the market and real-estate professionals.

All of this information can be particularly helpful in turbulent real-estate markets like today's, when many people would welcome greater assurance that they're making the right decision.

Here's a survey of what's out there.

Comparison Shopping

"You can see just about any type of information about a house on Trulia.com," says Matthew Orr, a Long Beach, N.Y., resident who used the site to find the home he and his fiancée are due to close on this month.

For starters, users can enter a city, town or ZIP Code and see a listing of every home for sale, sortable by price, address, number of bedrooms or bathrooms, broker or type of home (single-family or multi-family). They can also narrow the search by establishing parameters for location, size and property type. Mr. Orr says he and his fiancée used Trulia.com, which is owned by San Francisco-based Trulia Inc., to zero in on houses with big yards for their dogs, and he recommends the site's home-comparison features.

Clicking on a listing brings up a page with a more-detailed description of the home, including how long it has been on the market, and photos. This page also offers lists of similar homes for sale and similar recently sold homes, with links to pages for each of those homes; charts comparing the home's price to those of the similar homes and to the average listing and sale prices in the area; a sales history for the home, drawn from public records; and a link to a real-estate guide for the area that includes information on market trends, schools, crime statistics, income levels and commuting times.

There are also discussion boards, and users can arrange to have email alerts sent to them when properties within their search parameters are listed or sold. The site can also send alerts when the price of a particular house changes or the house is sold.

Similar features are available on the site owned by Seattle-based Zillow.com. Boulder, Colo., resident Melanie Fredericks says that when she and her husband were considering selling their house and buying a new home closer to their jobs, they used Zillow.com to "gather all the information before even heading to a real-estate agent, and decided to wait for a better time to sell." One feature she found helpful was what the site calls Zestimates, which are Zillow.com's estimates of the value of homes, including homes that aren't listed for sale.

Another interesting feature of Zillow.com is that people whose homes aren't on the market but who would consider selling at the right price can post a "Make Me Move" price to see if there's any interest worth exploring.

Users of these and other real-estate sites should keep in mind that the data the sites use can sometimes be dated. For instance, information on the number of bedrooms and bathrooms may not reflect recent renovations. And the census figures the sites use for demographic profiles may be years old, so they may not reflect recent trends in rapidly changing neighborhoods or towns.

Someone's Listening

One way to supplement the statistical information on real-estate sites and to get help with particular questions or concerns is to seek input from others in the market and from real-estate professionals on the sites' discussion boards. Both Trulia and Zillow say these are their most popular features.

Lisa Suarez, an insurance broker from San Leandro, Calif., turned to a discussion board on Trulia.com recently after months of failing to find a buyer for her home.

Ms. Suarez posted a message on Trulia Voices at 2 a.m. asking if anyone had any suggestions on how to speed up the process of selling her home. Within minutes, she says, she was contacted by a real-estate agent who offered some advice that Ms. Suarez liked, and the two agreed to meet. Ms. Suarez hired the agent, Cindi Hagley of Windermere Real Estate Services Co. in San Ramon, Calif., and within three weeks had two offers for her house that she is considering. "In this devastating market, it means everything that you can reach someone out there that's listening," she says.

What the Neighbors Say

Other sites are designed to give users a look at neighborhoods through the eyes of the people who live there. On recently launched StreetAdvisor.com, based in Melbourne, Australia, buyers can look for input from residents of a particular street about their neighbors, local services and more.

For instance, potential buyers looking at a home on North Carlyn Ave. in Campbell, Calif., can read a review of life on the street written by Tom Huggett, who has lived there for 21 years. He notes that the first houses were built before World War II, and readers can practically feel the shade of the mature sycamores, redwoods, oaks and fruit trees he describes. The people range from infants to seniors, he says, and are "friendly but not nosey and helpful but not pushy." And he notes that it's only about three blocks to a "newly vibrant downtown" with a lot of bars, restaurants and shops.

Reviewers also rate their street for its overall "vibe," which includes neighborly spirit and night life, among other factors; for its Internet and pay-TV access and cellphone reception; for its "health," which includes factors like cleanliness, noise levels and traffic; for the cost of living and real-estate values; and for services and amenities like public transportation, medical facilities, schools, child care, and parks and recreation. Users can post pictures and videos as well.

One drawback of the site is that it hasn't had the time to build up much content. Mr. Huggett is the only contributor from his street, for instance, and users will find no comments for many streets.

For a different take on neighborhood life, house hunters can check San Diego-based RottenNeighbor.com. This site lets users post complaints about their neighbors, so it can serve as a warning about frictions in a neighborhood. One recent user in Chicago wrote that the "guy on the top floor of this building plays his stereo all day and night. It's so loud....He's why I'm moving."

Again, while such sites can be useful, there is a caveat. There is no way for sites that depend on user-generated content to verify the vast majority of information that people post, and of course such comments are largely, and often entirely, subjective.

Is It Green?

Several sites cater to house hunters' concerns about energy efficiency and the environment. Walkscore.com, started by Seattle-based Front Seat Management LLC in July, rates the walkability of a neighborhood by the proximity of stores, restaurants, schools, parks, libraries and more to an address the user submits.

In the wake of a recent rash of brush fires, water shortages and other drought conditions around the country, Sperling's Best Places of Portland, Ore., launched DroughtScore.com last month. By entering a ZIP Code, town or city, users can see a graph showing the past 13 months of drought levels in an area, based on statistics from the National Climatic Data Center.

For a broad view of the environmental conditions in a neighborhood, the best resource is the Environmental Protection Agency. At EPA.gov, house hunters can click on the "Where You Live" tab to learn about levels of air and water pollution, hazardous-waste sites and releases of toxic chemicals in a given city, county or ZIP Code.

At EnergyStar.gov, a joint site of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, users can find builders working with the EPA to build homes that meet the government's Energy Star standards for energy efficiency. Another site, EcoBroker.com, owned by EcoBroker International, Evergreen, Colo., can also help users find homes with energy-efficient and environmentally friendly features.

Schools, Crime and News

Other sites specialize in information on school systems and crime statistics, areas that some real-estate agents aren't inclined to talk about because of concerns that their comments could be construed as steering people away from or toward certain neighborhoods.

"I'm very careful as to what I tell buyers when they ask those questions," says Toni L. Medjuck, owner of Beach to Bay Realty in Seminole, Fla. "I'd rather refer them to where they can find the information."

For Sergey Krasnovsky and his wife, planning a move to Seattle meant using GreatSchools.net to narrow their search to two school districts for their 8-year-old son. Only then did they look for a potential home to buy. "The site lets you analyze each school not only based on [statistical ratings] but also on real feedback from parents," Mr. Krasnovsky notes.

The site gives information for both public and private schools, including test scores, the ethnicity of students, student-teacher ratios and spending per pupil. In addition to written reviews, parents rate schools for principal leadership, teacher quality, extracurricular activities, parent involvement, and safety and discipline. The site is owned by GreatSchools Inc., a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco. Another site, SchoolMatters.com, a service of the Standard & Poor's division of McGraw-Hill Cos., provides information on public schools only.

For crime statistics, Las Vegas-based AreaConnect LLC lets users compare data for more than 8,000 cities at www.AreaConnect.com/crime. Family Watchdog LLC, based in Indianapolis, provides the addresses and pictures of registered sex offenders at FamilyWatchdog.us. The site also will send email and cellphone alerts if a registered offender moves into a given neighborhood.

For a much broader scope, YourStreet.com, owned by San Francisco-based YourStreet Inc., lets users find recent news reports and commentary from blogs for any location in the U.S. The material includes crime reporting but also covers the full spectrum of community news. Users can also initiate or join discussions about local events. "We look at news as the foundation of what is really going on in a local community," says James Nicholson, YourStreet's CEO and founder.

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