Good Tools

By Dave Fratello | February 8th, 2008
Two things have crossed MBC's virtual desk recently that caused us to reflect on what the best sources of real estate information are for consumers who aren't currently allied with a real estate agent.

First, of course, this week, we got our new local MLS system, Mr. MLS, which was a bit of a disappointment. (See: "The New Order: MRMLS.")

Second, we have recently been test-driving a great new site that offers foreclosure information plus a lot of interesting property data for free.

Less information, more information... It's a matter of knowing where to go, what tools work best for which purposes.

Let's start with Mr. MLS and the alternatives. It was a bit of a shock this week to see that the Mr. MLS public search tool offers consumers no DOM information and does not provide start prices. Any property you see thru Mr. MLS appears to be fresh and well-priced, with any inconvenient information absent. Those are two steps backward.

However, Mr. MLS is very strict in opposing bogus re-lists, as such actions threaten "to confuse the marketplace and skew the market statistics." (According to Mr. MLS's violation letter.) That policy is a step forward.

Happily, consumers can benefit from Mr. MLS's policy changes without being stuck using that goofy search function.

We continue to believe that ZipRealty offers the best online property search tools, particularly when you know what you're looking for. The downside to Zip is that you need to register, and you might get some phone calls as a result.

ZipRealty's listing data are up-to-the-minute, or nearly so, and you have tons of options for custom searches. Within MB, you can't search by region (Hill, Tree, Sand, East), but that's a very small complaint. (Tangent: MBC's links to Net Real Estate and their auto searches of MB sections appear to be down now, after the merger.)

Zip shows start dates and DOM, and also captures all price changes, and lists them by date. Previously, re-lists have rendered these features of Zip somewhat less valuable, but, going forward, Zip might be a great central data source for MB RE.

Redfin's search functions are not nearly as crisp as Zip's. Redfin will deluge you in data and listings when you specify a general area. The system can be quite useful in helping to get acquainted with a new area. Once you've got a micro-focus, however, Redfin keeps throwing out a wide net, which can be confusing. (Redfin is rolling out a "neighborhood" approach to search, but it doesn't yet seem to operate on the micro level that MBC readers might expect.)

If you have a specific address to search for, and particularly an MLS #, Redfin's property display pages are top-tier, and they're continuing to improve. Like ZIP, Redfin shows DOM (though not start dates) and price changes. Recent sales data for a specific property appear with the current listing info, which can be important information. The whole page is full of information and links any prospective buyer would find useful.

Now, those two search tools are pragmatic and useful for anyone scanning the market. There's another new online service that offers exquisite detail for free that might be of vital, immediate interest, or might be more like Googling your friends and neighbors. is set up principally as a foreclosure data source. (Basic subscription: $10/mo., very competitive.) However, any user can get up to 6 free "property data" reports each day. A "property data" report for any specific address unleashes an absolute torrent of information.

Oh, maybe we should summarize, but it's hard – from the building specifics to the zoning regs to 3 kinds of maps to population density to fire threat to demographics... We are just scratching the surface here. It's a lot.

What you'll find addictive, perhaps: does not just offer recent sales info, it names both parties to the recent sales, including, of course, the current owners. For recent sales, Pshark provides PDF's of the county recorder's documents. And, for lots of properties, but not nearly all, Pshark shows you mortgage details.

That level of detail is normally quite hard to get as a civilian who's not paying some service. (RE pros take these things for granted, but they pay prettily, too.) You'll easily tolerate the shortfalls in data in exchange for the unprecedented free access.

Pshark is really just getting started in LA County, but they've already democratized property information to a great extent. As we enter a period where defaults and foreclosures all over our county are becoming ever more prevalent, Pshark needs to compete with the existing foreclosure info sources. If they will keep open their front door for a while, we'll be ever grateful.

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