Home Search Tools & Tips

By Jon Miller, Realtor®

Searching for a home is exciting. There’s nothing quite like the zing of energy you get from finding out the exact type of home you’re looking for has gone on the market or opening up your email to find that there are four amazing open houses this weekend. After you’ve checked off the necessary boxes and determined you’re ready to buy a home, it’s time to begin your home search.

The search is, without a doubt, the most fun part of the home buying process. It can get a little overwhelming, especially when there are too many options, so narrowing your options down by your budget, neighborhoods, bedrooms and bathrooms, and size makes the pool a little bit smaller, and more focused on what you want and need.

To make the search process easy, painless, comprehensive, and fun, I’ve rounded up the best resources, tools and tips to help you find your dream home.

Open Houses

Yes, if you really wanted to you could attend that open house for the 10-bedroom mansion with rooftop pool (but I’d recommend sticking to your price range to stay realistic!). Open houses are great because you don’t have to set up an appointment – they’re open to anyone, and it’s a great way to find out what you do and don’t like about certain houses. You can spend a whole weekend driving around and attending different open houses but here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Do Your Research
    Determine which of your target neighborhoods has open houses that weekend, and plot out a map before you head out based on the times they’re open. Most open houses in the Philadelphia area are held on Sunday afternoons and houses are typically open for 2-3 hours but be sure to check because open houses can be held at any time and on any day of the week.
  • Ask Questions
    The hosting agent, who will greet you when you arrive, will have most information ready to share with you about the home. Wondering if the basement gets water when it rains? Or if major repairs have been done recently? Don’t be afraid to ask. If the hosting agent does not know, they’ll be able to get that answer for you or put you in touch with someone who has it.
  • Look Around
    If you’re not sure of the style of home you’re looking for, attend open houses in a variety of homes. You might realize that an old Victorian stone home, versus a brand new construction, is what you’re looking for – there’s no way to know but by experiencing it for yourself.

Keep in mind that most homes for sale will not hold an open house so you’re only seeing a small slice of what’s available in the neighborhood and price range. During any given week you’ll find that only about 10% of homes for sale are hosting an open house. If you plan on attending open houses you can learn what you need to know about touring open houses in my home buyer’s guide.

Zillow, Trulia & Other 3rd Party Sites

There are pros and cons to these listing syndication sites that display homes in a super easy-to-digest format. Most of my clients start their search using these tools, and I think they’re easy to use and helpful but they have their limitations. The biggest issue with these sites is that the information isn’t always up to date. When a home goes on the market it could take days before landing on one of these sites. In a competitive market that means there’s a good chance that the home will be sold before you know it’s on the market. Use these sites as a starting point to comb through listings and browse but you should also connect with a Realtor who can send you listings as soon as they hit the market so you have all of the information. 

The MLS, or Multiple Listing Service

The MLS is the local database that Realtors to share listings. Think of it as Zillow for Realtors only. When a new property goes on the market it’s first listed in the MLS and then later distributed to third-party sites. As soon as I begin working with a client I get them set up with a customized and comprehensive search in the MLS so that they receive instant notifications when a home that meets their needs hits the market. This helps clients get ahead of competing buyers who are only using third-party sites, giving them a competitive advantage on a “hot” home that will sell quickly. Bonus: with the MLS, clients get access to many “coming soon” listings – homes that are soon to go on the market in the neighborhood, but are not yet available on third-party sites.

Getting Started

If you’re thinking of buying a home, I’d strongly recommend getting set up with the MLS, especially if you’re searching in a competitive neighborhood. You can download my home search app for immediate direct access to the MLS or shoot me an email and I can set up a search of homes that will meet your needs. 

For even more resources, tools, tips and advice on buying a home, check out my First-Time Home Buyer’s Guide. Questions? Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Jon Miller, RealtorJon Miller is a Philadelphia Realtor with Compass Real Estate. Jon has been working with home buyers and sellers in Philadelphia and Montgomery County since 2010.