A funny thing about the digital age — the more information we have access to, the more misinformation we get hit with. In the not-so-long ago days when the Internet was mainly for e-mail and facebooks were made of paper, homes were mostly advertised through newspaper ads. As long as you understood that TLC meant you needed to be handy with a hammer and an "efficiency kitchen" meant you'd better like take-out, you could avoid getting suckered.
Anyone gearing up to buy or sell a house this spring, however, has to bring a bit more skepticism to the process. Sure, the Internet has transformed the process of buying and selling a home in wonderful ways, but it has also increased the opportunities for mischief. Fall for bogus listings and lousy home price “data” and you could wind up overpaying for a home or finding yourself stuck, unable to unload the one you have. Don’t get taken by these big lies:
1. Phony Photos and Videos
Digital photos and video have been a godsend for real estate agents, homebuyers and sellers, enticing prospects to drool over images of Viking ranges, sparkling pools and lush lawns. Lately, agents have been posting interactive photos and floor plans, letting buyers view rooms and exteriors from different vantage points. Some houses have their own YouTube sites.
Problem is, it’s easy to Photoshop photos and edit video to make a house and its neighborhood seem far more attractive than they are. Some sellers post photos of kitchens and gardens you won’t find in the actual property. Videos get color-corrected so the grass, flowers and trees seem fresh and alive. A house may seem newly painted, even though the photo was taken five years ago.
Get the Truth: Go to Google Street View or Microsoft Live Search Maps for a reliable third-party look at a neighborhood or home exterior. They won’t show the inside of a house, though, so you’ll need to drive to the property and see it for yourself.
2. Valuations Lacking Value
Knowing how much a house is truly worth is vitally important whether you’re a buyer or seller. With home values down an average of 30 to 40 percent since 2005 in major metro areas, every penny counts. But you can’t always trust the numbers on home valuation sites such as Zillow, CyberHomes and Realtor.com.
When I plugged in a particular 5-bedroom/4-bath house on these sites, I received vastly different valuations and sometimes incorrect information about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms it had. I’d estimate the house is worth between $1.2 and $1.4 million. Zillow’s “Zestimate” (a calculation also used by RealEstateABC.com) was $943,000; CyberHomes suggested a range of $960,000 to $1.2 million and Realtor.com went with $788,036.
Get the Truth: It’s fine to start with online valuation sites for ballpark estimates. But to get a reliable valuation, get out of the virtual world and into the real world. If you’re selling, invite several real estate agents to walk through your home and analyze its value based on recent comparable sales. You might also hire an independent appraiser (cost: around $350 and up). If you’re buying, hire an agent who has worked the area for years, if not decades. It’s generally a waste of money for a buyer to hire an appraiser, since the lender will require its own appraisal before granting a mortgage.
3. Mortgage Rates You Can’t Get
Visit a mortgage aggregating site such as Bankrate.com and you’ll naturally want to apply for the lowest rate shown. But that rate may not really exist — at least not for every applicant.
Mortgage lenders often advertise fake low rates online without explaining that you can’t get them if your down payment or credit score is too low or you’re not willing to pay extra-high closing costs. At worst, the rate may be a “bait and switch” and wholly unavailable.
Get the Truth: Start your mortgage shopping by identifying a well-known national or regional bank, a small local lender, a well-regarded mortgage broker, a credit union (if you belong to one or can join one), and an Internet mortgage aggregator such as Priceline. Then go to AnnualCreditReport.com to pull a copy of your credit history and to pay to get your credit score. Next, find out what each lender on your list would really charge for your loan. Use the quotes to negotiate the best deal.
4. Unreal Property Descriptions
The old saw, “You can’t believe everything you read” is often true about online listings. A property advertised as having a “water view” might feature a glimpse of the ocean if you open the window, stick your head out, and look left.£ A “light, bright” apartment implies loads of sunshine, but may instead describe the wattage from overhead lighting. A condo’s listing sheet promoting “Southern exposure” might leave out a key fact: The front rooms look south, but the rest of the place faces a warehouse 10 feet away. A mention of an “in-law” or “rentable” apartment over the garage won’t say whether renting out that room is illegal, subjecting you to a future showdown with local zoning officials.
Get the Truth: To weed out unreal estate, do some fact-checking. If the beachfront condo supposedly has a water view, tell the broker to e-mail you a floor plan for the entire building. When a listing sheet says the house had a substantial renovation, check it out before you get too excited. And if you get serious about the property, you can always ask the town building department to confirm a renovation; there may be blueprints on file. If you’re counting on renting out a room above the garage, ask the building department if it’s allowed.
Bonus: Euphemism Alert
One thing that the digital revolution hasn’t changed at all — the extraordinary ability of real estate agents to put lipstick on a pig. Here’s a guide to words and catchphrases you’re likely to encounter and what they really mean:
|The Listing Says...||The Listing May Mean...|
|Cozy/Dollhouse||The house is tiny, cramped and everyone over 6 feet tall will bump their head on the ceiling.|
|Handyman's Special||You'll need to do a gut remodel if you want to make the home livable.|
|Great View||You might have to crane your neck out the window to see the water.|
|Rentable In-law Apartment||This might be a separate room, a half-finished basement, or completely illegal.|
Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and the upcoming Buy, Close, Move In!. She blogs about money and real estate on MoneyWatch and at ThinkGlink.com.
More on MoneyWatch: