You’re Going about It all Wrong – Or How to Search for Homes in Charlottesville (Without a Realtor)

How do you search for homes? In Charlottesville or anywhere else?

I got a call recently from a buyer who was searching homes.com and found one of my listings. Unfortunately, the listing was actually under contract (and had been for a while). I first thanked her for telling me that one of my listings was inaccurately displayed on Homes.com and asked how I could help.

She expressed her frustration – that she had been searching online for a home for a while; that whenever she found a home she was interested in, she would call the agent to go see it. Real estate search is fragmented, and it’s likely to be that way for a while. I’m frustrated, too. There is no credible aggregator of all the homes for sale – whether they be “marketed”

To which I said – “I think you’re going about this the wrong way.”

- First – pick an agent who will be able to guide you through the process (for instance, tell you where to search for homes online).

- When you call a sellers’ agent to show you the house, that agent is not representing your best interests – that agent is representing the seller and the sellers’ best interests.

How do you pick a good Buyer’s Agent – for you?

Once you have an agent who is able to guide you through the process, search well and search often.



How do I learn about how my clients and others are searching for homes? I ask. (I’m not afraid of either asking or saying “I don’t know”)

This is one of my clients’ search processes – and this is my public “thank you!” for sharing and allowing me to publish your work -

How do you search for homes in Charlottesville?

1. Your IDX site- Browse the map for affordable homes in places I want to live. Or, check the local MLS for new listings and then look on IDX to see if there is more information there.

2. Look up found home on City Assessment (Ed note: or Albemarle County or Fluvanna, etc.) website to find:

a. Tax Assessment price (editor’s note:In my opinion, assessed values have little to no correlation to what a property’s actual market value would be)

b. Who owns it? Does the owner live there? This often leads to another search on the City Assessment website for the owner’s name to see how many properties the owner has. Do the owners seem to be in good financial shape or have they made a lot of bad decisions (i.e. may need to get rid of the property to stay above water)?

c. Check for any inconsistencies in square ft, room numbers, etc between MLS listing and tax assessment. d. Look at picture to see how different the home looked a few years back (pics usually taken in 2002 or 2003). (ed note: this leads to a separate rant about Realtors stripping the MLS of photos of their listings when the listing expires/sells – this kills the accuracy and historical context of the MLS)e. Study transfer information to see when house was last sold, what it sold for, when it may have had work done, etc.

3. Use Google Maps to see what surrounds the house. Is the street tree-y? Industrial? How far is the nearest park? How far to downtown, UVA, etc? (ed note: check this out)

4. Google the street address + Charlottesville to get more information about the neighborhood. For example: Grove St. plus Charlottesville clued me into the Grove Square development (which I was unaware of because I’m new to C’ville). (ed note: don’t forget to visit Charlottesville Tomorrow for the most in-depth reporting on growth, development and politics in Charlottesville/Albemarle)

5. Google the complete address of the house to see if anyone has written anything about the house. Search the address of the house on Real C’ville Bubble blog to see if people have been blogging/laughing about the home’s asking price.

6. Lastly, physically drive or walk by the house the old-fashioned way.


For readers – what improvements would you like to see in the search process? What do you like about how you search for homes?

For Realtors – if you’re not using the MLS photo capacity – 50 pictures – you’re often doing your fellow Realtors, prospective buyers, and most importantly, your clients – a remarkable disservice.

For Sellers – do you check your home’s listing online to make sure your Realtor is putting sufficient pictures online? (I assume that the very first visitor to the listing online is going to be my client – and that they will tell me if they thing I’m doing something wrong. In fact, I ask for and encourage their feedback – it’s one of the ways I improve.

I’ll help you search – that’s why I provide what I perceive to be the best ways to search for homes here/here – but when you want representation, let me know.

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About Jim Duncan

A Charlottesville Realtor who tries to stay on the bleeding/cutting/functional edge of technology and real estate trends. I have been selling real estate for the past 10 years, lived in C'Ville for twenty+ and am married to one of few Charlottesville natives left.
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  • patient buyer

    I don’t think you need to get an agent to help you to search online. I don’t recall any value added from our former agent in this respect. He just recommended to stick to MLS CAAR.
    My searching process is similar to the one that Jim posted.
    I am not saving or considering new listings without pics or with just one picture. At the same time more then 20 pics is too much, especially if many of them are not informative, too dark or don’t have any text to tell you what are you looking at. For example, instead of a picture of the bedroom’s corner (that doesn’t show anything but the corner itself) I would rather see a bedroom size measurements indicated in description.
    What is missing in almost all listings is a picture of a house with some neighborhood context, a wider picture of a street with a few neighboring homes on it.

  • http://www.ahomeincharlottesville.com Amy Webb

    @patient buyer
    Your comments about neighborhood and context are important.

    One suggestion I would give you, however, is not to pass over listings which ostensibly meet your basic criteria ( size, neighborhood, price ) just because the listing agent has uploaded just one photo. While that agent has done his/her client a disservice, it does not automatically follow that the house is undesirable or flawed: sometimes it is, but sometimes a pleasant surprise awaits. You might find a great home with a motivated seller and turn that agent’s poor marketing skills to your benefit.

  • http://www.realcentralva.com Jim Duncan

    Patient Buyer –

    Thanks for the comment and the insight –

    Your remark about neighborhood context is important and one that clients have mentioned to me. It’s also one that I have been struggling with for a while … those whose properties are not on the market definitely have an impact on the marketability and value of the house that is on the market, but it’s a delicate line one must draw when thinking about their privacy …

    I do think that having a trusted Realtor to whom you can direct other questions of context – “what used to be here, why is this this way, what might be coming on that lot around the corner, why does this area smell?” and other un-Googleable things are examples of why having a trusted professional might be a good thing.

    What do you think?

  • Scott Pershing

    Jim,

    This article gives too much benefit of the doubt to the average realtor. I would argue that I would trust the average tax assessor far more than a “price” recommendation from your average realtor. Just because someone can pass the Real Estate exam, doesn’t make them a good realtor.

    Most realtors when you ask them if there is going to be any development in the area will tell you the worst case scenario “imagine condos”. They are so worried about being sued that they really can’t be considered a trusted source because their bias is always going to be on selling something.

    Try asking a realtor about what the schools in an area are like. They will just tell you I can’t comment on that, it would be steering. Try asking them what kind of people live in this neighborhood, what is the income level in the neighborhood, what kind of professions. What you will get is the standard real estate boilerplate disclaimer “I can’t tell you anything, because I am afraid of being sued.”

    Here is the secrets to getting the truth…

    You don’t need a realtor, the best source of information are those living next to the property for sale. Before I buy a property I talk to the people that live around it. It is useful for two reasons:

    1. I get information about the area and the neighborhood;
    2. I also determine can I live next to them???

    Also if you are going into a new area, my recommendation is to go to the local supermarket and watch the people coming in and out of the store. You will get the best sample of the demographic.

    And finally the other best source of information is to hear what other people think is useful or good about an area. I find that several blogs in the cville area are very useful. Jim’s blog of course and the Bubble Blog are personal favorites of mine.

    Communication leads to transparency. Your average Realtor (Jim is obviously excluded from this) will most likely to be just a bottleneck in the buying process.

  • patient buyer

    Jim, I am not saying that nobody needs a Realtor to help with search. I felt we needed one when we were new to the area and started our search 1.5 years ago. We decided to wait for prices to go down to ‘normal’ – we believe that they will.
    I agree with Scott what you can’t get any important info from realtors because they ‘can not comment on that’. My former agent did his best to provide me with a list of websites and phone numbers to get that info by myself.
    I am not saying we wont need a Realtor for actual buying when we get close to that – just we don’t need his help for searching based on MLS.
    I agree with a suggestion that neighbors are the best sources of info but I find it difficult to follow. Most of the time I visited a property or drove by there were no people around or they were minding their own business and I hesitated to approach them with my questions. Can somebody please share how to do it the most appropriate way?

  • Scott Pershing

    Patient buyer you said:

    I agree with a suggestion that neighbors are the best sources of info but I find it difficult to follow. Most of the time I visited a property or drove by there were no people around or they were minding their own business and I hesitated to approach them with my questions. Can somebody please share how to do it the most appropriate way?

    Out of courtesy I don’t talk to the neighbors until I am seriously interested in the property. I either say hello to the people I see or I knock on doors and introduce myself. I typically ask the following questions:

    1. How long have you lived here?
    2. How have you liked it?
    3. Do you know the seller of the property?
    4. What can you tell me about the property?
    5. What’s the best thing about the neighborhood?
    6. What’s the worst thing about the neighborhood?
    7. Are there a lot of families in the neighborhood?
    8. What do people do that live here?

    You should also be willing to answer questions about what you do, why are you looking to move there, do you have a family, etc. I don’t wear out my welcome and I usually get all of my question in in less than 10 minutes.

    Generally I have found people are very responsive to this approach. And I tend to believe the information more than from a Buyer or Seller agent.
    Remember neighbors are as interested to know who might be moving in next door as you are in knowing about the property and the neighborhood.

    Just for the record, I don’t use Buyer agents, but I do use Seller agents. I don’t have the time to do open houses or market my properties.

    editor’s note: I edited this comment by adding a “/”

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  • http://www.realcentralva.com Jim Duncan

    I would trust argue that I would trust the average tax assessor far more than a “price” recommendation from your average realtor. Just because someone can pass the Real Estate exam, doesn’t make them a good realtor.

    You may trust it, but I have yet to see consistency amongst assessors’ numbers to a degree that I would trust them for anything. One key differentiator between my analysis and assessors’ – I’ve been in the homes I’m analyzing.

    Most realtors when you ask them if there is going to be any development in the area will tell you the worst case scenario “imagine condos”. They are so worried about being sued that they really can’t be considered a trusted source because their bias is always going to be on selling something.

    If you don’t own it, it’s going to change

    This is why I tell my clients that everything can change

    Try asking a realtor about what the schools in an area are like. They will just tell you I can’t comment on that, it would be steering. Try asking them what kind of people live in this neighborhood, what is the income level in the neighborhood, what kind of professions. What you will get is the standard real estate boilerplate disclaimer “I can’t tell you anything, because I am afraid of being sued.”

    That fear is justified – I can be the absolute best source of the source – there are too many potential lawsuits out there – justified and not – for me to risk offending someone about this subject. I don’t discriminate, but there are too many people who do. That said, I hate that I can’t answer these questions – because they’re ones that I and my family asked when we moved (especially about whether kids are in the neighborhood, answering this question could be construed as a fair housing violation).

    Top 5 Questions buyers ask … and why Realtors can’t answer most of them

    More to come on this – it’s a topic that is very pertinent and frustrating for Realtors as well.

  • Wes Kent

    Scott
    It appears you have extensive experience buying and selling homes. I was curious if you are investor that buys and sells homes on an ongoing basis or is your experience from purchases of homes you live in.

  • Scott Pershing

    Most of my initial experience was buying and selling homes for myself to live in. During those days I made a lot of amateur mistakes, i.e. I always used a Buyer’s agent even though I did all the work on assessing the market, or poking holes in my Buyer’s agents analysis, and handling the negotiation. Oh well cost of an education! :(

    I moved on from purchasing real estate for myself to doing it as an alternative investment to the stock market. I am not a flipper and it is not my full time job, nor is it my primary source of income. I mainly did that because I had little confidence in the stock market and I needed to invest my money somewhere.

    Right now what is driving me to look at properties is that I have some money that I didn’t lose in the stock market that I would like to invest in real estate. The biggest problem that I am finding in investing in Charlottesville is that most people bought at a market high back in 2005, 2006, and 2007. They can’t unload their properties until they are really being forced to, and at that time it is usually just way too late.

    I refuse to fund other people’s bad choices (using their home equity line like a personal piggy bank for shopping and vacations). That’s why a lot of prices are just out of whack right now.

    What is really crazy is that I am finding it to be more attractive to purchase properties in Northern Virginia than in Charlottesville. At least for those properties there is a better price justification to the local market. Here in Charlottesville reality has not penetrated yet. Many sellers are still clinging on and are hoping for that big fish to save them. They probably are feeling that it is better to go BUST BIG, than to take a loss and move on.

    Problem with that is that there is no liquidity in this market. If you buy a property today, unless you get extremely lucky, you will not be able to sell it any time soon to cover your transaction costs. And people need to seriously consider that not for the purposes of flipping the property, but knowing what they are in for should the economics work against them.

    I don’t consider myself an expert at this by any means. I just have learned a lot from others and my own personal mistakes. My belief is by sharing what has and has not worked for me, hopefully others will do the same, and we can all do better the next time round.

    One way that I have done this is I have started a blog called “Worth More or Less?” http://worthmoreorless.blogspot.com

    I highlight different properties that I have seen that I think are either a good or bad buy. Once again I don’t claim to know the magic right price, but I aim at backing up my price with facts and letting others judge whether they think my price is too low, just right, or too high.

    Check it out and let me know what you think.

  • Scott Pershing

    Jim, you said:

    You may trust it, but I have yet to see consistency amongst assessors’ numbers to a degree that I would trust them for anything. One key differentiator between my analysis and assessors’ – I’ve been in the homes I’m analyzing.

    I would have to ask you to give me an example. I have plenty of examples of wacky realtor pricing on my blog.

    In my analysis of the properties I have been looking at the assessors prices are more consistent. Most likely because they are using a software program to generate the price based upon the criteria they have.

    I find realtor pricing to be erratic because often the realtor has to list the price to include things that shouldn’t be included in the fair market price: i.e. Need to market the property at 200% of fair market value because Seller got spend crazy and fully drew down on their home equity line, 5 credit cards, and now lost their job.

  • http://www.realcentralva.com Jim Duncan

    Scott –

    Rather than re-hash or identify specific properties here (it’s in the owners’ best interest to keep their low assessments) I’ll point you to my partner’s series on City assessments – Part 1 and Part 2.

    All data needs to be analyzed, as do the respective sources.

    If an assessor (or Realtor, for that matter) hasn’t been inside a house, they cannot accurately assess the true value of a property.

    I show my clients my price ranges for my analyses, and I also show them my data and explain my methodology. Not all of them care, but that I freely show them is crucial.

    I haven’t seen a property yet priced at 200% of fair market value, but I will certainly agree with you.

    I’d also agree that I don’t want to fund others’ bad choices, but suffice it to say, if you’re paying taxes, you are (so am I)

  • Scott Pershing

    Jim,

    I took a look at your references to the articles on DirtAroundGrounds Blog and I still don’t see what the issue is. Here is a direct quote from that blog:

    Of the 274 remaining city sales, 141 sold for more than assessment, 3 sold for assessment exactly, and the remaining 130 sales were below assessment.

    In general that means that 51% selling higher than assessed values, and 49% selling for exactly or lower than assessed values. He didn’t give the standard deviation for the error in assessed prices so it is hard to say how far above or below the assessed value is. But in general I have seen some markets with greedy assessors where 100% of the listings sell for WELL UNDER the assessed values. Which means more money in taxes, less price reality on assessment. I’ll take a 51%/49% split any day.

    Assessed value is a market price set once a year based upon the market conditions and the data the assessor has available. They aren’t being adjusted for current events throughout the year.

    For example it doesn’t take in to account dumb buyers, who just listen blithely to their agents who tell them that Charlottesville is recession-proof and over pay for a property. So when that property sells at an inflated price, people may get confused and say “WOW the market is really moving!”

    It also doesn’t take into account builder/home owners who play games with their properties. I have seen a number of properties owned by builders who do a 2nd cycle construction improvement and assess it for $500K, when you know that all the work cost them probably less than $50K. It is pretty predictable too because you then see these houses listed on the market soon after the adjustment takes place with the $500K additional tacked to the price.

    If a home owner chooses not to get building permits, or report improvements on their houses to get a lower assessment that cuts both ways. They get lower appraisals which equals lower taxes, but when they go to sell they can’t say, BUT WAIT I did over $200K in improvements that I haven’t told anybody yet nor did I get the permits to do so but SHHH! believe me it’s a good deal and its ok WINK WINK. And if a clueless Buyer buys into that and applies for a new building permit to do an improvement they are surprised when the inspector comes in and they get fined for all those HIDDEN improvements… oops!

    You said:

    (it’s in the owners’ best interest to keep their low assessments)

    If they are doing that by not getting the permits, it is no different to me than when somebody under-reports their income to the IRS. It is still wrong and just because they did it and got away with it, I don’t want to inherit their problems when I buy their property.

    I have fought assessments in the past where I thought my properties were over assessed and I had the data to back it up. That got my taxes lowered, and I didn’t have to hustle anybody when I was selling the property later.

    Going inside a house does help to determine whether you like a home or whether the floor plan will work for your lifestyle, but that doesn’t make a major modification in assessment of value.

    My philosophy is that unless somebody has a hidden pot of gold in their house, or a goose that lays golden eggs, no amount of HIDDEN improvements is going to nudge a valuation that much.

  • http://www.realcentralva.com Jim Duncan

    Scott –

    On this point, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I pay little to no attention to a property’s assessed value when I am trying to determine the value of a property; I just don’t see the consistency to grant them credibility with regards to market value.

  • Scott Pershing

    Jim, so how do you set a price, purely based on seller’s needs, recent sales and gut instinct?

    It would be useful if you could show an example of where a house is worth more than what it is assessed at.

    An assessor’s software program takes in a number of parameters and creates a regression against the market to determine what is realistic at that time. It is consistently calculating based upon known parameters. There is no emotion driving it like in realtor/seller pricing.

    Assessed pricing is important because if a buyer pays more than what the county assesses them for they will feel psychologically that they have overpaid, especially in a down market. And if they pay more than assessed they can guarantee that the next year their tax assessment will go up.

    I always look at both listing price and assessed prices. In an upward moving market (high demand, low supply) one would expect that houses will sell higher than assessed prices. In a declining market (low demand, high supply) one would expect that houses will sell lower than assessed prices.

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