Real estate apps can help, or overwhelm, homebuyers

Donna Chapman opens the Redfin app on her iPhone and shows off the sold sign banner attached to a photo of her new home in Corona, California.
Donna Chapman opens the Redfin app on her iPhone and shows off the sold sign banner attached to a photo of her new home in Corona, California.

DANVILLE, Calif. — Raj Aurora has been searching to buy his first home for the past three months but hasn’t wasted time looking at condos he knows he won’t like and hasn’t even needed to meet his agent, all thanks to real estate applications that he  downloaded on his iPhone 5.

“We’ve already eliminated 20 to 30 houses without driving around,” said Mr. Aurora, a 42-year-old chiropractor and part-time Web developer from Danville, Calif. “I don’t want to sit with (my agent) for eight hours driving from house to house. I’d rather hang out with my dog and my friends.”

Aurora instead checks out properties virtually by glancing at his Zillow and Trulia apps throughout the day, then reviews any possibilities via text or email with his Danville real estate agent, Kevin R. Kieffer, whom Aurora has yet to see.

“I do it at Starbucks; I do it in between meetings,” Aurora said.

The field of downloadable apps offering up-to-date property listings has grown even more crowded in the past several months as the housing market remains hot for sellers and sometimes frustrating for buyers. The free apps are available on smartphones and tablets, as well as laptops and PCs, and typically offer photos, property information, and prices. They also can be set up to send them alerts of homes that meet a shopper’s criteria, such as price and neighborhood.


But John V. Pinto, the chairman of the business technology forum for the California Association of Realtors, said homebuyers often waste hours looking at listings for homes that already have been sold because some apps pad their listings with out-of-date properties.

So Mr. Pinto advises homebuyers to only use apps based on multiple listing services — then customize their searches to alert them to properties that are actually for sale.

“The good news, from the Realtors’ perspective, is the consumer winds up doing a lot of the work because of all of these apps,” Mr. Pinto said. “But real estate consumers are often babes in the woods who get drawn to all kinds of inaccurate information that’s been packaged in a pretty way. Clients who find a listing they like can be like a cat who brings you a bird’s head looking for approval. Their Realtor has to constantly tell them, ‘Thanks for being so diligent. That property was sold 30 days ago.’ ”


Still, homebuyers often become addicted to glancing at their smartphones and tablets throughout the day — and even in the middle of the night — for up-to-date alerts that might lead to their dream homes.

“I’d go to bed at night but would find myself pulling up Zillow and searching around,” said Mike Finnegan, 39, who lives outside Seattle.

Mr. Finnegan wasn’t even interested in looking for a new home when his wife, Amanda, first mentioned the idea in January to take advantage of lingering low interest rates.

After downloading various real estate apps on his iPhone 5 and iPad, Mr. Finnegan figured out what kind of new home and neighborhood could entice him out of his condo — all without having to drive around looking at properties in person.

This month, the Finnegans are scheduled to close the deal on their new three-bedroom, single-family home in the Seattle area, which they eventually discovered through Zillow.

A generation ago, clients couldn’t even see real estate multiple-listing services.

Today, with millions of property listings carried over an ever-expanding field of real estate apps, it can be overwhelming for homebuyers to have so many photos and property descriptions streaming into their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and PCs day and night.

Several apps advertise that they refresh their listings every 15 minutes. even claims to provide “the most accurate data on the market.”

“We pride ourselves on the accuracy of the data set,” said Scott Boecker, chief product officer for Move Inc., owner of San Jose, Calif.-based “When inventory’s dropped over 50 percent while prices have increased 30 percent year over year, people are saying they check our app every single night. You want your mobile app up to date.”

Seattle-based Zillow had more than 200 million homes viewed on mobile devices in January, representing an astounding 75 homes per second.

Like other apps, Zillow allows users to customize their searches and send them alerts whenever a property meets their criteria. But Zillow goes a step further and color-codes its listings to further help homebuyers sort through all of the data. It also allows potential sellers to test the market without actually listing with an agent by offering a price that would “Make Me Move,” which is how Mr. Finnegan eventually found his new home in Seattle.

“Mobile ]technology] took us from a 9-to-5 service to a 24-hour service,” said Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow’s vice president of mobile and marketing. “It really did extend the shopping life cycle throughout the day and made it on demand, which clearly benefits the consumer.”


After testing out a couple of different apps, Mr. Aurora and his agent, Mr. Kieffer, are now efficiently texting and emailing one another about listings that Aurora sees daily as he looks for his first condo, which will be the new home for him, his rat terrier Stinky, and his parents, who live in Canada but will spend their winters staying with Mr. Aurora.

The real estate apps are so easy to use, Mr. Aurora said, that he even emails links of promising listings to his mother, Shanta, who is in her late 70s.

“If my mom can figure it all out,” Mr. Aurora said, “anyone can.”