House hunting on the web

The internet is transforming the way buyers search for the right property, says Chris Partridge
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The Independent Online

Looking for potential investment property used to be a laborious process of networking with agents, leafing through local papers and trudging round unfamiliar areas to assess whether they are up-and-coming.

Now most of the initial research can be done without moving from your computer. All estate agents now list their properties on websites and usually on "aggregation websites" that list all the properties on their subscribers' books. These include FindaProperty.com, Primelocation.com, Fish4.co.uk, Rightmove.co.uk and Propertyfinder.com.

As well as the lists of properties, the sites have sophisticated search facilities. A keyword search, for example, will often winkle out properties with features you particularly want.

Mapping is particularly useful, says Ian Springett of Primelocation.com: "We have aerial photography and mapping so you can instantly see if it is on the motorway or next to the gasworks. In the future, we will be refining the searches so users will be able to search for properties within five or 10 miles of a specific school or railway station." Users can also register to be alerted by e-mail whenever properties meeting their criteria come up.

Springett warns against relying totally on the web data, however. "None of that is going to replace going to the place and checking it out personally."

The web can be invaluable for market research as well, allowing landlords to establish current rent levels very accurately. It can even help landlords to pinpoint those elusive factors that make a property easy to let, says Tim Hyatt of Knight Frank. His method relies on letting agents' dilatory approach to taking properties off their websites once they have been let. "If you have a gut instinct about the way a property should be offered, search on the web for something like it and ring the letting agent," he advises. "If they say that the property has gone, then you're on the right tracks."

A large amount of information on the vicinity can be gleaned from official statistics on crime, education and even the socio-economic groups of the residents. The main site for this sort of information is UpmyStreet.com, where you can discover what group the residents of any particular postcode belong to, the average wage in the area, the number of benefits claimants, the crime rate and the age distribution. It even tells you what paper they read (in my postcode, it is The Independent).

UpMyStreet.com is free, but more specific information relating to the property you might be interested in is usually paid for. Hometrack.com, for example, provides valuations based on recent local prices, combined with information on the specific property, such as the type of property and the number of bedrooms, so it should be more accurate than simply averaging local prices.

Hometrack.co.uk also provides the usual Land Registry and other data free, but the full home valuation costs £20. The company warns, however, that the valuation is accurate only for run-of-the-mill properties - unusual or characterful homes are difficult to value even for experienced surveyors.

The web is now so popular that it is changing the way we look for houses, according to Alexander Hunt of Cluttons. "People traditionally took a week to arrange a viewing, but now we are getting buyers ringing up at lunchtime and expecting to go round that afternoon," he says. "We even get people ringing up on their mobiles saying they are sitting outside the property and can they see it now."

The arrival of Google Earth, on which you can zoom in from outer space to a detailed picture of almost anywhere on the planet, is useful for buyers moving to a new area. "If a prospective buyer really wants to see how a house fits into its surroundings, they can go on to Google Earth and see how it sits in the village," Hunt says.

Both vendors and purchasers are using Google to find out more about the other party as well. "Quite a number of purchasers are Googling the vendor before going to see the property, just to see if they are top executives with IBM or something, and some vendors are doing the same on potential buyers," Hunt says.

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