Online Home Shopping Red Flags
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17 Things to Look for When Hunting for a Home Online

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Online Home Shopping Red Flags
Image Source/Getty Images

Home Buyer, Beware

An explosion of real-estate websites has made it easier than ever to shop for a new home without ever leaving yours. Still, while having so much information at your fingertips can ease the process, knowing what to look for while you browse can speed up the timeline between those initial hopeful clicks and the nerve-wracking final inspection. We spoke to real-estate experts to discover what to watch out for while you're shopping for homes online.

Camera Tricks
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Camera Tricks

Many real-estate agents work with professional photographers who are well-versed in how to make a space look its best. Of course, that may well make it better than it does in real life. "They use wide-angle lenses to make spaces look more spacious than they really are, and apply filters to brighten up interiors," cautions Audra Walters of Front Porch Properties in South Carolina. Shawn Kunkler of Compass Real Estate in San Francisco says you can actually spot these tricks if you look closely. "Look for odd distortions within the photo," he says. "For example, we know most table legs are straight and beds have square edges. If they have a warped or convex shape, this is a good indicator" that there's some funny business going on.

Virtual Lighting and Staging
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Virtual Lighting and Staging

In this competitive market, some agents are going beyond the wonders of the wide-angle lens. "Lighting can be improved in post-production, so don't be surprised if you find rooms darker than you remember online," warns Josh Rubin of Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York City. You may even arrive at a listing to find that it looks a lot more dated than you remember from the photo, he says. "Many listings are now being virtually staged. This involved removing existing furniture and making rooms seem like they've been staged with more modern pieces."

Strategic Photo Cropping
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Strategic Photo Cropping

If a picture seems to awkwardly show only part of a room, you may want to ask yourself why. "When photos are blatantly cropped, it makes me wonder what exactly was being cropped out — when each picture feels very segmented, it can be misleading," says Chris Taylor of Advantage Real Estate in Boston. "I saw a listing once that showed a semi-finished basement which appeared to have a living area and private bathroom. Upon visiting, we found out that the bathroom was tucked into the corner of the living area, and 'open-concept bathroom' is not a trend I expect to catch on."

Confusing Abbreviations
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Confusing Abbreviations

If you ever feel like you're wading through alphabet or number soup when you're trying to decode an online real-estate listing, you're not alone. For instance, CH/CA means "central heat, central air," Julie Groves of Texas-based 903 Realty says. Another common one: 3/2/1 would mean "three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one-car garage." To decode any other head-scratchers, check out this list from BiggerPockets.

'Realtor Speak'
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'Realtor Speak'

Experienced agents say certain words used in real-estate listings have taken on a whole new meaning. " 'Charming,' 'cute' or 'cozy' is code for small," Kunkler says. " 'Ready for the new owner's touch' really means that it's out of date, or in need of a remodel." Similarly, there can be a crucial difference between a "renovated" kitchen and an "updated" kitchen; ideally, the former means major new features like appliances and cabinets; the latter may mean cosmetic changes like a new backsplash and paint.

Layout and Flow
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Layout and Flow

Browsing online is no substitute for walking through a home, but a good listing can approximate the experience in a way that entices buyers, Kunkler says. "A savvy agent will help the buyer imagine the layout of a home by the sequence of the photos," he says. On the flip side, "a choppy sequence of photos or poor picture quality can turn off buyers before they ever visit a home." That's bad news for the agent — but good news if you're a buyer who recognizes that the home might not have been showcased to its fullest potential.

Dubious Square Footage
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Dubious Square Footage

Understandably, the size of a home is one of the first things people want to know when they're browsing online; it may even be one of their major search criteria. But be wary if the photos don't seem to show all the space that the square footage might indicate. "A lot of listing agents include the entire square footage of the home when in reality not all square footage is livable or even finishable for that matter," warns Amber Ketchum of Seattle's Get Happy at Home Team of Coldwell Banker Bain. "Sometimes they also include the garage square footage in the home's square footage, which is not correct."

Location of Bedrooms
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Location of Bedrooms

This is information that's easily overlooked in an online listing, yet it's valuable to many buyers who may specifically want a master on the main floor, or some other setup. "If you know you need at least three bedrooms all on the same floor, look to see where the bedrooms are located throughout the home," Ketchum advises. "If there are two bedrooms in the basement and one bedroom upstairs, you may be able to determine you don't need to see the house after all."

Views, or Lack Thereof
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Views, or Lack Thereof

Concerned about who or what is outside the window? Pay attention to the photos. "Often you can see how close buildings are next door. Or if the blinds are closed, there is likely a reason for that," Ketchum says. "If there is something less-than-appealing outside, listing agents will purposefully close the blinds to cover up anything they don't want to be highlighted." She also warns shoppers to be skeptical if a listing plays up the view. "Often ... in reality, you can only see the view through one window of the house during the winter when all the leaves are off the trees."

Things That Aren't Pictured ...
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Things That Aren't Pictured ...

Groves says it should always set off warning bells if a listing mentions something that should be an asset, but it's not in the photos. "Sometimes, agents will mention in a description there is a pond or a shop, but there will be no picture of it. When I actually go look it's just a storage building, it's falling down, or it's so small that you wonder why they even mentioned it." Similarly, Wendy Arriz of Warburg Realty recommends always looking for all-important kitchen photos, and being skeptical if they aren't there. "Most listings photograph the kitchen, as it is a super-important room and the heartbeat of most homes. If the listing does not include a photo of the kitchen, rest assured, it needs a complete renovation."

... Or Simply Can't Be Pictured
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... Or Simply Can't Be Pictured

There are also plenty of intangibles that will never make it into an online listing. One of the most important, Groves says, and the biggest reason for scheduling a showing early on, is to get a feel for a home's surroundings. "The pictures will not show you what the neighborhood looks like, nor how close your neighbors are," she warns. Seeing a home in person also allows your other senses to get involved. "Smell is an important one you can't see in pictures," she says. "Although it may look good in the pictures, you won't know until you open that door if the carpets need to be ripped out. Trust me, I've smelled some bad ones."

The Correct Agent
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The Correct Agent

It seems obvious, but if you're interested in a house and want to contact the listing agent, make sure you're getting in touch with the right one. "My No. 1 piece of advice is for buyers to take the time to be sure they are contacting the listing agent, and not an agent that pops up on a listing through a promotion," says Robin Kencel, a Connecticut-based agent with Compass Real Estate. "Often times, a few agents appear on the side of the listing and you might think that they represent the sellers. Be sure that it says 'listing agent' if you wish to follow up with the agent that is actually representing the property." Andrew Weinberger, founder of PropertyClub, says some of the big sites will even "collect your personal info and sell it off to a third-party agent. Most of the time these third-party buyer agents have never seen that home, and are really not capable of providing users with the real-time info they want."

Out-of-Date Listings
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Out-of-Date Listings

Don't take for granted that a home is still available just because there's still an online listing. "It's not uncommon for home buyers to come across a property online, fall in love with it, only to find out that the property has long been sold," Walters says. "Some listings are rarely updated and present very vague availability, so if you're working with an agent, be sure to point them to the property and ask them to verify its status."

Unreliable Home Values
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Unreliable Home Values

Depending on what website you're browsing, you may only be getting an estimate of a home's worth instead of the actual value. "If you're looking for a price estimate, realty websites are a great place to start," Walters says. "But online appraisal systems depend only on data gathered from neighboring homes with similar square footage previously sold. It doesn't include interiors, features, renovations and other peripheral deciding factors. Again, it's best to find a local realtor who can give you a better idea of cost so you can budget accordingly." In other words, that Zillow "Zestimate" should be just the first of many data points in your home search.

Too-Good-To-Be-True Pricing
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Too-Good-To-Be-True Pricing

It stops you in mid-click: A beautiful home in a great neighborhood at a price that just seems way too low. Unfortunately, it's one of the oldest real-estate tricks in the book. "Agents can create competition over a property by pricing it at a competitively low price," Walters says. "But here's the thing: First, it could prompt buyers to go in a bidding war that could actually just bloat the cost way above the real asking price. And if it turns out the target property was actually being sold at a price way above their target but was underquoted, an interested buyer working with a budget is misled into investing a lot of emotional capital for a property that wasn't in their price range to begin with."

Over-the-Top Agent References
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Over-the-Top Agent References

Browsing for homes and browsing for agents often happens at the same time — but when you're focused on the latter, don't get sucked in by tons of glowing online references, Walters warns. "References available online are great, but it's always best to do your due diligence and dive deeper. Don't just take a testimonial posted online as truth. Check if there's a number where you can get in touch, and if there are contact details available, be sure to ask how they found their agent."

Turbulent Property History
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Turbulent Property History

You find a house you're interested in seeing, scroll down to the property history, and see that it's been on and off the market three times in the last year. Major red flag, right? Not necessarily, Groves says. "Sometimes when a property owner lists their home, their contract may only be for six months. On month seven they relist with another agent. In cases like this, it will show on, off, and then back on. Sometimes the seller has the home overpriced, so it sits ... then they turn around and re-list with another agent." Bottom line: There are many legitimate reasons why a home can go on and off the market quickly, she says, and the best way to get to the bottom of them is through an agent.