How to search for a home without a Realtor

9 min read

Written by Andrew Donald

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All of our recommendations on how to find homes online successfully without a realtor. You'll come away from this article equipped to shop for homes like the pros.


All of our recommendations on how to act as your own buying agent and succeed. You'll come away from this article equipped to shop like the pros.

1. Create a home buyer's survival kit

Most of the complexity in a home buying transaction is interfacing with all the parties. Upwards of 16 different people can be involved in a new buyers first home purchase.

Getting ahead of this should be a top priority. Preparing early and getting things out of the way before they really matter will save you a lot of headache.

Make a folder on your desktop with the following information:

Financials

This package contains everything your lender needs to pre-approve you for a loan.

Document Notes
2 months of paystubs Ask your employer, or provide an alternative proof of income.
2 months of bank account statements Find your banks website or request your documents in person.
Proof of assets Get investment records from your broker.
Aproximate credit score Check with your credit card provider online.
Tax returns Your lender will want to see your past 1-2 years of tax returns. Signing a 4506-T form will give them access to request the information from the IRS
Gift letters Only required if receiving money from family or friends.
Identification Your lender will also naturally want to see that you are who you say you are. Take a photo of your government issued ID (both sides) and upload it to a folder.

Next let's work on an answer for the two biggest questions:

  • What are our wants vs needs?
  • How much can I afford?

Learn everyone's needs

Start by listing out your priorities. Rank them from most to least important.

  1. Big backyard
  2. Maximum 30 minutes drive from work
  3. Within walking distance to school

Have a conversation with your partner (if relevant) and have them do the same. The purpose of this exercise is to make it easier to make hard tradeoffs later.

If you have trouble agreeing, play a game where you each set prices of the items on the other persons list. Use a fixed budget and budget your needs between you until you agree.

Budget first for a better negotiating position

Even a rough outline of how much you can afford per month will help you immensely.

It’s important to note that your lifestyle budget and what the banks take into account are two separate things. Lenders use an equation called a debt-to-income ratio to decide if you're able to take up a mortgage. Things like phone payments, subscriptions and groceries aren't taken into account.

Lifestyle Budget - what are you comfortable taking on?

Mortgage Budget - what is the lender comfortable with you taking on?

It’s important to keep your lifestyle budget in mind, rather than simply seeing if you can qualify, otherwise you could very well bite off more than you can chew.

The tool below will walk you through your lifestyle budget at a glance - so you can see how much of a monthly mortgage payment you can afford - and thereby determine your price range for a home.

Make a Budget - Worksheet

Remember to remove your rent payments as a factor when putting together your budget - you’ll no longer be paying rent with a mortgage!

If you're interested in putting together a mortgage budget, check out our guide How much mortgage can I afford

Once you've compiled all this information in section #1 you’ll be prepared with all the documents you’ll need to provide your realty professionals. They also serve as a solid check-and-balance, to see if you’re prepared for your next steps.


2. It's a marathon, not a sprint

Every home on the MLS is going to be online. Aside from pocket listings, you already have access to everything your realtor does.

To protect your privacy set up a spam email to sort out all of your home listing notifications. Giving your personal information away on these websites is a sure-fire way to get your information passed around.

The best strategy is to set up a shortlist of homes that you’re really interested in checking out, and setting up a block of time every week or two to see showings.

Go after quality, not quantity in your showings. If a home doesn’t really match your criteria it probably isn’t worth your time to check out in person. Remember you only need one home!

Everyone gets burnt out after their 10th weekend sprinting around the city. Decision fatigue will get you in the end. You don’t want to lock into a home out of a sense of desperation or exhaustion.

Searching for homes online alone should provide you with nearly all the information you need to make an informed decision about a home, and should compose about 80% of your search time. Save the showings for the homes that really “WOW” you.


3. Evaluate the neighborhood

The first step in evaluating a community or neighborhood is to decide what you want and need.

Do you need public transportation access? Do you want nearby access to parks or beaches? Are you interested in a quiet suburban area or a lively urban center?

It’s important to ask yourself and your partner about all your desired amenities and proximities.

There are tons of online resources available for you to evaluate whether a property is situated in an area that meets your criteria:

City-Data -> one of the more comprehensive tools. It provides demographics, transportation data, real-estate values and availability, and so much more.

WalkScore -> information on how easy it is to get around your neighbourhood.

CityProtect -> crime statistics for the safety oriented.

TaxFoundation -> a clear view of property and other taxes on a county-by-county basis.

GreatSchools -> a non-profit that provides average test scores, parent reviews, an equity overview, student-teacher ratio and more.

Niche -> information about health and safety, average grades, academic proficiencies, and more.

Google Maps -> there’s no better or more obvious place to check local amenities and their proximity to your target home than Google Maps. A classic.

Reddit is great for broad research and questions

Reddit has a lesser known feature called multihubs you should leverage:

Bookmark these links and use them as a jumping off point to search deeper. Ask questions early and often, people love to answer.

You can make your own by adding +subreddit to the end of a subreddit url.

Google like a hacker

Check out Google's advanced search and see some of the options at a glance.

Here are some of our most useful queries:

Description How to use Example
Search social media Put @ in front of a word to search through social media @twitter home prices LA
Search your target price range for EVERY online listing Put $ to specify a price and .. for a range burbank homes $500000..$750000
Search for third-party reviews by excluding the main site Put - in front of site:example.com -site:better.com better.com reviews
Find competitors for services you are shopping for Put related: in front your query related:buy.homiro.com
Find definitions without the blogspam Put define: in your query define:mortgage rate

Set up Google Alerts for neighbourhoods you're searching through.

Hoofin’ It the Old Fashioned Way:

The more classic and romantic method of verifying whether the home you like is attached to a good neighborhood is - wait for it - visiting the neighborhoods.

  • Come back at night and during a busy day, listen for the noise, smells, is anything unworkable for your needs?
  • Walk around the surrounding neighbourhoods
  • Visit the closest supermarket to get a good idea of the community
  • If you can find one while you're there, ask a postal worker. They'll have a super clear idea of the character of a neighborhood.

5. Determine the investment value

Last but definitely not least, the investor perspective. How has the home you're interested in performed in terms of increased value over time?

For an individual home's historical trajectory, the easiest way to derive this information is through the various listing services like Redfin Zillow and Realtor.com

These websites are directly connected with the MLS (Multiple Listings Service) and will provide information about the selling price every time the property has changed hands.

You can look at neighboring houses and their sale histories to get an idea of the financial trajectory of an area over time, and compare it to other neighborhoods you’re thinking about. These are called comparables.

For a bigger picture of the trajectory of home values in any given area - you have some options for online calculators:

To use these, you first need to know what a specific home sold for - and when. As mentioned above, you can sometimes find this information on MLS-attached websites. However, if you can't find any of that information freely online - you can always request the information from the local Recorder of Deeds office, or the Tax Assessor's Office.

Some counties make the public records available online, for instance if you're looking for sales records in LA County - you can request the records from their website


6. Stay ahead of the buying process

Always try to maximize your readiness to buy. The amount you might qualify for won’t mean much going against a buyer who has a signed loan agreement.

In the spirit of open source we made a dashboard template on Notion you can use to manage all the steps of your journey, and have every piece of information you need in one convenient spot.

Some features:

  • Needs and wants list
  • Checklist to get you ready to start writing offers
  • Shortlist of homes you want to see showings for
  • Calendar to monitor your showing dates, due dates for document submission, and anything else you need to keep track of
  • Mood board to collect images of houses that you enjoy the aesthetic of. Great way to work with your partner on aesthetic preferences.