WITH AN estimated quarter of a million sites on the World Wide Web now devoted to real estate in some form, how do you cut through the cyber jungle to find the information you need to remodel your home, get a new mortgage, buy or sell a house?
You can surf, surf, surf 'til the sun comes up. Or you can short-circuit the process: Keep a handy little list of some of the most useful Web sites in the home real estate field, and spare yourself a lot of time and hassle.
Here's my first installment of a 1999 Guide to Essential Web Sites for homeowners, sellers, buyers and remodelers. Save it and watch for periodic updates in this column.
If you're interested in researching, shopping for and buying a home virtually anywhere in the country, there are four Web sites you cannot ignore. Not only do they guide you through the search, negotiation and closing process, they also provide extremely helpful information about neighborhood demographics, housing prices, school quality, and even crime statistics.
* Realtor.com (http: //new.realtor.com): This is the behemoth of the field, the official Web site of the National Association of Realtors, with more than 1.3 million active homes for sale.
Substantially updated last summer with consumer-friendly educational information and graphics, the site covers the gamut -- from shopping to contract-making and closing. What you won't find here: Even one home for sale by owner (what did you expect?), or d irect connections to mortgage money sources. Homes that are listed by the Metropolitan Regional Information System -- the multiple-listing database for the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors -- can be found here.
* Microsoft HomeAdvisor (www.HomeAdvisor.com): Probably the best-looking and easiest-to-navigate major home real estate site, HomeAdvisor walks you through all the key stages of a purchase, and is particularly strong in its community analysis features. What it lacks is comprehensive, nationwide listings. It's got upward of 500,000 homes for sale, but is hit-or-miss in some major markets. It can, however, get you a home mortgage online.
* HomeShark (www.Homeshark.com): If you want to see lots of active home listings and the loan quotes of multiple mortgage lenders all in one place, this is it. HomeShark lets you price-shop national and local mortgage companies by annual percentage rates (APRs) and closing costs. It also features a long list of other useful online services such as property valuations, credit reports, closing-cost calculators, and impressive neighborhood profiling data on nearly 40,000 American communities.
* Cyberhomes (www.cyberhomes.com): While Cyberhomes' 650,000 properties for sale represent just half of what Realtor.com offers, the site does have snazzy features like street-level mapping if you're visiting from far away, and an e-mail-alert service that contacts you when a home comes on the market that fits your criteria.
* For Sale by Owner (www.owners.com): This is the place your friendly local real estate broker would prefer you never visit. It lists thousands of homes for sale nationwide that you probably wouldn't otherwise know about. Don't look for fancy graphics, neighborhood guides or even photos in some cases. And be prepared for searches that turn up very few homes that fit your pricing and location criteria.
* New Homes (www.HOMEBUILDER.com): This is where you go for the Web's largest collection of to-be-built and newly constructed houses, plus links to the builders behind them. Co-sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders, the site has offerings in virtually every major market.
* Improvement (www.improvenet.com): The most comprehensive information source of its type on the Web, Improvenet puts you in touch with 600,000 local contractors and designers nationwide, based on the size and budget of your remodeling project. It can also connect you directly to lenders with special rehab loan-financing programs. You can check out local contractors to see if they've had legal problems, and you can get an independent review of your contracting agreement.
Of hundreds of home lenders with Web sites out there, here are three worth special interest:
* LendingTree (www.LendingTree.com): Though relatively new to the Web, LendingTree offers an interesting feature to shoppers: Spell out your loan criteria, and it guarantees you'll get customized offers within two days, with zero broker fees, from as many as four out of LendingTree's stable of 21 lenders.
* QuickenMortgage (www.quickenmortgage.com): Part of the impressive online service run by Intuit Inc., QuickenMortgage is a referral network that allows you to comparison-shop among 15 lenders, and apply online.
* E-Loan (www.e-loan.com): Another high-volume, multilender site, E-Loan offers easy-to-use rate and term comparisons, plus an e-mail update service on your mortgage.
Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.
Pub Date: 1/17/99