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Housing help resides online

Lists of apartments for rent. Demographics of the area where homes are for sale. Guides to buying foreclosed homes. Mortgage calculators.

The Internet offers that information and much more for consumers interested in real estate. But if you punch "real estate" into the Google search engine, it returns more than 17 million hits. How do you find the sites you can rely on?

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With help from real estate experts, here's a selection of recommended sites.

Apartments

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If you're a renter deciding whether to move into an complex, and you wish you knew someone who could give you the lowdown on the place, apartmentratings.com is the site for you. Renters go online to say good and bad things about the communities where they live. They rank the complex's parking, maintenance, noise, safety and office staff.

"This is a scary one for our industry," said Lynn Klug, marketing director for Sares-Regis, a large landlord in Orange County, Calif.

But site users should be wary, because comments aren't verified. "If nothing else, it provides for a few good laughs," said John Burns, real estate consultant in Irvine, Calif.

Aaocconnect.com lets new renters and homeowners change their address so their mail will be forwarded to the new location and sign up for telephone service, cable service and high-speed Internet access. The vendors on the free site guarantee the lowest prices, and consumers can compare the prices from as many as three companies. Depending on what area you live in, certain basic services aren't available for online sign-ups. People who use the site to sign up for services can return there to cancel when they leave.

Rent.com offers $100 back for shoppers who find their apartment on its Web site. Like many other rental Web sites, it lets you know what kinds of apartments are in the area; you contact the landlord to see what is available. The search options are more advanced than some other sites; for example, you can narrow your search to find only places that will take dogs or cats. This is good because some sites aren't as specific - they only mention policies about pets in general. You can also search by type of parking (covered or detached) and location of the washer and dryer (inside the apartment or in a separate room).

On apartmentguide.com, you can search for units that offer disability access, short-term leases, furniture, a dishwasher, a microwave or a balcony. Searches produce a list of apartments in an easy-to-read chart that shows the number of bedrooms, price and city. If you click on an apartment, you can find out the security deposit required, set up appointments to see the place or send questions by e-mail to the leasing office.

Homes for sale

Homeseekers.com provides a wealth of information on new and resale homes. In addition to a description and a photo of a home, the site provides the information on the ZIP code's demographics; crime statistics; housing prices; family facts, such as the number of singles and couples with children; education, such as the number of area residents who have college degrees; unemployment rates; the number of doctors in the area; and weather. This information is updated quarterly, and you don't have to register to use the site. However, the only contact information offered is an e-mail address for the listing agent.

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Realtor.com, which also allows you to search for homes without registering, gives you much less information on the property but provides the listing agency and a telephone number. On homegain.com, you can search for new homes by category: available now, under construction, or ready to build.

Catalisthomes.com will offer a new service this month: Would-be buyers who provide an e-mail address and a description of the home they want to buy will be alerted whenever a property that fits their parameters is added to the Multiple Listing Service. The e-mail alert will include the listing agent's name and telephone number, even if he or she is not a CataList Homes agent. But CataList may not receive the listings until 24 hours after the information pops up on the MLS.

Mortgages and calculators

Some Web sites can help you find out what mortgage rates local banks are offering and calculate the monthly payment for different types of mortgages. At bankrate.com, you select the type of mortgage you want and a search will produce a list of local banks, rates, phone numbers and links to the companies' Web sites. You can choose to be alerted via e-mail when mortgage rates hit a certain level.

Calculators tell you how much house you can afford and your FICO score range - a credit-rating number that lenders look at to determine what mortgage rate to offer you.

Decisionaide.com helps borrowers figure out whether they can afford a certain house. It also calculates and compares the monthly payments for five different types of loans.

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If you are on the fence about whether to refinance, the site can calculate how much money you could save and when the monthly savings would total the cost of refinancing. It also can crunch numbers to help you decide on paying points (each costing 1 percent of your mortgage balance) to reduce your rate.

Domania.com estimates how much property tax you'd pay.

Foreclosures

Some sites list foreclosed properties and homes at risk of foreclosure. Purchasers of foreclosed homes often get a 20 percent to 50 percent discount off market-rate prices.

Realtytrac.com offers information on properties subject to a notice of default (NOD) and with a notice of trustee sale (NTS). You can search by city or ZIP code.

The NOD, the first step in the foreclosure process, is filed when a loan is in default; these properties aren't yet on the auction block. The site provides free information on square footage, number of bedrooms and baths, and an estimated loan balance. If you want to know whether the current owner will sell, you must pay a monthly subscription fee of $25 for the contact information.

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The NTS is filed when borrowers don't pay what they owe within 90 days of the NOD filing. These homes are heading to public auction; the site's free information includes minimum bid amount and the date of the public sale. To receive further auction information, you must pay the monthly $25.

If the home doesn't sell at the foreclosure auction, the lender gets the home. It's then categorized as "real estate owned" by lender (REO) - the last step of the foreclosure process. On bankhomesdirect.com, lenders' contact information for REO homes is available free, though users must register.


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