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The Baltimore Sun

It is the rare homebuyer who hasn't done preliminary house-hunting online, whether to peruse what's for sale, check out neighborhoods or get an idea of what prices homes have fetched in the past few months.

A recent National Association of Realtors survey says that 84 percent of all homebuyers and sellers turned to the Internet. That's up from 71 percent in 2003.

"They can sit and surf that Net and come up with a lot of data," said Carol Bliss, branch vice president of Coldwell Banker's Roland Park-Cross Keys office, noting that buyers and sellers tell agents they site-hop.

The explosion of online real estate information is resulting in buyers who are far more focused and savvy when first approaching agents than they were, say, 15 years ago, she said.

Depending on the site, they can find mortgage calculators, open houses, nearby schools and more.

So we looked at several well-known sites, including three of the Top 10 nationally. To that, we added a couple of local real estate sites.

Over a few days earlier this month, we looked for three-bedroom, two-bathroom rowhouses in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood and similar size unattached houses in Lutherville/Timonium in Baltimore County and Glenwood in Howard County. We did not limit our search by price.

Here's what we found and our ratings of the sites:

Realtor.com ***

Search results : 33 in Baltimore City, 118 in Baltimore County, 31 in Howard County.

Site Features: Results on this National Association of Realtors site be displayed by map or list. Results can be displayed by map or list. The site has lots of local data. Search results list tells you if the listing features more photos.

Pros: Advanced search scores, but does not limit results; it also lets you add nearby areas. A long menu of community information provides schools, demographics and other details. The market conditions feature, written by local agents, offers helpful commentary on what's going on in their area. Click on the "Find a Neighborhood" feature to bring up a variety of helpful data, including Flickr photos of the community.

Cons: With 399 Baltimore-area neighborhoods profiled, a lot are absent. A number of our clicks for additional information opened new sites. You have to view a listing to get the MLS number.

Zillow.com ***

Search results : We got 45 in the city; 95 in Baltimore County; 50 in Howard County.

Site features : This site has lots of statistical toys, graphs, charts, numbers. You can get lists of comparable homes

Make Me Move lets people whose homes are not for sale stick a price tag on their homes that would get them to pack up. Street, aerial and hybrid views.

Pros: Listings show how long they've been on Zillow and also how many times a property has been viewed. Consumers can tailor their searches fairly narrowly and can see a list of comparable homes with sale dates. Current average mortgage rates scroll by. The site lets users anonymously enter personal information to shop for mortgage rates.

Cons: Some individual listings lacked details, like the address and a photo, but we satisfied our curiosity by taking the MLS number to another site. Some listings from our searches were beyond our ZIP codes. You must view the listing to get the MLS number.

Trulia.com ** 1/2

Search results: 11 homes in the city, 103 in Baltimore County; 37 in Howard County.

Site features: This also has a lot of information clustered together in a convenient way. Pull up a listing and you get the map, comps, nearby schools and the like. It also tells how many days a house has been on the market, with some saying only "more than 30" days. The listing basics are in big type, then it's up to you to click for the rest. Map, satellite and hybrid views.

Pros : An enormous plus is being able to organize many tools on one page instead of linking to other pages. Recent median sale prices and trends are listed for ZIPs. We were able to refine our search to eliminate the "and-more" on the bedrooms and bathrooms (though, suddenly, we had only 2 homes to see).

Cons: The demographics from 2000 are getting stale, especially in fast-growing communities. The listings' basics don't have the MLS number; for that you have to click again to get the listing details. If you're looking for what else is nearby and fun, this is not the site.

Homescape.com ** 1/2

Search Results : 36 homes in the city; 80 in Baltimore County; 16 in Howard County.

Site Features : Using advanced search lets you quickly tailor a search, and the listings are readily identified by neighborhood name, new construction and open house banners, listing company's logo, etc. Listings available by map, satellite and (personal favorite) hybrid. The Baltimore Sun is the local partner for Homescape.

Pros: Clicking on a listing is the path to the "navigator" menu of neighborhood information: demographics, nearby schools and mass transit, restaurants, recent sales, etc., all of which can be shown by list format or by thumbtack on a map. A drop-down feature allows viewers to stay on the page and lets you look for what interests you.

Cons: We knew we'd get more than three bedrooms and two bathrooms, because of the "and-more" nature of the search. But we also got some with "and-less" in the bathroom category: one full bathroom and one half-bath. Some of the detail information is gray and small. It is necessary to click on the house and view the listing to get the MLS number.

Cbmove.com ***

Search results : 41 in Baltimore, 129 in Baltimore County, 34 in Howard County.

Site features : This is the regional site of Coldwell Banker's Mid-Atlantic operating company. Searches pull up the MLS homes list-style, with a photo, a key that tells you if more photos and a virtual tour are available. If Coldwell Banker lists the house, agent contact information is on the listing detail; if not, the listing company's name is there. Be aware that if you begin a search at the national site, ColdwellBanker.com, it will only show houses that are listed by their brokers. However, if you bring up a listing, you can access the local site by clicking on "More Listings."

Pros: Plain vanilla. Few gadgets. Can scroll through multiple photos without opening a new window. From the listing, you can pull up new windows with school information, demographics and the like. From search results, you can generate a "tour" of the homes you want to view, complete with map and directions.

Cons: Plain vanilla. While you can view a map with each listing, there is no option to display search results on a map. The national site does provide that option. If there are comparable houses offered on the site, we couldn't find them.

Homesdatabase.com **

Search results : 21 rowhouses in the city; 109 in Baltimore County; 31 in Howard County.

Site features : This is the site of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the region's multiple listing service. The "property finder" generates a list after you enter specifics about house. Clicking on the address opens a window where a consumer can sort through data such as the ZIP code's demographics, schools, home-ownership rates, house values, physicians per capita and weather.

Pros: It's pretty basic. When you generate your list of houses, each home's MLS number is displayed along with a house photo and the listing agency. Tabs under the photo take you to more photos and listing. A column on the left takes you to clearly marked financial and other tools, where you can print out worksheets to help you keep your houses straight.

Cons: It's pretty basic. A sampling of neighborhood amenities, nearby mass transit and all the things that show up on maps elsewhere are missing. You have to make an effort to generate a map of the location of the house. You can't generate comparable houses. And you can't start a search by simply entering a city or zip. Also, the photos that show up in the list view are difficult to see without clicking on the house.

How we did it

Our search: Over a few days earlier this month, we looked for three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes, but did not limit our search by price. Our community targets were: attached homes in Baltimore's 21211 ZIP (Hampden neighborhood); single-family homes in Baltimore County's 21093 ZIP (Lutherville/Timonium community); and single-family homes in Howard County's 21738 ZIP (Glenwood area).

Our criteria: We evaluated the sites based on a variety of elements, including how easy it was to find homes within our search parameters and how accessible the listing was, how many clicks we had to endure, and if there was helpful and meaningful information about neighborhoods and schools. Although we included the number of homes that each site turned up, it did not figure heavily in our criteria.

Our ratings: Outstanding ****; Very good ***; Fair **; Poor *

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