According to a National Association of Realtors report, 42% of all homebuyers will first look online for properties, and 92% of homebuyers will use the Internet at some point during their home search. Once limited to brief property descriptions, today's real estate websites have evolved to offer a multitude of tools designed to modernize and simplify the home-buying experience. Buyers can now find property listings, street-view maps, virtual tours, market statistics and financial calculators online. Here, four of the best real estate websites for finding a home.

Zillow.com (Z)

Zillow is an online real estate database of more than 110 million homes in the U.S. – including homes for sale, homes for rent and homes that are not currently on the market (used for comparative pricing and other info). Once you search for a property, the tabbed options become specific to that area. Features of the Zillow.com website include:

  • Property search. Find homes listed on the MLS or for-sale-by-owner; search foreclosures, new homes and open houses; and view prices for recently sold properties.
  • Mortgages. Mortgage education, calculators, and mortgage rate comparisons.
  • Agents. Search for and review real estate agents, lenders, property managers, and home-improvement professionals.
  • Advice. Real estate and mortgage forums, as well as educational articles (foreclosure, mortgage, and buyers' guides) and a consumer blog that includes posts on celebrity real estate, unique homes, home improvement, tips and advice, and market trends.
  • Local info. Home values, demographics, user-submitted photos, schools and market reports.
  • Zestimates. The Zestimate home valuation is Zillow's estimated market value, calculated using a proprietary formula. (note: Zestimates should not be considered appraisals, and Zillow recommends "supplementing the Zestimate with professional advice").

Trulia.com

Trulia is an online real estate database that lists homes both for sale and for rent, and recently sold properties. Once you enter a city or zip code, the tabbed options become specific to that market. Trulia.com website features include:

  • Property search. Search for MLS-listed homes; find foreclosures, new homes, and open houses; and view recently sold properties.
  • Advice. Q&As, blogs, and How-To Guides for a variety of topics including home buying, selling, financing, rentals, moving and foreclosure.
  • Mortgages. Mortgage education, calculators, and mortgage rate comparisons.
  • Local info. Real estate market overview, market trends, schools, crime, commuting, amenities, affordability, demographics, hazards (earthquake, flooding, tornado, hurricane, wildfire) and community info.
  • Rent versus buy calculator. Helps you decide if it's better to rent or buy in a certain market based on your target monthly rent, target home price, how long you'll live there, your income tax rate and your mortgage rate.
  • Find an agent. Search for and review real estate agents, lenders, property managers, contractors, home inspectors, appraisers and builders/developers.

[Editor's Note: In late July 2014, both companies announced that Zillow would buy Trulia in a stock deal. The deal closed in 2015 for 2.5 billion, and now both brands continue to operate under their separate names.]

Realtor.com

Realtor.com is often recommended by real estate agents as a source of the most accurate and up-to-date information. In addition to finding homes for sale and rent, you can find senior housing and international listings. Features of the Realtor.com website include:

  • Property search. Search for MLS-listed homes; find foreclosures and new homes/communities, and view recently sold properties.
  • Mortgage. Financing advice, mortgage rate comparison, and a rent-versus-buy calculator to help you compare costs based on your target home price and monthly rent.
  • Find Realtors. Search by agent, team or company in a particular area, and filter by designation and certifications.
  • Advice. Articles, guides, and calculators to help with financing, property values, home and garden (e.g., remodeling and decorating), and moving, including quotes for full-service, self-service, auto transport and international moves.

Redfin.com

Redfin combines a property search site with a staff of full-service real estate agents who are paid a salary plus a commission dependent upon customer-satisfaction ratings collected by the company. Redfin agents help you find a home and walk you through each step of the home-buying process, including helping you work with inspectors, lenders, insurers, attorneys and escrow agents, and documents can be signed electronically. So far, Redfin covers 20 states plus the District of Columbia, and about 30 metro areas across the U.S. The Redfin.com website features:

  • Property search. Search MLS- and agent-listed properties for sale, updated every 15 to 30 minutes. Search new listings, open houses, and fixer-uppers. Listings are posted immediately (as opposed to delays that are typical for national database websites).
  • Property overview. For each listed property, you can read about property details, tour insights, property history, public records, activity, schools, neighborhood and other insights, and find similar homes.
  • Education. Browse Redfin blogs, forums, and the research center to read real estate market reports.
  • Free classes and events. Redfin offers free classes and events that provide guidance on prices, neighborhood market trends and a complete explanation of the home buying (or selling) process. Other topics include mortgages, multiple offers, new construction, and contracts.

The Bottom Line

Nearly all homebuyers will use the Internet at some point during the home-buying process. The real estate websites mentioned here are popular online places to find properties, research mortgages, read educational content and find qualified real estate professionals, and each has a corresponding mobile app to keep your home search up to date when you're on the go.

Once you find your dream home, you can also use a variety of tools to shop for a mortgage before you even step into a bank. Doing your research can give you leverage when you meet with a mortgage broker. It also can assist you with estimating the total cost of purchasing a home.

Editor's note: At the time of writing, the author did not own shares of any stocks mentioned in this article.

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