There's probably not a day that goes by that you don't Google something -- the weather, a foreign phrase, directions, or news, just to name a few. With all the intel Google can provide, it's practically a crime not to Google your address, especially when you're searching for a new home (whether you're house-hunting for Fort Lauderdale, FL, real estate or a ranch in Houston, TX). Here's what you could find.
1. Scope the "street-view" situation
We can't transport ourselves Star Trek-style to other places ... yet, so the next best experience may be Google's Street View, sort of a pre-virtual-reality experience. Simply type in an address, and if there's an image of the property in the results, click on it. "This allows you to view up and down the street, see the homes next door, [or learn] whether the home is on a busy highway or next to a local convenience store," says Liane Jamason, a St. Petersburg, FL, agent. Other factors to note while on your Google stroll? Dan Bagby, a current Texas house hunter, suggests scoping out yard size, proximity to neighbors, how many trees are on the property and the privacy provided by them, a view of the front of the home, a view of the neighbors' homes (such as any nearby eyesores or hoarders), and the size of nearby roads. Don't forget to use the aerial view while you're at it, suggests Bryan Clayton of Nashville, TN. "While it's not 100% accurate all the time, it can give [you] a quick sense of if a home is going to need a new roof soon."
A caveat: Google Street View can be outdated, so it's possible you could be looking at old news. The house you're interested in might have been newly renovated, but you wouldn't know that if the remodel happened after Google was there. "My house is an example of this," says Ed Brancheau, a San Diego, CA, search-engine expert with Goozleology. "If you search for my address, you'll see photos of a house with no landscaping instead of the beautiful house we renovated."
2. Find out if the home is a "flip"
Unless you're buying a new-construction house, the home you're searching has probably acquired some history. And since the walls won't talk, you'll need to be a bit creative in your sleuthing to detect just who owned the place last. "From searching the address, I have found old photos to get an idea of what the home looked like before," says Dan Bagby. "I take it a bit further to get to know the current owners. I look up their names from the property-tax records and Google their names." Bagby wants to know whether the sellers are investors or folks who have lived in the house for 20 years. "I approach an investor's home with more caution than a home someone has been taking care of and living in for a while," he says.
3. Avoid health concerns
The last thing anyone wants is to find out their dream home is located near a former meth lab or directly under a busy flight path. These aren't just concerns for comfort; in unfortunate (and rare) cases, homes can be health hazards. When house hunting, be sure to search for whether or not the home is in a safe area. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration maintains a database of homes that have been identified as drug labs, and some of these properties require intensive, expensive cleanup before they can be healthfully inhabited. Radon and industrial and airport zones are also pretty easily discoverable with a Google search and, in most states, via disclosures that most sellers will provide. (Some people find living near an airport or other noisy zone impacts their sleep, even if there is no chemical concern.)
4. Imagine your life there
One of the deciding factors for saying "yes" to a house is if you can imagine yourself living there. Seeing listing photos and stats can let you know whether the house meets your specifications, but sometimes -- especially with a long-distance home search -- it might still be difficult to really imagine yourself there. Googling can help. "While walking through some homes recently with a young family moving up to the suburbs from the city, their 7-year-old was asking, 'Can I play on the trampoline at the next house?'" says Owen Berkowitz of Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York. "Had he wanted to, that child could have mapped his route to his future elementary school and checked out its test scores, all while sitting in the back of his parents' car."
And while kids can scope out their potential new school and spot signs of other kids living nearby, you might map your drive to the office, learn whether there's a local farmers market nearby, check out the (including whether there are registered sex offenders) for the area, or look to see whether the house is in a danger zone.
5. Get details on the HOA situation
When you buy a home that is part of a homeowners' association (HOA), you should receive the bylaws in advance of your purchase. But if you dig a little deeper by Googling the association's name, you could find out that your new HOA is one of a surprisingly large number of HOAs that have been reviewed online. Grab your popcorn, because you'll most likely find a variety of rants (and raves) about the subdivision, complex managers, neighbors, and amenities
6. Scope out potential growth
Google your potential new neighborhood's nearest major street or intersection for permit applications that have been filed recently. You might get lucky. If not, try Googling the city or county planning departments. This can help you discover community plans for expansion in that area. Will you jump for joy to learn that Whole Foods is coming to town? Or is that just the sort of growth you're trying to escape? Reading the online applications -- and any notes from city council meetings discussing the permits -- might help you understand the landscape of community-development issues at hand.
What surprising information has Google revealed about a home during your house hunt? Share your stories in the comments below!