You're hoping to find a dream home but don't know where to start. How do you find a good agent? Where are the safest neighborhoods with the best activities for your children?
Today's homebuyers have a new ally when digging for answers to such questions: social media.
Social media can be especially effective in helping you find the right real estate agent, says Jennifer Jennings, a Realtor with Century 21 Beal, Inc. in College Station, Texas.
"Once you have a few names of Realtors from referrals from friends or colleagues or from reading about a community online, you can use social media sites such as Facebook to search for their business pages," she says. "You can see who is connected to their community, who is knowledgeable and competent."
You can also use social media to learn more about a Realtor's personality by reading their blog, Facebook posts and checking the agent's website. Realtors often film videos of their listings or of themselves talking about their community. Videos can be found on their websites and on YouTube.
James Nellis II, a Realtor with The Nellis Group at Re/Max Allegiance in Alexandria, Va., says by watching such videos of agents, you can "get to know their personalities before you even pick up the phone."
He also recommends checking Yelp for reviews of various real estate companies and Realtors, along with checking for user reviews on Google.
"A big benefit of social media is transparency," says Nellis. "People know what they are getting into before they get there. We've become something of a voyeuristic society and social media helps us get to see someone's personality before we meet. But I think it is just as important to find and read consumer reviews."
Learning more about a community via social media
Social media sites such as Facebook also can help you zero in on the right neighborhood. Community Facebook pages allow local residents to post information and share news. You can find them by searching on Facebook with the name of a town or a subdivision.
"Your experience in a community is the most important part of buying a home, even more important than the home itself," says Susan Hilton, a Realtor and vice president of sales at the Century 21 office in College Station.
One of the best ways to learn about a community is to stop residents on the street and ask questions about what they like or dislike about the neighborhood. But if you're shy–or if you live miles away from a neighborhood you're considering–social media gives you another way to find out the answers you're looking for.
"You can get a fresh perspective on a neighborhood without physically talking to the residents by searching for Facebook groups associated with a particular community," Nellis says.
Potential drawbacks of social media
Using social media shouldn't be a big leap for today's homebuyer, who already is pretty tech-savvy. The 2010 National Association of Realtor's Home Buyer and Seller profile shows that 89 percent of buyers use the Internet as part of their home search.
However, it's important to remember that social media has limitations. For example, Jennings is skeptical about social media's value in helping you find a home.
"I wouldn't necessarily recommend using social media to search for a home because it can be too time consuming," says Jennings. "Instead, I would recommend using social media to find the most competent agent, someone who can help you find the right home."
Jennings says social media cannot replace the expertise and guidance of a good real estate agent.
"Social media should really just be one more tool to use to gather information," says Jennings. "Then, you need to take the next step and make phone calls and meet face-to-face with several Realtors to find someone with the knowledge you need, someone who would be a good fit for what you are looking for."
Meanwhile, Nellis urges you to remember that real estate companies and Realtors only put their most flattering information online.
"You should take everything you read with a grain of salt, but also realize that people's personality comes through in their posts, too," says Nellis.
Michele Lerner, author of "HOMEBUYING: Tough Times, First Time, Any Time", has been writing about personal finance and real estate for more than two decades for a variety of publications and websites including Investopedia, Insurance.com, HSH.com, SavingsAccount.com, National Real Estate Investor magazine, The Washington Times, Urban Land magazine, NAREIT's REIT magazine and numerous Realtor associations.