With thousands of Real Estate websites out there, finding the right one can be challenging. Do a search on Google and you get hit with the most popular Real Estate websites, like Zillow, Trulia, and Refine. Once you get past the first page even the less popular sites now have the same home search features. So how does a home owner or home buyer to know what site is best. Before you choose you first need to understand a little more about how they all started and what they really are.For many years if you were in the market to buy a home you had to go to the local Real Estate office in the area you wanted to buy a home in and ask to see a list of homes for sale. This list was a print out of the homes for sale from the local Multiple Listing service (MLS). The list gave you basic information about the homes and some marketing remarks. You scanned through it and then asked for an agent to show you the homes you thought you might like.This was great for Real Estate agents because as harbors of this information, the buyers had to come to them. It also gave the agent a chance to show the homes that the agent themselves were listing first. For the buyer this wasn’t so good. It was hard for the buyer to tell if the agent was there to represent them or the seller and if they wanted to look at homes in more than one town they may have to go to other Real Estate offices to see list from other MLS’s. These lists could also be out of date and when you did find the home of your dreams it may already be sold. This process could take a long time and be stressful for even the most seasoned buyer.Fast forward a decade or two and some important changes have happened. The MLS went digital and consolidated into larger MLS companies that covered even larger areas. Here in Western Washington we now use The North West Multiple Listing service (NWMLS) and it covers all but two counties; Clark and Clallam. In the 90’s the internet brought the first Real Estate websites. Most of these showed the homes listed by the agent/agencies that owned the website and were not updated very often. Some of the bigger Real Estate agencies, the ones that had the money and resources, started building home searches tools using data directly from the MLS. Now, for the first time, buyers do not have to talk to an agent to find homes for sale and can get even more information (pictures, schools, map locations and up to date status).Nowadays the price of producing these high quality websites has come down to the point where the average agent with the right skills can build their own. We now see an explosion of Real Estate websites and it seems most of them have home search features. This leaves buyers confused on which website to use.Now that buyers can get information from just about any Real Estate website, what should they know before picking one? First, here in Washington State any licensed agent can show you and represent you on any home listed on the MLS no matter what website you find it on. Most of these websites have a mobile application or are mobile friendly. While most buyers begin their home search on the internet what they don’t understand is that that website you use to look at homes is a lead generation tool for the agent. The buyer is trading their contact information for the use of the website.This is not a bad thing. If you really want to buy a home then you will need your questions answered, help finding financing, an agent to open doors for you, someone who understand the paperwork and can help you with the negotiations, and a trusted agent to look out for you in the closing process. That can only happen when you talk to an agent. Which agent you get is the important part. And that’s where finding the right website comes in to play. The buyer should use these websites to find out more about the agent they might want to represent them. Finding out more about the agent before getting involved with an agent is the key to achieving your goals of buying or selling a home.What you should be looking for is what the agent’s experience is in Real Estate? Do they work full time as a licensed Real Estate agent? What is their closing success rate? Do they guarantee their services? What do past clients have to say about the agent’s service? These questions can sometimes be found on the agent’s website but if not you should ask on the first contact with an agent. Now that you know how they started and what they are, how do you choose the right website for you? First, let’s talk about the differences in these websites. We can break it down to four types.The first type is the big non brokerage sites like Zillow, Homes.com, Realtor.com and Trulia. These sites don’t have agents working in the field. What they do is sell the leads that register on their site to agents who hope to convert the lead into a customer. These website have worked hard to make sure home buyers find their site first. They have added a lot of nice tools that estimate home values or mortgage calculators and all the information they can get on just about every home in the US and some other countries. They get most of this information from public record and what some home owners may give them. The down side to these sites is that the information they used can be out of date or inaccurate. Take the home values for example, because they get the sold data (what homes in the same neighborhood sold for) from public records not the local MLS their numbers can be behind the market trends. In the world of Real Estate we only look back to the last six months to help us determine the value of a home. While the sale price of a home may go in the public record right at closing, it can take months to filter through the system before these websites can encompass it into their data and that will throw their numbers off. There is also a question about like kind homes. When a Real Estate agent or appraiser does a comparable market analysis (CMA) of a home’s value, they look for homes just like the subject home (the home that is being valued) same size, same bedrooms, same baths, same size property, same neighborhood and same condition. This can be a bit of an art and the question is can a computer do as good a job as an agent? This can leave home buyers and home sellers confused about the true value of a home.I would like to take this opportunity to weigh in on home values. In a free market, like ours here in the US, the true value of a home is exactly “the highest price a buyer is willing to pay and the least amount a seller is willing to take” for any property. It is only when a property is sold that the true market price can be set and everyone else, Real Estate Agent, Appraisers, County Assessors and any website, is only making an estimate or guess.The second type of Real Estate websites are the big and medium size brokerages like Re/Max, Windermere, Coldwell Banker, Century 21, RedFin and ZipRealty. These companies have multiple brokerages in many locations throughout the US. These Real Estate companies have agents who work for the brokerages directly, usually as independent contractors. Leads or potential customers who register on their sites are assigned out to the individual agent or sometimes sold depending on the companies polices. These companies take a large part on the agent’s commission or pay, with some of them taking 60% or more. This means the agent has to work harder to convert as many leads to customers as possible just to make enough money to stay in business. Sometimes these agents take on more than they can reasonably handle leading to poor customer service or a higher transaction failure rate. Some of these companies give the buyer a rebate. This rebate comes out of the agent’s commission and can make it even harder for agents to provide good service to their customers. I have heard a lot of complaints about agents that disappeared once a contract is signed or agents that refuse to show homes to buyers that are looking at homes in the lower end of the market yet they still want to write up the contract and get paid a commission.The third type of Real Estate website is the small or independent brokerages. These companies are usually owned and operated by seasoned agents who have the skill and knowledge to build a good quality website and provide good service to buyers and sellers alike. You will find the same home search tools and email notifications as on the big sites and because these sites serve local communities, many times these sites have more information about the areas they serve and consumers can read more about the agents that they may want to use in buying or selling their homes. These companies can have one or more agents working together as a team or as independent agents and usually have a higher successful closing rate. What makes these sites the best choice for home buyers or sellers is the agents that come with them.The fourth type of Real Estate website is the independent agent website. These websites are built by the individual agent or a third party on behalf of the agent. They can be as good as any of the bigger commercial sites depending on the skill, time and money an agent is willing to put into it. These agents can be very good agents yet most of them are little more than one page public resumes put out by agents hoping to attract buyers or sellers to the agent it is promoting.So in considering a Real Estate website, buyers and sellers should keep in mind that a website is not going to help you buy or sell your home, it’s the Real Estate agent. The website is a way of seeking out the right agent to do the job. Think of it this way, since you can get the homes information from just about every website now what value are you getting from a website? The value is in the service you get from an agent who may save you time, money and keep you from the heartache of a bad deal or bad service.