Business

How the internet can help you buy a house

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Image caption The way things used to be done

The recent launch of what is being cheekily referred to as crimelocation.com, the new Police crime website, illustrates just how much information is now available online.

Web sites like this show how the internet has levelled the playing field for buyers and tenants who are now able to peer into the murky world of property.

Estate agents used to be the custodians of the market: they knew what was for sale, what price they had sold for and they had a list of buyers and prospective tenants.

You employed an agent because, bluntly, there was no other way of doing it.

Ditch the agent?

The first opportunity you may think that the internet gives is the chance to cut out estate agents altogether.

However, most of the big property portals will not carry your property if you decide to go it alone.

Fewer than 5% of the public currently use so-called "for-sale-by-owner" websites, but the American model is already here in the shape of Tepilo, set up by TV presenter Sarah Beeny.

Not everyone gets this right, as Tesco found to its cost when it had to withdraw its similar site because it fell foul of the estate agency regulations.

Last year, just 850,000 properties changed hands, but with nearly one million homes currently for sale, there is an argument in favour of retaining an estate agent.

The internet can help you choose one, with sites such as the Property Ombudsman providing feedback on individual firms.

But as we will see there are many other web sites, including those which will help you work out what your house may be worth.

Assess your finances

Start your search for a new home by checking what you can afford.

Image caption The internet offers buyers a wealth of useful information, says Henry Pryor

Use a mortgage calculator to work out in round terms what you could borrow and then follow up with a call to your lender to check that you can apply for this product.

Check your credit rating for free online with a site like Experian.

This is vital, as the current rationing of mortgage funds by lenders means they are ultra-fussy about to whom they will lend.

The slightest blemish on a credit score can mean your application for a loan will be turned down.

The right place?

The better property sites now provide virtual tours and videos of some of their advertised homes.

Sites such as Nestoria and UpMyStreet add data on the neighbourhood to display local schools and pubs as well as crime statistics.

Put your postcode into the Environment Agency web site and it will show you areas liable to flooding or if the ground underneath might be contaminated.

In some parts of the country, radon gas seeps up into houses - and of course, mining affects many parts.

When house-hunting, web sites like PropertySnake and Globrix will provide alerts when an asking price is reduced.

Rightmove publishes regional lists of homes that have been reduced in price.

And you can see the outside of almost all homes in the UK now, thanks to Google Earth.

It will let you zoom in from space, or its Street View product, accessible from Google Maps, will show you the view from the road.

Check the price

The Land Registry records the actual sale price of the majority of transactions in England & Wales.

Image caption You still have to make your own choices

Once upon a time, this information was private, but these days, the Land Registry website lets buyers check both the volume of transactions in an area and the prices achieved.

For a small fee, you can find out the last selling price of almost any individual property sold in England and Wales since 1995.

This data is routinely sold to other sites, so there is no longer a need to rely on what an estate agent tells you.

Sites such as Zoopla will show you not only what a house last sold for, but claim to provide a guide to the current value of all the nation's 24 million homes.

They also have more than two million sets of old sales details, so you can see how the property looked the last time it was sold.

Has it been built on to? Have they converted the attic or cellar? Have they sold off part of the garden?

Start your search

Once you have told Rightmove where you are looking, it will provide listings of homes available.

It will also generate a report on that area including other homes that were for sale, the sale price of homes that did sell, rents being asked in the locality and how many people are also looking there.

All this will give you an idea of how much demand there is for the home you want, what rent you might expect to get if you are a landlord and therefore what yield might be possible.

This, in turn, gives you a clue as to whether property in the area is overpriced.

Findaproperty and Primelocation provide similar services.

If you are thinking of living in the London area and want to compare commuting distances with the type and price of property you have in mind, you can use Where-can-I-live to help you make a decision.

Buyer still beware

The future online will be exciting.

Floor plans will enable you to see how your new home might look with different kitchens, paints and furniture.

But it is buyers and prospective tenants that have most to gain.

Most forget that the helpful agent driving you around to look at possible properties works for the other side.

He or she wants to help you with your search and often you will tell them exactly why you are moving, when you must move by, what you have to spend, and how much your mother-in-law has offered if you find exactly the right property.

It is like sitting down to play poker with your cards on the table for all to see.

They will then use all that information against you, because they work for the seller or for the landlord.

So do as much as you can online by doing your research, checking everything you are told and only telling the agent the bare minimum.

The guiding principle still remains caveat emptor or "buyer beware", but with so much information now available, perhaps this now equally applies to sellers.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Links to external sites are for information only and do not constitute endorsement. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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