Real Estate Research in the Real World

With the explosion of online research tools such as the MLS, buying a house has certainly changed from the days of thumbing through the local paper for new listings. Since I’ll be moving down to Tallahassee in January to start my graduate school (see here), I figure it might prove useful to compile a summary of how I am looking into real estate from afar (Massachusetts).

My go-to first search tool for real estate should come as no surprise as their name has become ubiquitous with digital property listings. Zillow capitalized on the advent of the digital MLS, or Multiple Listings Search. The site makes ready not only the listing information itself but also a variety of data from other sources such as school ratings (via greatschools.com), mortgage providers, and even price point estimates. While none of these technologies or assets are novel per se, Zillow does make it a great one-stop-shop experience for compiling a list of potential properties.

Zillow is certainly not the only resource you want to use though since it is only as good as its data and can answer only so many questions. One of the primary concerns when moving to a new city is commute time since lengthy travel times can single-handedly disqualify an option. For this I used one of the many google maps based scripts online to outline a potential search area based on a ~15 minute commute.

Travel distance to FSU

Unfortunately the tool I used doesn’t take into account typical traffic conditions (and I have yet to find one which does): potentially a major consideration depending on the city; in Tallahassee it definitely does. Nevertheless it did help provide a scale based comparison to help me understand the city.

Armed with a list of 15-20 potentials, I then got into contact with a local real estate agent who answered many of the questions that Zillow and the internet is rather ill-prepared to answer. Not only does a realtor understand the market better, but they are in a position to understand your needs much more conclusively. An unexpected benefit for keeping an agent in the loop was that many listings on Zillow (and other online searches) may list a property as active when in reality it is under contract and not excepting any other offers[ref]Just today I had a list of five possible listings, any one of which could have been my next home, except for the fact that four of the five were already under contract.[/ref].

By communicating with the agent before traveling down to Tallahassee, he was able to arrange a productive, whirlwind tour of my list along with several others he thought profitable to see. From there it was a rather straight forward, yet exhausting, task of trimming down the list and realizing what I really wanted. The results of this lead me to the map below.

Google Map Engine makes comparisons simple.
Google Map Engine makes comparisons simple.

I used Google Map Engine to plot out the ‘short list’ of 8 properties that all showed great promise of being “the one”. It was from this that I was able to ax the two most northern properties since the commute from so far north of FSU wasn’t offset by some remarkable aspect of either property.

This left me with 6 listing to continue sorting through, and this left me with nothing but my own devices to sort them out.


To date I’ve whittled the list down further to just the three properties to the east of FSU (in blue). Updates as progress is made.

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