Best of the Web: U.S. Real Estate Search

Eighty-four percent of homebuyers start their real estate search online. Like most searches, it starts with Google. The expectation of rich and highly relevant results is rarely met. Real estate search is one of the few things Google does very poorly.

Why has real estate evolved so slowly compared to other types of searches?

One reason: in the United States, nearly 80% of property listing data for single family homes is held and controlled by the approximately 900 independently operated multiple listing service systems (MLS) nationwide. The remaining 20% is held outside the MLS and are mostly for-sale-by-owner property listings.

Despite the organizational power of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), no national system exists that centralizes property listings into one database. It is a trivial technical problem to solve. But technology isn’t the issue. The fact is, many regional MLS do not share their data with anyone -- not even a neighboring MLS. Some local and regional MLS do have reciprocity agreements, but for the most part, they are highly protective of their data and tightly control who can access it.

As a result, property listing data is highly fragmented. The best a consumer can expect from any one major real estate search web site, including the NAR's, is about 70% of property listings nationwide. An incomplete and not very useful real estate search experience.

During the housing boom, several Internet startups, like and, took on the task of improving real estate search. This does mark an evolution, but real estate search still has long way to go.

This installment of's Best of the Web is comprised of real estate search sites for single family homes for sale in the United States. Our list started with approximately 35 English-language sites, including both public and private sector resources. Our editors then pared the list down to only those sites they consider worthy of recommendation.

We went looking for sites that met the following criteria:

  1. Total number (comprehensiveness) of listings nationally or regionally. Does the service have excellent national or regional reach?
  2. Ease-of-use. How hard does the site make me work to get where I want to go?
  3. Listing quality. Are the listings expired? Has the listing re-entered the market more than once? Are there decent photos?
  4. Filtering tools - Quality and sophistication of search result filtering tools that help consumers make informed decisions.
  5. Popularity of service. How much traffic does the service get? Based upon number of Web users as reported by analytics sites: Alexa, Compete and Quantcast.
  6. Company stability. Is the company a well-supported, if not already profitable, business. (It's so hard to tell these days!)

A NOTE ABOUT HOUSING.COM'S BEST OF THE WEB SERIES:'s Best of the Web is an ongoing discussion about the best available online resources, including standalone Websites, mobile phone applications, Facebook applications, etc. Each installment will focus on one important topic related to the housing industry. We survey all of the resources available on the Web and rate them according to a set of criteria appropriate for that topic. Our editors then pare the list down to only those sites they consider worthy of recommendation. The entire list of recommended sites is presented to the reader. In addition, if the editors believe one or more of these deserves additional distinction, they award them with an "Editors' Pick." Of course, the number and quality of online resources change every day, so will be doing all of this on a periodic basis for each of the installments and award new recommendations and/or Editors' Picks, as needed

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