Technology has greatly simplified the process of buying a home. You can find properties for sale, check pricing and even apply for a mortgage online. But you may not realize just how many ways your smart phone and other tech gadgets can help you save time, money and effort in your home buying process.

There are so many good ones, it's easy to overlook some of the better ones when you're tied up in a house hunt. Here then, are some of the best online tools available for home shopping and tips on making the best use of them.

Budgeting

The first step in buying any home is figuring out how much you can spend. So right off the bat, you want to get familiar with amortgage affordability calculator and a mortgage payment calculator, both of which are readily available online.

While these tools are sometimes combined, they perform two separate tasks. A mortgage affordability calculator lets you add up your earnings, subtract expenses, toss in factors like the amount you have available for a down payment and local real estate rates, and produce an estimate of how much you can afford to spend on a home.

A mortgage payment calculator, on the other hand, takes the home price, down payment, interest rate and other factors and tells you exactly how much you'll be paying a month for your loan. In addition to being a budgeting tool, it allows you to adjust such factors as the interest rate, down payment, points paid, etc. to see how various changes would affect your monthly payment. As such, it's a valuable tool when shopping for a mortgage and comparing offers.

Pricing

One of the most dramatic changes in home shopping that has been made possible by technology is the availability of online price estimators. These tools, such as those offered by Realtor.com, Zillow, Redfin, Eappraisal and others, allow you to see the estimated value of any home in a given area, as well as checking listing prices of homes for sale and sales prices of recently sold properties.

Their utility goes a lot further than simply checking the price and availability of individual homes, though. Because they can display their information in map form, you can quickly see what homes are selling for in a given neighborhood, or how prices vary across an entire community or compare costs in nearby towns. This lets you quickly identify and zero in on neighborhoods that fit your budget.

But that's just the start. Looking at the number of homes recently sold and for sale in a neighborhood, you can get a sense for how much turnover in residents it has. Most maps will also identify foreclosed properties, and many will also list properties that are for rent, which can be indicators of a neighborhood in decline.

Many of these tools will also tell you how long individual homes have been on the market - a long time on the market may be an indication a home is overpriced, while many homes that aren't selling may indicate a less desirable area to live.

One final thing to note about pricing estimators - take the price estimates you see for homes that aren't for sale or recently been sold with a grain of salt. Actual sales prices and asking prices for listed properties are far more reliable guides to local values.

Background checks

There's a lot of other online tools you can use to investigate neighborhoods and homes you're interested in, but which are overlooked by potential buyers. For one, school districts. What would you rather do, ask a real estate agent's opinion about the quality of the local school district, or find out for yourself?

Fortunately, that's easy information to get yourself. Most state departments of education will allow you to check out school rankings online, or you can use any of a number of private web sites to do so, such as GreatSchools or SchoolDigger. Since the quality of the local school district has a strong bearing on home value, this is something you'll definitely want to check out for yourself.

You'll also want to know what the taxes are. These can vary quite a bit, particularly in outlying areas where boundaries between school districts, townships and other taxing authorities can cut right through a neighborhood. You can have a home that looks like a bargain compared to the one right across the street, but a quick online check of the local assessor's office shows a significantly higher tax rate. You'll typically find this through your city or township web site.

Another thing you can check is whether a home or targeted neighborhood is in a flood zone. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a tool that enables you to check flood zones for any address in the country.

You'll also want to see how safe your potential neighborhood is. Often, local police or sheriff departments, or even community newspapers, will maintain online crime maps showing where various incidents have happened in recent months or the past year. Not all of them do, so you may have to check with several different departments or publications to find one in your area that's tracking this information publicly.

You can also determine if there are any sex offenders living in the immediate area. The U.S. Dept. of Justice National Sex Offender Public Website provides links to state pages that let you see if any offenders may be living nearby.

Taking a tour

You probably already know that real estate multiple listing services (MLS) will provide detailed listings and photos of homes for sale, including interior shots and sometimes even videos. These are great for taking a close look at homes you might be interested in.

However, it may not have occurred to you that Google Earth is also a great tool for checking out not just properties you may be interested in, but the whole neighborhood as well. You can not only look at the home from several angles, but also turn around and see what's on the other side of the street!

After that, you can move your point of view down the street and around corners to check out the immediate area and check out what the neighborhood looks like. Rather than spending several afternoons driving around different parts of town, you can quickly narrow down your choices from home.

Google Earth and many other mapping services offer another nice benefit in that they can let you see what kind of businesses and amenities are in the immediate area. Again, this is a feature many people are aware of, but it doesn't occur to them to use it when checking out a house. You may be pleased to discover there's a nice cluster of shops and restaurants not far away, or a couple parks. Or be dismayed to discover a gravel pit just beyond those lovely trees. It works both ways.

Getting a mortgage

Once you find the right house, you need to arrange financing. Fortunately, getting a mortgage is one part of the homebuying process where online services have really come into their own.

First, not only do virtually all mortgage lenders advertise their rates online these days, but you can usually apply and submit your loan documentation via the Internet as well. This is not only convenient and saves time, but makes it easier and faster if you need to make corrections or submit supplemental materials as the process moves along.

To shop for a mortgage loan, you have several options. You can visit the web sites of various lenders you're familiar with or which have been recommended to you and compare their rates and terms. You can also contact one or two mortgage brokers, who typically work with several dozen lenders and can sort through their offerings to find one that best suits your needs. Or you can use an automated quote service, where you imput your basic financial information and obtain several customized rate quotes from individual lenders. Or use any combination of the three.

The key thing when shopping for a mortgage is not to get too hung up on the lowest rates. Often, a low rate may be offset by higher closing costs and fees, particularly if the lender is charging several discount points to get the rate that low. A better indicator is often to look at the APR (annual percentage rate), which reflects the whole cost of the loan in terms of a percentage rate, though it's less useful on adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), where costs can vary over time.

Buying a home can be a long and complicated process, but it's a lot easier these days with all the information you can quickly bring to your fingertips via online tools. Make good use of them - you may be surprised by just how helpful they can be.

Published on March 7, 2015