While apartment rents are skyrocketing, home prices are looking more and more reasonable—especially with interest rates at rock bottom. (Although they're starting to rise, and in many places so are prices, due to heavy demand.) Who doesn't want to get out of an overpriced apartment and own a lil' house on a hill somewhere? Houses, condos, and the like are a big, expensive responsibility, but home ownership offers plenty of benefits, from adding to your net worth to getting serious discounts on your taxes. Plus, you gain the knowledge that the money you pay every month isn't going into a landlord's pocket, but is instead helping to pay for a place of your very own.
However, the process of buying a home can be intimidating—it involves a lot of searching, researching, and signing of paperwork. Of course, your smartphone and laptop can be excellent copilots through every stage of the game. Although the latest and greatest app-store options won't replace a trusty real estate agent (and your common sense), they will help you narrow down your options.
A good place to start is Trulia, which is like Google for real estate. Trulia searches the latest MLS real estate listings and shows you what's currently available. (It shows rentals, too.) Newer than established real estate websites such as Zillow, Trulia rises above the others because of its extra-nerdy neighborhood details. Not only does it offer crime stats and specific weather data, but it now has details on wildfires and earthquakes, plus lesser-known information. Choosing the appropriate side of the street could mean the difference between sitting in a flooded home and staying high and dry. Check out the website or download the free mobile app for iOS or Android. (iOS users can also download Trulia's Mortgage Calculator app.)
Once you get serious about a neighborhood, Fuel Monitor ($2) lets you calculate the costs of commuting back and forth to your job, or visiting family and friends. Plug in locations, and receive an accurate estimate of fuel and time spent—or just drive the route, and watch the calculation happen in real time. The app can even show you the most fuel-efficient routes to get to the places you need to go. Fuel Monitor is currently available for iOS only, but Android users should check out the similar (and free) Open Road: Fuel Economy Basic app (the ad-free Pro version is $1). And Windows Phone users can try Fuel Calculator Plus for $1.
Expect to be spending lots of time visiting homes to find the right one, especially if you are a first-time buyer. Make sure all the pictures, video, and notes you take down are easily accessible by using Evernote, which can categorize all those scraps of virtual paper and video into a searchable database available both offline and in the cloud. Also, if you're not the only one selecting the place, you can quickly share your data with your fellow buyers.
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