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Tech Tools for House Hunters

There are few things more exciting than the idea of a new home or vacation property, but the process of getting there isn’t always much of a thrill. Shopping for real estate and mortgage loans can be exhausting. Fortunately, technological advances are making the home-buying process more efficient and enjoyable:

1. Attend an open house from your house with virtual and augmented reality

  • Virtual Reality
    Shopping for a home from afar has always been a challenge. Photo brochures and their website equivalents can’t convey the feeling you get when exploring a property. Several companies are tapping virtual reality (VR) technology to create immersive walk-through experiences that bring an open house to digital screens.

    A growing number of property owners and listing agents are using gear from Matterport (or hiring contractors who specialize in it) to generate 360-degree simulations of home interiors that let you “walk through” the spaces via computer, tablet, or smartphone.

    You can navigate via touch-screen, mouse pointer or arrow keys, but the most immersive experience comes from using your smartphone with a VR headset, which tracks your movements as you look around corners and walk through doorways, making you feel as if you’re inside the home. The headset option doesn’t mean you’ll need expensive gear to attend VR open houses: sales agents can provide free headsets made of folded cardboard if you don’t have the dedicated hardware at home.

  • Augmented Reality
    The same technology that allows gamers to view and capture Pokémon in their backyards is being harnessed to enhance the home-shopping experience. Known as augmented reality (AR), this technology lets the camera on your computer or mobile device “see” and show you digital objects in the spaces around you.

    A company called Rooomy has applied the concept to staging real estate for sale: When combined with VR, the approach allows the owner or real estate agent to capture empty rooms as virtual spaces, and then decorate them digitally, with furnishings and accessories they choose. RoOomy is even partnering with furniture makers and decorators to let you, as a potential homebuyer, choose the style of furniture that appears in the virtual space you’re exploring. Naturally, you’re also given the option to buy those furnishings, along with the property itself.

2. Online lending

  • Online loan comparison
    Websites such as LendingTree.com and The Lenders Network can be good places to start searching for a mortgage loan. After filling out a brief questionnaire on each, and indicating how much you’d like to borrow, the sites will suggest a number of loan offers, with links and information on how to submit a fuller application.

    These sites can expedite the process of getting you a mortgage preapproval letter—a non-binding confirmation that a lender is willing to issue you a loan. A lender’s pre-approval doesn’t commit you to working with them—you can still continue shopping for better loan deals—but it does smooth the way in case you want to put an offer on a property.

  • Online mortgage issuers
    Quicken Loans and its Rocket Mortgage offering pioneered the online mortgage process, but that online-mortgage lending segment now has many players, including SoFiDitech, and others. The speed and convenience of submitting your applications and supporting documents digitally is a major element of their appeal, and so is relatively quick approval turnaround. (See also: How Digital Mortgages Make Getting a Home Easier)

    If you choose to apply for a mortgage online, we suggest you do so with multiple lenders, to comparison shop for the best deal. We also suggest you consider traditional lenders as well. If you accept an online mortgage offer, be alert to the final steps required for approval. Documents requiring your electronic signature may show up in your email inbox at any hour of the day, and they may be extremely time-sensitive, so make sure you respond to them promptly. (See also: Tips for Finding the Best Mortgage Lender)

3. Smartphone apps

Our favorite real estate-related apps are not especially flashy, but we think most home shoppers will find it helpful to have them at their fingertips:

  • MyNest is a handy interactive “open house diary” that helps you keep track of homes as you view them. It automatically notes each address using your smartphone’s location services and provides tools for capturing details about each room, including photos, videos, and voice memos.  At the end of a day of home tours, it can really be helpful to keep track of which features were at which property. MyNest also links directly to many listing brokers for various properties, so you can use it to connect with follow-up questions or to make an offer when the time comes.
  • Mortgage calculators are not glamorous, but they can be very helpful when comparing loan offers. You can plug in your down payment, interest rate and/or annual percentage rate (APR), origination fees and repayment and compare the total costs of each loan. Several are available on the web, but it’s handy to have one on your phone. Searching on “mortgage calculator” in your favorite app store will give you lots of options, but we like the U.S. Mortgage Calculator for Android and Mortgage Calculator Plus for iOS.
  • Check your credit. The quality of mortgage loans you’re offered depends heavily on your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) and credit scores generated from the data they contain. Before applying for a mortgage, it’s a good idea to check your credit reports to prevent surprises and to address any issues that might adversely affect credit scores. The Experian smartphone app for Android and iOS provides free access to your Experian credit report. You can also use it to get reports from the other bureaus and to check your FICO® Score. (See also: How to Get Pre-approved for a Mortgage)

Don’t forget the human touch

High-tech tools can make shopping for real estate more fun, and they can be great resources for information and analysis. But with a major commitment like a home purchase, you probably shouldn’t rely entirely on digital assistance. As you narrow down the decision on which property to buy and which loan to accept, it would probably be wise to consult a human expert for a second opinion.

A trusted real estate agent or loan officer who knows you and your situation may offer additional insights that can get you a better deal. And it’s always wise to have an attorney review any contracts before you sign.

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