Updated: Sep 11
Image Courtesy REIN MLS
In this article, I wanted to share some tips on initial search creation with your agent on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Keep in mind that in the majority of cases (w/ exclusions like FSBO only searches), I think it's a bad idea for your primary search to be created DIY without the assistance of an agent. Related:
Search Creation Basic Tips:
Get Pre-Approved Prior to Search Creation
If you don't plan on purchase in cash, it's best to check your credit, what you need to buy, & get pre-approved prior to search creation, even if just a pre-approval that involves no hard credit inquiry. Just keep in mind that if you are planning on using a mortgage, it's best to have a fully manually underwritten loan, which takes some time, prior to submitting offers to give your offers the best shot they can get, & it's best to have that going before your 1st showing.
Meet with Your Agent in Person or Have them Do Screen-Share to Show You the Search They're Creating (Ideally with a Remote Desktop Option if Needed)
Zoom is an excellent place to conduct a search if not meeting in person. You'll encounter a better, more efficient, more timely, and more educational experience if you create your search with your agent either in person or where the agent uses screenshare. You'll also get a better feel for your agent and their expertise, & they'll get a better understanding of you.
If Not Meeting In Person, View on a Large Screen Close to Your Face
With video showings, your meeting with Adam, your own viewing of properties, & portal navigation, all are best done on a large screen close to your face so that you can see more detail (& in some cases, have more enhanced features & read that which might be illegible otherwise). If you have a laptop or desktop, it's much better to use those than a phone. Adam believes that this element is important enough to have dedicated Chromebooks available for his local clients if needed.
Create a Search w/ 20-50 Property Search Results (Typically), Gradually Narrowing in Order of Highest Priorities
For most buyers that don't have a lot of time on their hands on a day-to-day basis, 20-50 properties in search results seem best. That's 20-50 combined across searches if using multiple searches (i.e. multiple MLS). For those with a lot of time on their hands, 50-100 properties can work as well as long as the buyers are willing to keep on top of properties so that they can still see properties quickly after they hit the market. Below 20 properties is often too slow of a trickle of properties and buyers often get frustrated about the low volume of options they have in their search.
Start with must-haves. If your must-haves take you below 20 properties, consider expanding your search criteria. Only include preferences if you will still be in the 20+ property range. When adding preferences, start off with your highest preferences, in order of importance to you.
The More Search Criteria You Add That Aren't Required for Listing Agents to Input Criterion, The Higher the Likelihood That You'll Weed Out Properties that Fit Your Criteria Where the Listing Agent was Lazy or Didn't Deem it Worth Their Time
The listing agent represents the seller and they or an assistant/admin that they work with fill out a listing data input form. Those forms have required criteria, like sq ft for homes for sale in REIN MLS (the primary MLS of Hampton Roads), as well as many elements that aren't required. The moment that you start inputting criteria that isn't required for agents to fill out, especially in cases where agents commonly skip it, the more that your search will weed out properties that you actually would consider.
With Preferences, Prioritize Those Most Important That Wouldn't Be Possible to Cost Effectively Add
Here are a few examples:
I often hear buyers asking for a fence. That said, if you're already under 50 properties, and I add a fence to the equation, you might be left with under 20 properties. In a situation like that one, rather than going below 20 properties, consider adding a fence after purchase if needed or adding an underground fence if you're just concerned about a pet as long as you don't have an ethical problem with those.
It's pretty pricey to lift a house in a flood zone that's on a slab, while something like flood vent installation on a home on a crawlspace & an elevation certificate is a much lower cost & in some cases doesn't take long to pay for itself (or can pay for itself immediately in some cases if immediately prior to sale & you're looking to rehab a property and then resell immediately). That said, keep in mind that flood zones are projected to get significantly worse in many SE VA cities/counties by 2050.
Honest & Good Agents Won't Be "Yes Man" Agents
Don't be surprised if your agent disagrees with you about something or shares with you something that you didn't know even if you've purchased multiple homes before. It's possible that they care more about you than about their relationship with you & that they feel that it's their responsibility to tell you what they would want to hear if they were in your shoes to help inform your decisions. Well-informed buyers make the best decisions. For more details on how & why many buyers & sellers pick less honest agents, especially those who are more conflict-avoidant, go here.
I Don't Advise "Concierge Mode"
I Don't Advise "Concierge Mode", where an agent manually filters through properties before it gets to the buyer on a recurring basis. Put simply, anything that will slow down the process of a buyer seeing properties should be avoided. The search itself should be optimized, taking longer than most agents take to put together a search even when templates are used, but concierge mode hurts buyers & makes them lose out on properties that other buyers saw sooner who likely weren't using concierge mode with their agent. The best properties listed for the best price tend to go the fastest, sometimes the same day they hit the market. If your agent has an 8-hour timeframe of back-to-back showings with another buyer in town that day only, your chances are slim that they'll be checking their emails while driving, etc. If you were that buyer, you could feel insulted by the buyer's agent checking emails & wasting your time.
Multiple Searches & Multiple MLS
Each MLS is different, & there are many throughout the US. In SE VA, I have access to 5. Even if only using 1 MLS, it may be best to have more than 1 search going. Also, keep in mind that the features and options of each MLS is different.
The Importance of Agent Search Templates & Research
Agents often won't use default search templates, creating searches from scratch every time. If your agent does that, they'll often forget to include important details. Also, I have additional templates with added criteria based on various scenarios, such as proximity in drive time to various employers, USDA zones, etc. Some of my templates, and some of the research that I've done to create templates, takes hours, and most agents aren't willing to do that.
Common Search Elements
Typically either cities/counties &/or shapes (i.e. in close proximity to your work) - location will also determine which MLS is (are) used. Remote desktop is also an option if you'd like to do the drawing.
If you'd like Adam to do spot checks on Google maps based on your work location and time of arrival & time of departure, let him know in advance ideally of a search so that he has time to do it, as it's not something that's accurately done in under a minute.
Related: Traffic Comparison in Hampton Roads
There are mixed opinions on whether or not a closet is required for a room to be considered a bedroom. In terms of the MLS rules, a closet is not required, while there are still other requirements per VA law like minimum size,
If your bathrooms minimum takes you below 20 properties, consider reducing your preferences by a half bath, i.e. 3 bathrooms instead of 3.5.
Price - Max OR Max & Min
It's typically best to go slightly below a $50k increment for minimum and slightly above a $50k increment for your max. Most buyers won't do that, and some public websites or apps won't even let them (i.e. the Trulia mobile view). That means less competition there than there would be otherwise, especially when slightly over since so many buyers don't establish a minimum criteria.
This one's simple enough for purchases in most MLS as a requirement for homes.
That said, if you ever have a rental search going, sq ft may not be a requirement, such as in the main MLS of Hampton Roads (REIN) where it's not required. While it's completely terrible marketing to not include sq ft, it happens by those who hope that the property owner won't notice.
Weed Out "Fixer Uppers"
There's an option to weed out properties listed as "fixer uppers" in Hampton Roads main MLS, REIN. That's not present with most other MLS in SE VA, and keep in mind that some properties that are fixer-uppers won't be labeled as such. Then again, some buyers wouldn't mind a fixer-upper, especially handy cash buyers.
Detached or Attached
Did you know that a condo can be a completely detached structure in some cases? If you rule out condos, you could be ruling out some detached structures that you might actually consider. If wanting to weed, I suggest instead creating a search filter that weeds out by attached or detached.
Most MLS include the option to narrow by property with a garage. If dealing with REIN MLS in Hampton Roads, you can specify garage features like it being a 2 car garage, detached garage or attached, etc. Also, parking is a required criteria in REIN MLS, so a low % of properties would be weeded out unnecessarily if you add a generic garage search, while a higher % of homes would be weeded out unnecessarily if you add specific terms like it being a 2 car garage.
That said, keep in mind that a garage can often be added, especially if you would be building it from $.
Many More Possibilities
There are hundreds of search features to add to various MLS. If you'd like to include something in your search, feel free to ask your agent about if it's possible, and if it's a good idea based on factors like whether or not it's a requirement for listing agent input & how many properties it would narrow your search down to.
I've also spent dozens of hours on templates, so in some cases, while something isn't easy to do on MLS, a search can be made, or I may already have a template, i.e. USDA loan zones.
See also: "Search Vocabulary" section for more ideas.
Less Common Search Elements I Like to Use for Home Searches if Applicable:
With some MLS (i.e. REIN in Hampton Roads) you can eliminate any properties that list pet restrictions. If you have a >75 lb dog that's of a more aggressive breed (i.e. Dobermans, Rottweilers, Pitbulls, etc.) it's not a bad idea to add this criteria as it's unlikely (though not impossible) that your dog would be allowed.
What I recommend:
It's possible to adjust the style of homes possible. In REIN MLS, if you want a backyard, there are styles I can exclude from the search that can help eliminate a number of properties that do not have one. Likewise, if you don't want to consider modular, mobile, or manufactured homes in REIN MLS, I can exclude those too.
Word of caution:
If your trying to only do a small number of style types in your search, and your search is below 20 properties, consider excluding style types instead or expanding style types considered. I generally recommend excluding styles types rather than only including a small subset of styles.
Max HOA/Condo Fees
Hampton Roads' REIN MLS has a decent option for narrowing based on HOA/Condo fees. That's not the case with certain other MLS (i.e. Wbg) since while the feature is present, it's not configured in a such a way where I recommend its usage. Many buyers opt to add a max HOA & max condo fee, but keep in mind that these fees are separate and that there isn't a way to filter out those with a combined monthly fee between the 2. Also keep in mind that in some cases, the fees cover primarily on property expenses, like yard maintenance, utilities, siding, & roof, while in other cases, they don't cover almost anything on property at a prospective house, but are focused instead on neighborhood amenities. If acquiring a mortgage & considering townhouse style condos, detached condos, or more traditional condos, keep in mind that down payment requirements may be higher than a traditional home or townhouse. For instance, 1st time home buyers can get often get a no down payment conventional loan in SE VA, but I'm unaware of any conventional no down payment option for condos in SE VA.
See Vocabulary Section
For more search elements I like to add, see the vocabulary section below.
Words of Caution on Common Requests:
Introduction to Words of Caution on Common Requests
In my opinion, it's critical that I'm honest with others, & that means not agreeing with them all the time & warning them of what could happen if I acquiesce to their request at times, including in common search requests where many agents would simply add a search criterion with no warning of consequences. That costs me business sometimes because I tend to be more candid than most (especially with sellers, but sometimes with buyers too when it comes to requests for searches). I'm not going to stop being honest, & it's one of the reasons why clients who choose to work with me love me. I also feel that to agree with clients all the time would be a breach of my fiduciary duties to my clients, prioritizing my working with them over them. I take my fiduciary duties, to put my clients' interests above my own, very seriously, even when it means they'll be more likely to inadvertently self-sabotage because I'm honest about disagreeing with them. Keep in mind as well that ultimately, the buyer decides what's in a search, and I can only advise, as long as they don't ask me to integrate search elements that would be unlawful.
While I don't typically recommend the criteria below, if you have far too many properties in your search (i.e. over 50), some buyers may still wish to have some of the below elements to narrow properties further, just keep in mind that you'll typically be weeding out homes that would be suitable, especially if you have only 1 MLS search going. It is possible to have a separate search going with some of these effectively when it's a required criterion for agents to input in MLS, that way you have your ideal search that you prioritize and a secondary search that you still have access to.
Narrow by Stories #
If in a search for 1-story homes, you find that it's under 20 properties, you might want to consider 1.5-story homes. That said, keep in mind that you may be ruling out some fantastic properties that are listed as a 2 story but have all that you need to live on 1 level and that have an elevator, like this fantastic waterfront & golfront property I helped a buyer purchase in Fords Colony. Here's another example I helped a buyer purchase that is listed as a 2-story, where, like the other, the 2nd story is the basement, and the majority of the home is on the entry floor.
Narrowing by Neighborhoods
Some buyers prefer to narrow by neighborhoods, and that can work for some, but I wouldn't typically recommend that as a primary search, even if you have a neighborhood search as a supplementary search.
Even if there are neighborhood amenities you really want, sometimes those amenities are publicly and freely available within the community. For instance, I advertised about the Denbigh Community Center of Newport News when I listed a home half a mile away, with that community center, which was freely accessible except for an interior workout room & when certain functions occurred. It had outdoor workout equipment with shades, a playground, an open gym w/ 2 full basketball courts, a dance room, an outdoor lighted basketball court, adjacent extensive athletic fields, etc.
If there are certain neighborhood qualities that you want, & narrow to a short list of neighborhoods, you'll be missing out on other neighborhoods typically that may be smaller but may still fit your criteria. For instance, a relatively small neighborhood, Wexford Hills, is where I helped a buyer to purchase a gorgeous property. Only 2 homes in the past year sold in that neighborhood at the time of this edit (9/7/23). One alternative that's more viable in my opinion is to rule out certain neighborhoods that you know you wouldn't want to be in because of qualities typical of that neighborhood, that way you don't have to filter through those neighborhoods all the time. That can be done by neighborhood or by larger areas with drawing on the search, and that drawing if desired can occur right from the comfort of your home with screenshare & remote desktop if desired while on a Zoom session with your agent.
One option as well is to establish more than 1 search, with your favorite neighborhoods in 1 search, and another search of other neighborhoods (especially with some neighborhoods you wouldn't consider) ruled out.
Acreage with a House or Commercial Property Search
While many buyers request adding acreage as a criterion for homes, that's better with some MLS & some searches than others, since in places like Hampton Roads, the dominant MLS (REIN) doesn't require acreage, and many agents don't input it (most agents don't bother to add it, in fact, for residential homes on REIN) despite how much it can hurt their sellers whenever buyers use acreage in criteria on MLS. You'd be shocked if you saw the level of apathy and corners cut that I see with listings when the agent thinks they can get away with it and it's not required.
With WBG (Williamsburg) MLS, acreage is a required criterion, & the majority of acreages listed in error are attached homes listed as 0.00 when they are more typically .01-.1 Keep in mind that REIN MLS, not Williamsburg MLS, has more listings in Williamsburg & James City County. With that being said, if looking in WBG MLS territory, you may want to have an acreage criteria with a WBG MLS search, but probably not with your REIN search.
With CVR (Richmond) MLS, 1636 of 2190 (75%) of properties have acreage listed.
With CBRAR (Middle Peninsula) MLS, 180 of 187 (96%) have acreage listed.
With Northern Neck MLS, 5/829 properties had a # under tillable acres, 23/829 under cleared acres, & 10/829 stated the amount of acreage with trees, so none of those criteria should ever be used as an exclusive search. Surprisingly there isn't a general acreage search option in Northern Neck MLS.
All checks of listing volume on 9/7/23
Whether or not you include an acreage criterion depends on your preferences, but keep in mind that in CVR & REIN when searching for homes, I don't recommend it. Also, if you want to establish a maximum acreage, keep in mind that some properties with lots of acreage can still be relatively low maintenance. For instance, this home on 3 acres I helped a buyer acquire had minimal grass to maintain, with extensive use of areas with trees and rock gardens.
If acreage is a critical component of your search, there are a few options:
A. You might consider creating a search on a public website that defaults to tax records like Zillow if using an MLS where so many agents aren't inputting the information.
B. Another option is to create an initial search on MLS, have your agent weed out the properties in the initial search that are outside of your acreage criteria, and then subsequent listings that come in are ones that you can weed through on a case-by-case basis, checking the map for the property if no acreage is listed before you check anything else about the property. If you have in mind something like horses in locations where certain acreage is required, you can pull up the tax records for a property that looks promising or ask your agent to. An additional option if creating a search is to ask your agent to weed out the top neighborhoods in your search criteria that otherwise populate search results but that never have acreage that meet your search criteria based on the past 1 year's sales.
Acreage with a Land Search w/ a Workaround in MLS
In a land search on the same MLS (REIN), it's not as problematic as with houses, but it's still a problem for agents who are banking on their sellers not noticing and trying to cut corners in a listing. In a search with 0+ acres there were 821 results, & in the same search without an acreage requirement, there were 926 results. That's 11.3% of properties you'd miss if you do a search by an acreage amount directly in that example.
For land, there is a workaround on MLS that is required. Lot sizes have brackets of the following sizes:
Sadly that isn't a search criteria option for homes, and if you add that to a cross-platform search, including commercial, all you get is land
Year Built Minimum
While I think that a year built max is fine for someone that really wants an older home, I generally wouldn't recommend a year built minimum since a 100 year old property could have many items replaced to be in substantially better shape than a property that was just constructed in the past year.
1st Floor Bedroom & Full Bath: Viable in Hampton Roads; Not Recommended In Some Other Locations
In some MLS (i.e. REIN MLS in Hampton Roads), it's possible to add a viable criterion for 1st floor bedroom and first floor full bath if desired, since listing agents are required to say whether it is or not. This requirement is not present on all MLS, so if you're looking for this criteria, be sure to ask your agent about whether or not it's a required (or relatively required) criterion in the MLS where you're looking. In a CVR (including CBRAR if using the co-op search of both MLS) & WBG MLS search it doesn't appear to be required, so if an agent's lazy, and you weed by criterion that in a search, you'll rule out properties that fit your criteria likely. In Northern Neck MLS, it's not a search option.
It's required in Hampton Roads for listing agents to say whether or not a property has a fence. That said, I typically don't recommend that buyers include fences in their search for a few reasons:
Inaccuracy is high & listing agents don't care enough. In a random selection of 10 properties listed as "no fence" I checked on the subject that included pictures on REIN MLS, at least 4 of them (40%) already had at least 1 section of fence that was either on their property or immediately adjacent to their property of some kind, whether they owned it or whether their neighbor owned it. That inaccuracy includes higher end homes, though is less likely. One of those 4 properties that was inaccurate was a higher end home.
Unlike many other items, a fence can be added if desired relatively cost effectively, whether financed or paid for in $. For dog owners, electric underground fences are a low cost & low maintenance solution as long as you don't have an ethical problem with those (I don't, but can understand how some do). Fencing in a small section of your backyard rather than the full backyard is another option to cut costs.
A thick hedge can be superior to a fence in various respects, but there isn't an option for hedges within the options for fence on REIN MLS.
Search Vocabulary to Know for Further Revisions:
If you've never purchased before, but even if you've purchased 5 or 10 times, it's a good idea to be sure that you are familiar with some vocabulary going into a search session with Adam. If not, Adam can explain verbally, but you'll have a more efficient session with Adam if you've gotten this information in advance.
Excluding contingent properties, which I almost always recommend, means we are excluding most properties under contract even if they are still listed as active (which isn't possible on many public websites).
Exterior Insulation & Finishing System (EIFS) looks like stucco (with stucco being a viable siding type), but EIFS is one of those "good ideas" that turned out to be highly problematic in many cases, especially with older versions of EIFS before class action lawsuits occurred. It's meant to keep out water, but once the typically older version of it cracks, the water comes in without being able to breathe. It's pricey to repair and can negatively impact resale as well as condo association fees, especially if it's older EIFS. New versions of EIFS aren't so bad, but in SE VA, most EIFS appears to be from periods of time prior to the big class action lawsuits. It's not a bad idea to rule out EIFS entirely because of the low % of properties that would have well working EIFS, though if you want to, another alternative would be to create a few searches, with one year based, though keep in mind that with EIFS, even when built in the same year, the quality and construction practices can vary substantially. Insurance claims from EIFS "ultimately drove to EIFS exclusion language being introduced into General Liability policies in the early 2000s. EIFS insurance became hard to find and, if it was available, it was at a premium price (WCOnline)."
With many MLS, it's possible to exclude EIFS (which may be named "Synthetic stucco depending on MLS) siding if desired. That said, keep in mind that sometimes listing agents will intentionally state "other" or not mention EIFS even if it is present.
Asbestos is another one of those "good ideas". This one actually works well for what it does, but happens to also cause cancer once it breaks apart and it becomes airborne. It's expensive to remove and hurts resale. The best way to alleviate it is often to cover it (i.e. with vinyl siding).
With many MLS, it's possible to exclude asbestos siding if desired. That said, it's even possible to have some asbestos pipes, asbestos roof shingles, asbestos in insulation, etc. They're not just a siding issue.
Keep in mind that sometimes listing agents will intentionally state "other" or not mention asbestos even if it is present on siding or elsewhere.
Short Sales are not for the faint of heart. With a short sale, you're dealing with a bank and an individual seller. They typically take at least 3 months, but in some cases can take years from the time of a ratified contract to a closing. In some cases, the bank has agreed to the list price, while in other cases, the bank hasn't agreed on price and may reject the contract soon after ratification. Even when the bank has "approved" a price, they may take so long to do their process that by the time they get around to you, the "approval" may have already expired. That said, they can be deals, but while you're waiting on a short sale, another deal may pass and go.
In some MLS (i.e. REIN in Hampton Roads), it's possible to exclude these.
Local MLS: REIN, CBRAR, CVR, Northern Neck, WBG
1. Central Virginia Regional MLS (Based out of Richmond)
2. Chesapeake Bay & Rivers Association of Realtors MLS (Based out of Hartfield - primary MLS of most of Middle Peninsula, excluding Gloucester)
3. Real Estate Information Network (Based out of Virginia Beach - primary MLS of Hampton Roads, including the primary MLS of Williamsburg & James City County by listing volume)
4. Northern Neck MLS (Based out of Callao)
5. Williamsburg MLS
Search Navigation Important Features:
Flood Zones in Matrix MLS (Hampton Roads & Richmond)
In some cases, the absence of photo captions on public websites that can be present on MLS can mean the difference of night and day in photos, especially if the agent is detailed, doesn't repeat what's in the listing already, and the photos are of the area.
Here is an example from 1 of my own listings, where you have a LOT better experience with the area photos when captions are present that at times state details including proximity to the home, possibilities for activities at locations, important elements not visible in the photo, free options, etc.
While MLS varies regarding photo captions, in some cases, you'll need to click on "View all 50 Photos" & I suggest scrolling directly to the area photos where the highest volume of captions are both present and needed to illuminate what the photo and the attraction can mean for viewers:
Image courtesy Onehome
Image courtesy Onehome
Captions can also answer questions you might have, such as the fact that this shed conveys (see bottom left) rather than the seller taking it with them:
Image courtesy Onehome
What Else May Be Discussed In Initial Consultation with an Agent?
While there are many things that we could discuss, some of the most common include your background on home purchases/sales, your goals, any concerns, questions on what I’ve presented here, and otherwise. One benefit of Zoom is that we can put together a search for you while we're on the phone with you seeing my screen and options that aren't available to the public, as well as other visuals that are helpful components of the home-buying process like market trends if you'd like.