There are various web sites from which you can search for real estate round Lancaster County. Here's the ones I checked regularly:
- Most realtors register their properties on the Multiple Resource Listing, or MLS. You can access the same info through any participating realtor's web site. I typically used WoodsBros.com. The MLS has the largest volume of houses, and you can limit the search results by a variety of criteria.
- BancWise is another popular local realtor, but their listings don't appear on the MLS. The SearchPro Map interface for their listings is actually more user friendly than the main MLS map interface. They don't have as many homes available, but they have enough that you need to check with them.
- Zillow compiles real estate listings from a number of different sources, including both the MLS and BancWise. It also shows foreclosures and potential foreclosures. Their info is sometimes a little out-dated, so don't expect to see brand new listings, and don't be surprised if a property they show is no longer actually available.
- Land and Farm is a real estate site geared toward rural and unimproved properties. It's nice in that you can search for "Lancaster County, NE" to show all properties in the county, rather than just those with a Lincoln address. You can limit results by lot size and price, but not by number of bedrooms. It showed us a number of interesting acreages mixed in with some urban commercial properties.
- Craig's List has lots of listings for all kinds of real estate. For searching, you're at the mercy of whoever created the ad, but at least they have searchable fields that the ad writer is supposed to fill in.
- The Lincoln Journal-Star classified ads have real estate listings, but they're the most chaotic of the resources. You can't limit your search by anything other than the text in the ads, so you're really at the mercy of the person who wrote the ad. They also don't remove ads in a timely fashion, so you have no way of knowing whether the house in a year-old ad is still for sale.
I tried looking at a number of other "for sale by owner" web sites, but none of them ever had enough volume around Lincoln to make it worth my while. I basically kept web browser tabs for all of the above sites open all the time, and checked for new listings daily.
Lancaster County Assessor's GIS site. From there, I could look at who all the neighbors are to see if I knew anybody nearby. Once I knew the neighbors' names, I could look them up on WhitePages.com to see how old they are, which gave us some indication of whether they might have kids.
The aerial and bird's eye maps on both Google and Bing provided me with a decent (though often several years out of date) views of the property from several different angles. From there, we could also look at all the neighboring properties for trampolines, swing sets, swimming pools, horses, and other signs that there might be kids nearby.
We wanted a home that could be a gathering place for our kids friends, so travel time from urban Lincoln was a consideration for us. Our kids will continue going to school in east Lincoln, and I will continue working in southwest Lincoln, and none of us want to spend our entire lives in a car. Gas and vehicle wear isn't exactly free, either. I therefore calculated the "combined round trip commute" metric to judge just how remote a property was. I basically computed the distance I'd drive when dropping all the kids at school on my way to work & then returning home, then added to that Stacy's commute to pick all the kids up every afternoon. No matter what other errands we make, those two commutes will happen almost every weekday, so they provided a good measuring stick for us. Most of the acreages we looked at had a combined round trip commute of between 40-60 miles.
Being a computer professional with techie teenagers, having good Internet access is mandatory. For streaming video like Netflix, you need at least 6 Mbps to stream HD video, and that's if nothing else is using your line. Any time I saw a place I liked, I'd check on the options for Internet service. Using WhitePages.com, I'd find a land line number for either the current owner or a neighbor, and then contact Windstream's billing department online chat to have them run a line test for DSL availability. I'd also call Time Warner Cable to have them check on cable modem access at that address. Finally, I'd contact Future Technologies to see if there was good visibility of a water tower for their wireless Internet service. For rural acreages, Future Tech was usually our best bet, as they have antennas on pretty much every water tower in Lancaster County.
If all of the above checked out and the place still showed promise, we'd schedule an appointment to view it with a realtor. Stacy and I generally just went by ourselves, because the kids quickly grew tired of visiting lots of places, and found that their shopping criteria was very different from ours. If we really liked a place, we'd take them back a second time to get their opinion.
I'd be sure to get a copy of the area covenants early on, just to make sure they didn't interfere with any of the plans we had for the property. We nixed at least one nice looking place because the covenants were overly restrictive.
Hopefully, these tips will help someone else in their search for a new home. While the links may be different, they concepts should apply to home shopping just about anywhere. If you've got any other tips or good realty web sites to use, please share them in the comments below!