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.
Better yet, the app even knows where you made each note--which is especially handy when you hit ten open houses in a day and your brain starts to get confused about which one had the Jacuzzi tub and which one had the hot-water heater in the kitchen for some reason. Evernote is available for free on all the major mobile OSs (iOS, Android, and Windows Phone) and syncs across them accordingly.
Determining compound interest, seller costs, and other nonsexy details is as crucial as reading the home's listing price, making the commonsense spreadsheet program Soulver ($12 for Mac, $3 for iPhone, and $5 for iPad) a necessity. Set up like word processing software, Soulver lets you type in your intended mathematics on a simplified page. It's ideal for quick math, though you'll still want to lean on a good real estate agent to make sure you're plugging in the right numbers.
Once you find a house for which you want to write an offer--or better yet, once that offer is accepted--you'll be thanking the housing gods for the virtual-paper software DocuSign (free for iOS and Android). In short, DocuSign lets you put your signature on official documents over the Internet. The people creating the document bear the cost of the service, so using DocuSign to confirm contracts from your agent or the seller is free to you.
You'll get an email notification when a document arrives, and be able to read it as a PDF. When you're ready, you select a virtual signature that represents your real signature, click to sign at the appropriate places, and send it off securely to the other party. Even the simplest home purchase generates a paper pile inches thick, making DocuSign not only a hero among trees but also a simple, smart way to virtually back up all your correspondence. You can also apply your signature on iOS, Android, or Windows phones, scribbling your John Hancock right on the touchscreen.
And once you're moved in to your new home, be sure to join the local social network Nextdoor, which takes the Facebook concept and puts it inside a particular zip code. The posts are less frivolous than the updates littering other social networks, combining Craigslist-inspired commerce, Meetup-like events, and Neighborhood Watch and safety alerts.
You have to verify your address to be allowed to join, so you can't use Nextdoor to scope out a potential neighborhood. Once you're in, however, it's a great way to meet neighbors and to keep tabs on what's going on in the 'hood. The service is available on the Web, as well as in free apps for iOS and Android.