US-centric: The best way to use powerful real estate information-sharing program Redfin is to forget what the directions tell you to do. Redfin is billed as a service for helping you buy and sell houses online without a real estate agent, and I have at least one acquaintance who has done that. But for those of us just dipping our toes into the real estate market, or who would prefer to work with an agent, Redfin can be the ultimate window-shopping tool for checking out properties in the areas where you want to live. With a terrific map mashup that uses Microsoft's Virtual Earth, easy-to-parse data fields, and nicely designed galleries, Redfin helps you get an overview of available houses and lets you drill down quickly to figure out whether that amazing condo next to a park is really big enough for your family.
Get started with Redfin by clicking the "find" button in the upper left corner. You'll be prompted to provide a city, neighborhood, or MLS number (these are the unique numbers assigned to a property by real estate agents). I recommend starting with a city neighborhood—in this example, I've chosen Noe Valley in San Francisco. To narrow your search, hit the arrow button next to the "search listings" button. It opens a menu that lets you search by price, number of rooms, square feet, and several other parameters. I've found the most helpful ones to be room number and price—often, the square feet listed are misleading.
Your search results will be displayed on a map (see screenshot above), as well as in a list below it. You can navigate via the map or the list—just click on a property you want to learn about and data about it shows up on the right side of the screen. You can drill down further by clicking "view full details." Usually the seller provides at least four or five images of the property, as well as highly detailed information, including financing and what documents are available to prospective buyers.
One of the best parts of the Redfin interface is that it's so easy to browse and discover new properties just by dragging the map around. Plus, you can create a MyRedfin page and save properties you like or share them with people you might want to buy with. In my city, San Francisco, this is a helpful feature because a lot of people buy "tenancy in common" houses, where two or more groups share a mortgage in order to afford a duplex or triplex. My TIC partners and I have been using a MyRedfin page to keep up to date on properties we want to see in person.
Last of all, be sure to check the feed in the lower right corner from Zillow, another service that estimates property values based on recent sales in the immediate area. It will provide a "zestimate" (I know, I know—groan) of the value of the house you're perusing based on looking at what comparable houses in the area have sold for in the past few months. While these zestimates can be misleading, it is helpful to know whether the seller's asking price is similar to what other houses in the area have sold for.
Once you've found a few houses you want to see, print out the map and visit in real life!