How to find your dream home, according to a Zillow executive

Amy Bohutinsky found her home the way millions of Americans do: on Zillow.

But she’s not your average Zillow user. She’s the company’s chief operating officer. That gave her search added weight that ultimately benefits users.

“When it’s our own finances at stake with the purchase of a home, you feel it a lot more,” Bohutinsky says. “That’s where some of our best ideas come from.”

She says Zillow employees often return from house hunting and say, “‘This worked for me, this didn’t.’ ‘This missing piece of data really bummed me out, and here’s how I think we should fix it.’ We always try to keep a dialogue going.”

Finding a home is not just about picking a house, it is so much more: the neighborhood, the schools, the relative value of the house to others in the community, the property’s potential.

Providing house hunting details traditionally discovered by word-of-mouth (like school information, community vibe, neighborhood amenities, access to transit and commuting times) to users online has been a driving force for Bohutinsky during her 13 years at Zillow. Much of that information is now available on Zillow and Trulia, the real estate site Zillow bought in 2014.

Bohutinsky will leave her position as COO at the end of this year, but will remain on the company’s board of directors.

Here are some lessons she learned while searching for a home near Seattle before buying a waterfront fixer-upper in 2012.

Make a wish list

Bohutinsky and her husband Francesco Crocenzi, an architect-turned-private chef, had two kids under the age of five at the time they started looking. They not only wanted great schools, but a place their kids could be kids.

She recalls growing up in the Midwest in a neighborhood where she could ride her bike freely and play in the woods.

“That kind of experience is more and more rare for families these days, especially around big urban centers,” she said. “But we wanted to find something where our kids could have that kind of freedom in their childhood. We were looking for family neighborhoods, either inside or slightly outside the city.”

And as long as they were making a list, she said, they loved the idea of being near water.

“In Seattle, waterfront properties don’t come on the market very much.”

Zero in on a neighborhood

Bohutinsky learned about their current neighborhood from colleagues who grew up there.

“They talked about what a family-oriented neighborhood this is, how there’s a beach club down the street and how wonderful it is for kids. But that was something I learned offline,” she said of the neighborhood just north of Seattle, on Lake Washington. “I thought, there’s such an opportunity for people to learn this online.”

After her experience she was determined to ensure buyers could get answers to questions like: What is the commute like to downtown? What are the schools like? What are some of the shining spots for people to gather? What does the community do?

“That’s certainly something that we’re trying to serve more of,” she said. “That it’s not just about the house, it’s about the neighborhood and the community.”

Look for bargains no one else wants

When Bohutinsky first saw her home on Zillow, the listing said the house had been on the market for nine months.

“And whenever you see that on a listing, you immediately think, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong with this house.'” she said. “But we were intrigued. We liked the neighborhood and the area, we loved that it was on the water. So we came to take a look at it.”

She didn’t have high expectations.

It felt like a 1950’s house that hadn’t been remodeled, she recalled. It didn’t have good flow, she said, and the ugly carpet, popcorn ceilings and linoleum floors were not helping.

Even though the house ticked a lot of boxes for her, she realized why the house was still on the market: It was a massive project.

“I don’t think many people wanted to take it on,” she said.

Look in person, not just at the photos

Hours of house hunting can be spent swiping through photos and even videos or virtual tours, but they aren’t a substitute for the real thing.

Even after seeing the house for the first time, Bohutinsky still wasn’t impressed.

When they looked out to the water on that gray, stormy day, she saw big waves and the rain was coming down.

“It didn’t do it for me.”

But her husband saw something else: opportunity.

Have vision

Thinking about how they wanted to use the space — as a gathering place, a family home, a community they could grow with — Bohutinsky and her husband began to see that this house could be a home.

It took a couple visits before she was convinced, she said, but eventually she could squint her eyes and see the potential.

“We imagined kids running in and out, grabbing food, jumping in the lake, and it being a place we could entertain,” she said. “It required taking down walls and it required touching every single surface in the house.”

Now that several years have passed since finishing the renovations, they are thinking of starting up again. The kids, now 8 and 10, have new needs. So Bohutinsky and her husband are considering adding a third level den for the kids.

“This allows us, as a family, to stay in this neighborhood, on this plot of land, on the lake, where we want to be, but evolve the house as our family grows and evolves.”

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