If you want to become a property millionaire, but you’re too lazy to get out of bed, you’re going to need some special help.  This month I’m going to look at some tools that let you do just that.

You might think that’s a totally ridiculous idea, but the bottom line is that you really don’t need to get out of bed to buy property.  Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.  You might have to go downstairs to get the post, but you certainly won’t have to leave the house.

I know you’re probably thinking I’ve finally lost it by now, but now I’m going to really shock you.  I haven’t been to see any of the last fifty or so properties I’ve bought.  My bed is large and comfortable.  The outside world is cold and full of traffic.  It’s an easy decision to make.

Yes, you’re right.  I am actually seriously trying to argue that you can buy blind and make a success of it.  Not only that, I’m arguing you can make a career of it.  I’m not going to go through the ins and outs of a property-based business plan now, but rather I’m just going to look at some of the  tools you can use to buy smart and buy blind at the same time.

You might like to start by looking at the whole world.  OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.  You don’t need to actually look at the whole world, just half of it.  Google Earth starts with half the world, and then you zoom in.  If you haven’t come across Google Earth yet, it’s time to play with a new toy.  Just bang Google Earth into a search engine and you’ll be able to download this ultra cool new gizmo and start looking.  This piece of software is a great bit of kit.  It’s basically a photograph of the entire world in incredible resolution.  You can pan and zoom round it, jumping in seconds from the Pyramids to the Mississippi delta.  And when you’ve got bored of messing about, you can actually use it to do some work.  You can use it to check out the property and area that you’re thinking of buying.  You can see all kinds of useful info.  Is the garden screened with evergreen trees, or is it bare in the winter?  Is the park behind the house a nicely landscaped country park or a rough-looking play area that will attract noisy kids?  Have many houses in the area been extended?  Is the farmland around the property a peaceful arable farm or a noisy quad biking track?  You might not believe that these features are possible to pick out, but take a look and be converted.

Verdict – awesome fun, and occasionally very useful

If you want a more diagrammatic view of the town you’re buying in, you can consult Multimap.  I routinely use this tool for dealing with town and street level detail.  It’s quick and easy to use, and it’s my first port of call for mapping information about areas.  Again, you can glean all sorts of detail by using this.  Is the house a long walk from the station?  Is it on a long terraced street that could become a rat run in the morning, or is it in a little cul-de-sac?  Is the bypass near enough to be noisy?  All these things make a difference to the value of the property, and I find Multimap is the easiest way to take a map view of towns.

Verdict – a useful mapping workhorse.

What do you do when you need to find properties that are for sale?  Well, leaving aside anything you do to source properties privately, there’s really only one choice, and that’s Rightmove.  There are still some two-bit estate agents in peasant villages who don’t use it, – but every half-respectable agent in Christendom lists their property there.  You can use it both for sourcing and for comparables, as it’s got a handy setting that allows you to search sold properties.  I won’t bang on about this site, because it’s comparatively simple to use and self explanatory.  But if you’re not familiar with it, then make the effort to get familiar with it.

Verdict – useful for comparables, and absolutely essential if you’re sifting through  lots of properties listed with agents.

If you need to check out the local area, upmystreet is a handy tool.  Not limited to property sold details, it includes loads of additional useful info.  For example, you can get details of crime statistics and demographic groups in the local area.  If the leafy suburban streets you see on Google Earth by day turn into a haven for drug-dealing and TWOCing at night, then your investment isn’t going to look too clever.  Admittedly, I’m too lazy to actually use this site, but I can think of a few examples of properties I wouldn’t have bought if I’d actually made the effort.  I’ve only got myself to blame for the problems resulting from the failure to Do My Own Research.  Another useful feature of this site is that it lets you check out the local business community.  You can learn a lot from what’s around in the locality.  Convenient for laundrettes?  Chances are the locals can’t afford washing machines.  Lot’s of health food shops?  Look out for young professionals and affluent families with lots of cash to splash on properties with the right look and feng-shui.

Verdict – useful for area info.

Drilling right down to the details of individual properties requires some serious mapping tools, and this is where you’re going to have to get your wallet out.  Don’t worry, this piece of software requires no upfront fees and most of the features on it are free.  It’s called ProMap and for a very good reason – it’s the choice of the professional.  So why is it so great?  Quite simply, it’s got the highest resolution survey information of all the packages I’ve mentioned so far.  You can pick virtually any house in the country and use the tools on Promap to measure the garden, down to less than a metre.  That might seem completely bizarre, but you honestly can do it.  Check it out on your own house now if you don’t believe me.  Admittedly, it’s not always up to date and it often claims a higher level of accuracy than is actually available, but the bottom line is: it’s brilliant.  You can see exactly where your house is in the street, which side of the street it backs on to, how many houses there are between it and the end of the road, etc., etc., etc.  What’s more, you can use this data to work out the area of the garden, the width of the path down the side of the house, etc.  All this information is very useful when it comes to evaluating the development potential of a plot.  Can you can a kitchen extension at the rear?  Is there enough space to squeeze a garage down the side?  Can you sell off part of the rear garden and bung a house on it – scooping a bumper profit in the process?  You can draw houses, blocks of flats or anything else you want on this Promap, then cut-and-paste them onto your target piece of land, to see exactly what fits and what doesn’t.  Then, if it looks like a worthwhile project, you can instruct a local architect to survey the plot properly and draw up a viable scheme for the planners.  All without leaving your bed!

Obviously, if you’ve got to pay for this treat, you’ve got to make sure you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck.  You only pay for detailed maps and specialist information such as historical photos and environmental data. You can minimise these costs: make sure you look at the street level detail for free first. You can often discount a property based on this free, low-resolution data without wasting money on a fully detailed map. Printing costs extra – a lot extra.  So save money by viewing online first.  If you do need to show other people your information, show them on screen, or get them to buy the map on their own version of ProMap.  Promap saves data to its own servers, so you can log in from anywhere – so there’s no need to export data if the people who need that data can simply log into your account and view it.  You can’t use screen capture software, so don’t bother trying.  Once you’ve paid for a detailed map, you can use the scroll function to look around the area at the same level of detail.  There’s a limit to how far you can scroll, but if you close the map down and open it again, the software forgets how far you’ve scrolled and lets you do it all again.  Time consuming, but cheap.  Once you’ve had a little play with the software, you might want to go on a course to learn how to use it properly.  Promap offer courses on how to use their software.  Hilariously, they closed my account after reviewing the course, as they didn’t like the fact I was asking lots of questions about getting round their security.  I’ve worked out a way – but I’m not going to tell you.

Verdict – it’s the daddy.  If you’re serious about land development, it’s a must.

If you are looking at buying a house, you need to make sure of what’s going financially with the property.  Is the person you’re negotiating with actually the owner?  Are they being truthful when they claim they’re losing money on the house?  Can they sell the property for the amount they’re offering it for, or have they got a charge on the property they’ve forgotten about.  Fortunately, the UK has a decent land registry system – unlike a lot of countries you might want to buy in.  This system is easy to use, cheap, and can address all the questions above, and lots more.  You can get a plan of the property you’re looking to buy, and you can find out who owns it, what they paid and who they own money to.  You can even work out who owns which fence!  If you’re dealing direct with private sellers, this is essential.  You will only realise the true depths of the stupidity of some of the people in Britain when you try to buy a house off them.  For example, there’s no point talking to someone who doesn’t own the property.  It’s happened to me, and it’s entirely my own fault.  It wasted a day of my time and a survey.  There’s no point driving round to see someone if they have a second charge on the house that means you can’t buy it for the money you’re looking to pay for it.  I’ve driven from Milton Keynes to Wales, only to later discover that the vendor had outstanding car finance secured on his property and couldn’t sell the house.  Don’t be an idiot – pay £2 before you negotiate on the property or carry out a survey.  To get the details you need go to  www.landregistry.gov.uk

Verdict – essential.  If you’re not using it, you’re lawyer will be.

Once you know what kind of property you’re looking at, you’re going to want to know what it’s worth.  My favourite site for doing this is ourproperty.co.uk.  It has lots of useful detail on the properties in the local area that have sold, which lets you test just how similar the properties that have sold are to the one you’re looking at.  For example, many of the comparable sites on the net don’t show details of the property, so you might end up comparing a four-bed house with a maisonette.  Ourproperty stops you making this mistake.  By combining this tool with Promap, you can get a really detailed idea of what a property is like and what it’s worth, without needing to spend money or visit the place. Ourproperty is also a cute looking, simple and fast site, which will make you want to use it more and more.

Verdict – dead handy for comparables.

Once you’ve got hold of a property you like the look of, you need to check it out and make sure you’re not paying too much.  One way you can do this is to use Hometrack to get a desktop valuation done.  This website collates vast amounts of sales data to give a reasonably accurate picture of the values of property around the country.  It’s no substitute for an internal survey, but as a quick, rule-of-thumb check on a value it can be very handy. At only twenty quid, it can be an invaluable assistance to you in negotiating a good price.  It’s not foolproof but it can be a help.  What’s particularly cute about this site is that it gives you some additional information that I’ve not seen on other sites.  For example, it handily displays asking price to selling price ratio for the area.  This is very useful when judging how much of discount you’re really getting.  Furthermore, there’s also the facility to track the shift in prices over time.  Using this tool, I can see that prices round my way are stable, and properties are selling at 95% of asking.  This is indicative of a healthy market.

Verdict – don’t buy on the strength of it, but you can use it to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Finally, you need to make sure you’re not buying a dog.  The only way to find this out is to trust the professionals and send in a surveyor.  The chances are you’re going to have to do this anyway, because if you’re buying with a mortgage the bank will insist on it.  Even if you’re a cash buyer, it’s well worth getting a second opinion.  Don’t get caught up in your enthusiasm for a deal – be cold and rational.  It’s better to burst your bubble before you’ve bought than afterwards.  I always use a survey when I’m buying, and it’s the final arbiter of value for me.  I buy on the strength of a survey without any other research.  As long as I’m buying at a good price, it doesn’t matter if the place has a dicky boiler, an avocado bathroom suite our swirly patterned carpets.  As long as the surveyor can confirm that I’m buying significantly below market value, then I’ve got a deal.  You can even send a local builder round to price up any works that have been identified.  For larger jobs, you can look at instructing a quantity surveyor or architect to supervise and plan the works, to make sure the builder does a quality job.

So hopefully, I’ve demonstrated to you that as long as you’ve got a system for finding property deals that stack up, you can do all the research you need without getting out of bed.  If you combine this sourcing and research with a business plan for buying, renting, selling or refurbishing, you’ve got the opportunity to build a very successful property business from home.  It might seem crazy, and at first it will take a lot of guts, but the bottom line is that once you free yourself up from the chore of viewing properties, vetting tenants and supervising builders, you’re in a position to build a much bigger property business than you ever could otherwise.  Could you buy 200 houses a year if you had to go and see every one of them?  Clearly not.  Buying blind is a bit like flying the nest.  It may be a scary idea at first, but unless you do it you’re always going to be limited.

Go on, spread your wings.

PS Don’t send me abuse if you do this and make a mess of it.  Sometimes you’re going to end up with a dog.  If that happens, take the hit and move on.