I've taken a cursory look at the possibility of investing in real estate near where I live, with the intent of buying a property for rental. The numbers don't work well in my favor. I've confirmed this with friends experienced with renting their properties in the area; most would not do it again if given the choice. The small potential profit is not worth the extra effort and stress.
To make the numbers work more in the investor's favor, there's the possibility of purchasing foreclosed or pre-foreclosed homes. If you can get a significant discount on the price and minimize the out-of-pocket costs required to make the dwelling attractive, there's a better chance of making a profit. Buying a house in a distressed situation, whether from the buyer in a pre-foreclosed status or from the lender or bank once foreclosed, is not very simple. Auctions are attended by professionals, and the best deals are monopolized by the most experienced investors. It can be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to break into the elite group of foreclosure investors.
Zillow is making this process a little easier or less expensive for the amateur investor. I've been a fan of Zillow for a while. The website, and particularly the iPad application, helps me easily find public information about any property. While driving around neighborhoods in which I might like to buy a house, either for myself or as an investment, I can get an idea about the cost of the home.
The application uses a map and GPS to locate the house of interest, and provides details such as a history of sales prices and Zillow's own market value estimate of the property. The application also identifies which homes are currently for sale and offers homeowners a chance to advertise their homes to potential buyers without officially putting them on the market. Of course, I don't actually use the iPad while driving.