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How Dependable are websites like Zillow and Trulia?

Posted by Mike Jordan on February 20, 2016
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If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Did the US Department of Natural Resources document this falling, and subtract a tree from their database? Of course not! While we do not aim to discredit the authority of the DNR, it’s safe to say that the organization hasn’t documented the height and population of every conifer species across the USA.

Homeowners and investors renovate properties every day, and most of the time, these renovations go undocumented to public records. Aesthetic/functional renovations are done on homes, yet if there isn’t a document of this change, the general public home value remains unchanged for the time being. Even if the public records are updated, websites like Trulia/Zillow do not receive this secondary information until personal calls are made from homeowners, or updated by realtors representing the properties, who happen to notice misrepresenting numbers.

Zillow’s “Premier Agent’s” feel the snub

Continually frustrating, Zillow may list any realtor (who pays a fee), next to a listing they’re not familiar with. For example, a home adjacently listed to a realtor’s contact information implies that you can call this realtor about the home, but the phone call you’ll make to this agent only creates confusion on both ends. Although this individual isn’t representing the home, if he/she deals with properties in the general region of the listing, they are automatically listed on properties in their claimed area. A search of the message thread on Zillow.com displays the frustrations that realtors voice over ill-matched property listings, and poor results.

ConsumerAffairs.com, gives Zillow.com a 1 out of 5 stars rating, based on realtor reviews. The majority of those reviews are from realtors who pay for premium memberships, complaining that the amount of traffic and actual leads they receive are never what is originally promised by the websites. Small font disclaimers protect the websites from angrily filed lawsuits due to lower than expected business.

Zestimates–Underestimates

Zillow claims to use numbers from nearby and comparable homes, coupled with old public listings of a property, (along with other factors) to provide a “Zestimate” price on the home. One real life example of a home with skewed Zillow numbers is a property located at 11381 Appleton, in Redford, Michigan. The price on this home is listed on Zillow at $33,822, although it was sold on 4/22/15, for $42,000. Comparable homes in the same neighborhood, with very similar square footage, bed/bath count, and outfitting, recently sold for $53,000, and $75,000.

Zestimates–Overestimates

Conversely, some homes are over-estimated! The property at 14432 Toepfer Rd, in Warren MI. is listed on Zillow for $55,742, but was sold on 4/14/15 for $27,000.  Recently sold homes in the

same neighborhood, with very similar attributes, also have lower actual prices; $21,250 and $22,060. All three of the homes in subject are analogous in nature-3 bedrooms, 1 bath, built in the same decade, with the same type of material. What is it about these homes that causes Zillow to overprice by 30+ thousand dollars? All three homes discussed were sold as is, with renovations required to deem them habitable. City certificates, minor repairs that add up to major bills, and neighborhood aesthetics aren’t always factored into Zestimates. This proves unfortunate for individuals conducting online research into neighborhoods they hope to invest in.

Due diligence

Millions of potential home buyers, investors, and real estate agents use websites like Zillow and Trulia every month. It’s convenient, and seems accurate. If you are an investor interested in purchasing homes in far-away lands, Zillow allows you the opportunity to see neighborhood averages and home values without having to drive hours. Eye-grabbing features like side-by-side comparisons and access to property statistics make the website attractive, but the most important factor, (home price) is often misrepresented. Unless you are a certified real estate agent, with MLS listing access, you aren’t going to know the actual value/asking price/sold price of the property you are interested in. Understanding that Zillow works like a Wikipedia page, where any user can edit information on a home, should be enough to portray the effective accuracy of the website. The need for independent research when basing a property search from websites like Zillow/Trulia shouldn’t be forgotten, and every seasoned investor knows that due diligence is at times the most important task at hand.

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