by Sean Hess (Sean@StAugTeam.com), Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty (www.StAugustineTeamRealty.com). Join us on Facebook.
Is this home for sale or not?
Go to Google and punch in “[the name of your city] homes for sale.” There is just no freaking end to the number of websites that pop up. There are spammer sites, scraper sties, aggregator sites, agent sites, company sites, and legit sites that will pop up on a basic search.
Further down I’ll talk about freaking yourself out when you punch your own address in.
So where do you look? And where can you trust the data?
I would start at Realtor.com first. I don’t just say that because I’m a Realtor. I don’t particularly even like Realtor.com. But Realtor.com is generally the most accurate and up to date site that exists.
Realtors have this thing called the “Multiple Listing Service,” which you probably know as the “MLS.”
A Multiple Listing Service is basically a cooperative. All of the Realtors in a given location put their listings on the MLS for their area. This allows you, the buyer, one stop shopping. You can go to a Realtor, see all of the houses that you want to see—regardless of who has them listed—and make an offer on the one you want.
Back in the old days you had to drive around, stop at each real estate company, see what listings they had, and if you didn’t like them you’d have to drive to the next real estate company. The only other option was to hope you’d be lucky enough to stumble on your dream home in a newspaper ad or while driving around.
Realtor.com is the public’s way of seeing the live MLS. Since Realtor.com pulls directly from MLS systems, the listings are the most accurate that you will find on the internet.
Now here’s the disclaimer about Realtor.com. While the name “Realtor.com” is owned by the National Association of Realtors, the actual website has been farmed out to some third world company (my opinion). This third world provider seems more concerned about selling advertising to the Realtors than making it the best real estate search engine for buyers (again, my opinion).
If you are Realtor that means even though your listings are there, they may get pushed to the bottom of searches unless you pay some pretty hefty fees to get them pushed back up.
The lesson for you, the consumer, is to hunt though all the pages until you find the homes you are looking for. Chances are that the homes that come up first paid to be there, and may not be the best fit for your search.
Is Zillow Accurate?
Buyers love Zillow because it gives them a sense of empowerment in the often very confusing world of real estate. That’s a good thing.
Zillow also gives the consumer a very broad idea of pricing in a particular neighborhood. That’s also a good thing.
But Zillow becomes a bad thing is when a buyer relies on to make an offer, or when sellers use it to price their house.
Let me define a very broad pricing in this way.
Somebody once asked a wedding guest if the coverage of a celebrity wedding was accurate. The answer? “Well, the dress was white.”
And the Atlantic Ocean is blue (most of the time), and the sky is wide…the point I’m trying to make is that Zillow estimates on home prices are accurate in only the most broad sense.
All Real Estate Is Local
All real estate is local. That’s a truism.
Even though two homes were built in the same neighborhood at the same time by similar companies, they still might price out differently.
Zillow’s computer is going to put a price on those two homes that is very similar.
But a real estate pro who has seen those two homes, and all the homes for sale in a neighborhood over a period of years, who has seen how they show to real people in real time, and who knows the difference between what a home is worth on paper compared to what someone will actually pay for it, is going to know more about pricing than a Zillow zestimate.
Sorry, that’s just the truth.
It’s the same reason why most banks don’t rely on computerized pricing for loans and refinancing (they did before the housing crash…lesson learned). They send a real live appraiser out to physically inspect the property instead.
Getting Zillow (and Trulia, and the Rest) to Work for You
So how do you use Zillow (and Trulia and all the rest) to work for you?
I actually think all of the online estimators are great programs for just educating yourself. Zillow’s zestimates are accurate in a broad sense (for example, to find out that a certain neighborhood is in the $200,000 range, though the houses might actually sell between $170,000 and $230,000, depending), which at least gives you an idea of what it might cost to move there.
And Trulia has a really great Q&A section where buyers post questions and real estate professionals from around the country answer them.
The negatives to Zillow, Trulia, RealtyTrac, and the others* is that the information about the homes actually for sale can often be inaccurate. Homes that appear to be for sale aren’t actually for sale. Homes that were for sale but aren’t anymore still appear to be available. Homes that are in the very first stages of foreclosure are listed as foreclosure sales.
Freak Yourself Out: Type Your Home Address Into Google
Do this for an exercise. Type your home address into Google.
Do links to Zillow and Trulia appear for your address? Do strange websites you’ve never heard of appear? Thought so. Even though your home isn’t for sale? It’s not showing for sale, is it?
If your home is for sale is the information accurate? Is your listing agent’s name there? Look closely now, is it in there somewhere, buried in the fine print?
Did you just sell your home? Is it still showing as for sale?
Well, that’s my point. You really have to take the homes you find on these sites with a grain of salt.
Not every home is for sale. In fact most of the homes (look closely at the “listings” you see) aren’t for sale. But these engines use real addresses to lure you in.
I just punched my home address into Google and a link to Zillow popped up for it. Zillow has already assigned it a value. They’ve assigned a value to every home on the block (and the next block, and the next block…). And they’ve never even been inside.
Seriously? I can’t even do that and I’m in real estate and I live on the street! I have to look at the inside and outside of a home in person to see what condition it is in before I could ever hope of assigning it a value. Heck, I have to see what condition the neighbor’s home is in (on the exterior anyway…trust me, it matters) to place a value on it.
Here’s what you need to know: like Realtor.com, Zillow and all of these other sites are essentially platforms that exist to sell advertising to Realtors.
You go to the site hoping to find a home and some Realtor pays to have his or her picture on the sidebar, hoping you will think they are the listing agent. They hope you will contact them about buying the home, and if not that home, another home.
One of the search engine results that came up when I did a Google search for my own address had a picture of a different house two doors down that sold last year. Next to it were three head shots of local Realtors (one of them had 39 reviews…he must be good!). There was no mention of the Realtor that actually sold the home, even though they were using his watermarked images from the MLS and what was obviously his ad copy.
The Zillow zestimate for the property was $156,000. This home sold for $161,000 a year ago. There’s less inventory now, the home is in good shape and has a big yard so it should sell today for around $170,000. If you used Zillow to make an offer on a home like this it would leave you flat footed.
Press Here For Correct Information
Then the capper…
Underneath the watermarked image there was a button for “Correct Home Facts.”
They can’t put the correct home facts in the display?
What information are they displaying? The “Incorrect Home Facts?”
You can’t make this stuff up.
So by all means, use Zillow and the rest, but when you want the most up to date information online use Realtor.com.
Later, when I get to the section on picking a Realtor, I’ll show you how to get the most up-to-the-minute accurate info from your agent.
*While I was writing this I got an email from a buyer interested in a home of mine that sold nearly four months ago. He found the home on a site called HotPads.com. I’m not sure how HotPads.com got my listing but as you now know, the listing was already sold. On the email there was a link for “Home not for sale anymore?” And I’m thinking to myself, “If they want to advertise my homes shouldn’t they be able to figure that out themselves?”
So You’re Telling This Great Cheap Listing I Found Online Is Bogus?
The homes I list for sale end up on host of legitimate websites on purpose.
Most, if not all, of these listings get scraped off the legitimate sites and re-posted somewhere else. These fake sites are usually set up by someone trying to steal (is that too strong a word?) buyer leads and then sell them back to Realtors.
Sometimes the websites I syndicate to don’t do a good job keeping things current. When this happens I (or one of the agencies I use to syndicate through) may drop the website. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about bad information after the fact, and there’s nothing you can do about it either.
You are going to find a lot of old listings and bad data when you goldmine for homes online.
It’s like luggage stored in the closet, those things are going to be there forever.
Once you understand that you are cool.
Ready to see what’s REALLY for sale on MLS? Email my partner Kate Stevens at Kate@StAugustineTeam.com or call me at (904) 386-8327.
All images, video and audio not in the public domain are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17–United States Code–Section 107) and remain the property of the film or photo copyright owners. Look, I love the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, but please, can we have another Next Generation movie? Patrick Stewart has been off the bridge for way too long. Even seeing him in an internet meme is inspiring.