Zillow Continues to Confuse Consumers.

March 19, 2012



Last week I received a call from a woman who is in the process of relocating her family here from the east coast.   They were coming to town and wanted to see my listing at 1912 Howard Avenue in San Carlos — she was excited because the house seemed to be exactly what they were looking for, and was right in their target price range.  Normally I'd be thrilled to get such a call about one of my listings,  less for one significant detail:

1912 Howard Avenue sold back in October of 2011…which was 5 months ago.

When I asked her why she thought this house was still for sale, and she told me that it is listed “For Sale” on Zillow.com.    For those of you not familiar with Zillow, their site is a popular destination for consumers who want to get a quick estimate on the value of a home — aka a “Zestimate”.   The accuracy (or lack thereof) of these estimates has been the subject of countless discussions and online debates.  But that's not the point of this post.

Reliable Data?

At first I thought she must have been misreading the website, but when I looked into it,  this is how 1912 Howard Avenue appears on the site:

Once you get past their absurdly low valuation of this home, you can see that it's clearly being marketed as an active listing on Zillow.  No harm?  Well, I have to imagine that it would be a bit disconcerting to the current owners of this home if people thought it was truly for sale, especially in a market as hot as the one we're in now.   It also puts me on the spot for “listing” a house that's clearly not for sale.

But the inaccuracies aren't limited to just this house.  When I type “San Carlos, CA” in the search box, it claims that there are 125 homes for sale in San Carlos right now (and this is with the “Make Me Sell” box unchecked.)    Right now in San Carlos there are only 27 single family residences and 5 condos currently on the market.

Upon further investigation, it appears that Zillow includes some pending sales in this search.  But if you add up each and every  single-family residence and condo that's either active or pending in San Carlos today, that number still only reaches 92… which is a far cry from 125.

Not All Sites Are Created Equal.

What makes third party real estate websites such as Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin so popular with consumers is the way that they effectively aggregate so much real estate data into an easy to use format.   But what if you can't trust the data coming from the site?

Redfin's site is a smash hit with consumers because they provide a ton of data, it's easy to use, and most important, it accurately displays the data that it gets from the MLS feed.  There's absolutely no reason that Zillow can't perform to the same standard.

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  1. Brad Andersohn on March 19, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Hi – Brad from Zillow here. With all due respect, the home that was sold 5 months ago (your listing) was not updated on the source feed you’re using that is coming to Zillow.

    You most likely did update it on your MLS site, but the feed you have coming to Zillow is from OBEO Inc. I just took a screen shot of it and will post it on the blog I’m about to create showing agents why and how this happens. I’ll add a link to your post here and give you credit for helping to discover why so many agents might not understand how this happens.

    On every listing on Zillow, if you scroll down just a bit, you’ll see who the listing agent is and the source that is feeding Zillow. This again is available on every listing.

    Chuck, If you go update your listing on OBEO’s site, Zillow will be updated right away as we update every syndicated feed to our site on a daily basis. I hope this will help you in the future, I tried to add a screen shot here of your listing and its source but your comments only allow for text responses. If you need any additional help, feel free to contact me anytime.

    Thanks. 707.646.1876

    PS. Regarding the Zestimates, Zillow is a great starting point but we suggest that consumers contact a local expert or appraiser in the San Carlos area to get their Zactimates!! 🙂

  2. Chuck Gillooley on March 20, 2012 at 1:05 am

    Hi Brad,

    Thanks for taking the time to write in. My first question would be this – Why does Zillow get its data feed from a company that specializes primarily in virtual tours? That makes absolutely no sense if you’re striving to provide an accurate representation of what’s available in the market. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always remember to deactivate the virtual tour when a listing sells, because there are so many things going on surrounding the closing.

    Why can’t Zillow go right to the source (the live MLS feed) like all other RE websites do?

  3. J on March 28, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Chuck, I don’t know anything about why Zillow chooses particular feeds, but I do know that the NAR has continually put up all sorts of barriers to internet sites getting clean MLS data in order to protect the NAR monopoly which has had numerous antitrust challenges. Likely because bad data pushes people more towards local Realtors, as your article encourages.

    The internet empowered consumers and trading commissions generally dropped everywhere, except in real estate, where the 6% fee schedule is anachronistic. It will eventually be disrupted.

    Realtors play an incredibly important role in the market and they deserve to be paid well. But they should be paid more on performance. If I have a home that can sell for $1.5M but the Realtor sells it for $1.4M, there’s still a 6% (or 5%) commission to share in there. That’s almost $85,000. And the house would move fast because it could sell for more. I’d much rather pay $20,000 for your effort at that price and then give you a huge bonus if you sell my house for more, but I can’t. Eventually, I’ll be able to, as the fee model gets disrupted.

    But for now, NAR keeps the MLS data as murky as possible, and power is held by the Realtors and not by the consumers. I don’t know if that’s why Zillow uses the old feed in this case, but in many areas, that’s why their data isn’t perfect – NAR gates the MLS data and protects Realtors in the process.

  4. Chuck Gillooley on March 29, 2012 at 3:38 pm


    It’s ironic that the first letter of your name is the same of a particular high-ranking official at Redfin, because I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re one in the same person, because your anti-NAR rant sounds eerily Redfin-ish. If I’m mistaken on the identity, then take it as a compliment. Because aside from his misguided opinions, I think Jeff Kelman is still a pretty bright guy.

    But pn to your points, with which I universally disagree with…

    — NAR: “NAR has continually put up all sorts of barriers to internet sites getting clean MLS data in order to protect the NAR monopoly..” That’s a pretty strong statement. Can you back it up with specific examples? Because I’m pretty sure there are quite a few public websites where the accurate MLS data is available to the public for free. Redfin and MLSListings.com are just two of the more popular ones.

    Oh, but that’s right. Redfin and the others have to PAY for this data feed. Well, guess what? So do I. As a Realtor, I have to pay about $600/year out of my own pocket (not from the brokerage) to be able to access the same data that the consumer gets for free. The only difference is that I am licensed to put listings on the MLS, and there is a small section of confidential data that only licensed agents get access to — showing instructions, phone numbers, and other stuff that shouldn’t be blasted out on the internet. So somebody has to get paid to manage and maintain this database? So what. Nothing is for free, right?

    –6% Fee schedule: I don’t know where you’re writing from, but the 6% fee “schedule” has been long gone from this market for at least a decade. 6% listings make up less than 5% of the total listings in this area. 5% has become far more common, and when you factor in the inevitable credits and commission reductions that are negotiated, the net is far less than that. And yes, commissions are not “scheduled”, they are negotiated.

    — Pay on Performance. Same point as before. You can negotiate any commission you want with any Realtor. Nobody said you can’t, as you seem to imply above.

    — Disrupt the “Fee Model”. Go for it! The entire process should be value based, then right? So when a Realtor spends an entire weekend showing a client a dozen properties, and then another 4 hours reviewing disclosures and writing an offer, he or she should feel perfectly fine submitting an invoice for $1,200 to the client right? That’s roughly 12 hours of work at $100/hour. After all, you pay a plumber over $100 before he steps foot in the door.

    But wait.. you get that service for free now — with no strings attached. But you’re not alone in this thinking. Redfin tried a very similar model as a way of disrupting the mysterious fee schedule. And you know what happened? It failed — and they have now adopted a model that is strikingly similar to the model that’s in place with your standard full-service Realtor.

    The bottom line is that you can’t have it both ways – if you’re not willing to pay for all of the groundwork and expertise that you get from a good agent up front, and then you want to carve apart the commission schedule, what kind of representation do you expect to get for the biggest purchase in your entire life?

    And finally, if you are indeed a homeowner, I find it ironic that you’d beat up on NAR the way you are. The tax write-off on your mortgage interest that you obviously have taken for granted would have been gone years ago, had NAR not taken a stand on your behalf. Congress has been trying to kill that golden goose for the past 20 years, and largely due to the efforts of NAR you still have that deduction.

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