Zestimate Accuracy

I have suspected that consumers rely on their zestimate more than we’d like to admit.

It’s been around for ten years, so it’s familiar and easy.  Because there isn’t any other internet tool like it, homeowners follow their zestimate and fantasize about their equity position – and start believing.  Zillow sends regular reminders which reinforce that there might be something to it.

When I’m talking to sellers, if my price is different than the zestimate, I better have a good explanation.  Likewise, I don’t mind when the zestimate is above my list price. If buyers happen to believe in the zestimate’s accuracy, then it helps make my listing look like a deal.

But the truth is that the zestimate is wildly inaccurate and heavily manipulated by Zillow to suit their own needs – especially in their quest to buy homes from coast to coast.

A good friend has been contemplating the sale of this home in Santa Monica.  We have watched the zestimate rise steadily over the years, and once it touched $8,000,000, we thought it would be a good time to put it on the market and hope the zestimate would help propel the sale.

As we prepared to launch the listing, I monitored the zestimate closely:

June 16th Zestimate

The zestimate had gone up $362,339 in the last 30 days, and was well into the $8,000,000s. We planned to list for $6,950,000, which would have looked very attractive, relatively.

The next day, our zestimate got revised.

June 17th Zestimate

Whoa – it dropped $3,284,879 in one day???

We had committed to at least conducting some price discovery, so we listed for $6,950,000 on June 22nd.

What did Zillow do?

  • They changed the zestimate to the EXACT list price,
  • They suggested a sales range evenly around the list price
  • They erased the history of the $3,284,879 drop from five days prior:

June 22nd Zestimate

The zestimate went from $8,195,161 to $4,910,282 to $6,950,000 in less than a week.

You’d be crazy to trust anything they say.

It was the erasing of the previous drop that is the most disturbing – which they have done for years.  If you drop $3 million in one day, then stick with it – don’t recreate history just to make yourself look better.


Ivy Back on Market

Our listing in Fire Mountain is back on the market.

The buyers, who according to their agent were in love with the house and the price, decided to cancel because of what they found out about the city restrictions.  The City of Oceanside won’t allow short-term rentals because the driveway is only 20 feet wide, instead of 24 feet wide. Long-term rentals are fine.

Though the short-term rentals are controversial and we really can’t predict their future, it was enough for the buyers to say no – they didn’t want any unusual restrictions that could possibly affect their kids’ future once they take over the house. The buyers had planned to live there for the duration.

We are getting an assist from Zillow – their zestimate has gone up nicely since we hit the open market:

Here’s the zestimate from the day before the listing was inputted:

Because Zillow is buying homes in the area, it helps them to keep their zestimates artificially low.  If they were legit, and kept the zestimate at the lower amount even though the list price was substantially higher, then fine – that’s your opinion.  But when it fluctuates with the list prices, it’s a sham.

Because there is so little information available, the consumers rely on anything they can find, and the zestimates are the best-known valuations available – even though they can change by $400,000 in a day.

Zillow Selling Homes?

Zillow’s full assault on realtors is ramping up.

They are happy to buy your house for the amount of their zestimate, which in this fast-moving market can only mean that sellers are leaving money on the table – it’s just a matter of how much.  But sellers – who have been cocooning more than ever – may not have a feel for the real estate business or the differences between agents and who just want quick cash will likely jump at their offer to purchase.

Zillow has opened up as a brokerage as well.

They are masterful at blurring the distinction too, because they are still very dependent upon realtors spending billions to advertise on Zillow.  But check out their latest video that encourages home sellers to call Zillow, and if it weren’t for the broker ID at the 0:33-minute mark (for three seconds), a viewer would think that this sale was handled by a Zillow agent.

Commercials like these are building their brand as the go-to destination for home sales.

It will just be a matter of time before they replace their partner agents with their own licensed employees to process your paperwork.

Zillow vs The Rest

This week we heard the the news that homes.com was acquired:

Homes.com has a similar business model to massive real estate website Zillow, at least as far as Zillow’s core business goes. Homes.com is a property listing portal that helps agents and brokers market properties. The platform supports more than a half-million agents and brokers, and the website receives about 5 million unique visitors each month in the form of buyers searching listings.

For the time being, Homes.com is a much smaller business. Zillow’s real estate platform received more than 200 million unique monthly users in the fourth quarter of 2020 and was visited 2.2 billion times altogether. And Zillow has a rapidly growing business of directly buying and selling homes, while Homes.com is solely a home search platform. What’s more, keep in mind that CoStar is buying Homes.com for $156 million — Zillow’s market cap is about $34 billion.

However, it’s not just Homes.com anymore. Once it’s brought under CoStar’s umbrella, it will join forces with brands like the LoopNet commercial real estate marketplace (an area where Zillow doesn’t operate), Apartments.com, Apartment Finder, and most importantly, the Homesnap real estate agent workflow software business.

Homesnap is another recent acquisition, purchased by CoStar in December 2020. The Homesnap platform offers a marketing platform for agents, and CoStar plans to take advantage of the combination with Homes.com. As CEO Andrew Florance said in the press release announcing the acquisition, “Our plan in bringing Homesnap and Homes.com together is to help agents market their listings in support of the ‘your listing, your lead’ philosophy — which stands in contrast to most players in the industry.”

Can any home-search portal keep up with Zillow?  They would need to spend the big bucks on advertising like Zillow does, just to be in the running.  Zillow already has the name-brand recognition, a huge lead in monthly visitors, and they have the killer instinct and willingness to spend big on advertising – including key product placement. Displaying their for-sale signs in their ads will further establish them as a national brokerage in the mind of the consumer:

Home Seller Survey

An excerpt from Zillow’s seller survey:

With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19, 70% of homeowners in a recent Zillow survey say they would feel mostly or completely comfortable moving to a new home when vaccines are widely distributed — and 78% of homeowners who say widespread vaccine distribution would impact their decision to move say such distribution would makes them more likely to move.

“We expect that the vaccine rollout will likely boost inventory, as sellers become increasingly willing to move despite COVID-19 — resulting in greater numbers of new listings beginning this spring,” says Chris Glynn, principal economist at Zillow. “That injection of inventory could give buyers more options and breathing room in a competitive market. The vaccine, however, will also likely add to already-strong demand, given that most sellers will become buyers as they trade in for a home that better suits their new needs.”

Zillow research shows that 63% of sellers are also buyers. And, as buyers, they have specific reasons for selling. A recent Zillow survey shows that homeowners who are thinking of selling in the next three years have a variety of reasons for doing so.

Additionally, 26% want to live closer to family, 24% wanted out from being responsible for yard work, 14% say their family or household is getting larger and 13% say they can no longer afford their home.

Nearly 40% of homeowners who are considering selling within three years (39%) say they think they’ll get a better price if they wait. They’re not necessarily wrong — although waiting comes with tradeoffs, according to Zillow economist Jeff Tucker.

“Potential sellers are likely correct that home prices have yet to reach their peak,’’ Tucker said, “but in the long run prices tend to rise, so there’s no clear ‘right time’ to sell.”

The catch, he said, is that waiting to sell may raise the cost of trading up to their next home if mortgage interest rates rise.


Zestimates During Frenzy


This isn’t the type of environment that you should put much stock in your latest zestimate.

A month ago, on March 3rd, the zestimate was $1,336,035.

Today, on April 4th, it is $1,723,510.

Zillow wants you believe that their zestimates are within 1.9% of being right. But if you would have sold this home to them for the latest zestimate amount, you still would have left $100,000+ on the table.

Zestimate Accuracy

Let’s go around the horn with the automated valuation models.

Zillow says that their zestimate is within 1.9% of being right on price with the on-market homes, which sounds really good until you realize what that means.

Their zestimates of the OFF-MARKET homes are way off – especially in this market:

Once we listed for $1,599,000, they kept their zestimate at the $1,336,035, but after we received six offers that were all over list price and accepted one at $1,770,000 – and raised the price accordingly – then Zillow bumped their zestimate by $352,658:

You sure you want to sell your house to them for the off-market zestimate?

Redfin said they didn’t have enough information to generate a value when they saw my initial $1,599,000, but then they came around once the list price was raised to $1,770,000:

The other automated valuation models aren’t any better, but at least they don’t cheat:



Zillow Leads

I also wanted to test the Zillow lead generator.

Now that they have buried the three Premier Agents at the bottom of the listing, how do consumers get more information – and from who do they get it?  They added the Contact Agent box at the top of the listing, which kind of makes you think you will be connected to the listing agent.  But that’s not what happens (though I do get mentioned about halfway down without a phone number or link).

Once Zillow published the listing on Wednesday afternoon, I clicked on the Contact Agent to find out.

Within minutes I received a text – here is the thread:

I was standing next to my phone and didn’t hear any ringing, but it’s possible he called.  I let it go for the rest of the night to see about their follow up, and indeed it began again on Thursday morning. A new guy connected me to Cheri, who didn’t know anything about the house but was very nice.

Once our phone call was complete, I received this by email:

Coincidentally (or not?), one of the agents from The Avenue Home Collection did show my listing yesterday.  Because their office is nearby, their broker Melissa also stopped by. She is a 19-year veteran and was brought up in the business by old-school people like me, so we got along right away.

She confirmed what I’ve been thinking.

Zillow has selected a handful of brokerages with high customer-service ratings as partners.  Zillow has their own phone team make the first contact the consumer, then forward the call to one of the agents.

She didn’t say how much she is paying, but it’s not as much as the top Zillow agent in the area who she suspected is paying around $30,000 per month for the majority of the market share.  It’s a ton of money to invest and be dependent upon the Zillow phone guys to serve up the leads fresh and hot.  The Zillow guy who called me was pathetic, though it was early (around 9am) and every phone solicitor will tell you that they need to warm up first. I was probably his first call?

They have only been Zillow partners for four months, so it’s early. I told her to hang in there, because I am constantly amazed at how casual and naive the consumers are about selecting their realtor.  Because there isn’t any transparency about an agent’s skill level, people just grab one – and with Zillow’s name recognition and horsepower, they should be able to convert viewers into buyers and sellers as well as anyone.

Realtor.com, RPR, HomeSnap, Compass, KW, CB, and others have said they might mount a challenge Zillow’s search portal, but there isn’t anyone close to spending the money on national advertising as Zillow.

It reminded me of this clip – Zillow is just waiting for a challenger – and the likely outcome:

Zillow Buying Houses For Zestimate Value

There are a few Zillow issues to unpack here, so let’s start with them saying they are willing to buy your house for the amount of the zestimate – which is fine, if you don’t care about cashing in on the actual value.

In their press release, the boss claims that the zestimate’s nationwide median error rate for on-market homes of 1.9% which sounds simple enough – for years they have been adjusting their zestimate to the list price once a home goes on the market.

But once my new listing went on the market, they didn’t adjust the zestimate upward.

Would you sell your house for $1,336,035, when Jim the Realtor says it worth $1,599,000?

Factor in that Zillow charges more than I do, and it would mean that hiring me to sell your house would net you about $300,000 more – and that’s if we sell for the list price (it might go higher).

The big difference?

I don’t spend $100 million per year in advertising – they will reach people that I don’t reach.

Tell people to use me instead!

Link to my listing on Zillow

Sell for the Zestimate?

Would you sell your house for the zestimate? They say their accuracy is within 1.9% with on-market homes – no kidding! Of course, they concoct the zestimate after the list price is published, just like Redfin does.

There’s been no shortage of news when it comes to Zillow, a company that kicked things off in the early 2000s with a home-search portal that consumers now recognize as the place to go for market inventory. Now, the Zestimate, introduced by the company in 2006, is the latest cog in a machine that has taken on an entirely new model: brokerage, iBuyer, lender, title and escrow service, and, most recently, showing service.

Zillow has just announced that it will be pairing its Zestimate with its iBuying arm, Zillow Offers, as the latest way to use technology to “simplify and streamline real estate transactions from beginning to end.”

The Zestimate is now available as an initial cash offer for eligible homes in the following cities:

  • Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.
  • Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.
  • Miami and Jacksonville, Fla.
  • Orlando and Tampa, Fla.
  • Portland, Ore.
  • Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • Nashville, Tenn.
  • San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento, Calif.
  • Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Texas
  • Las Vegas, Nev.
  • Atlanta, Ga.
  • Minneapolis, Minn.

However, the cash offer for a property’s Zestimate is only available in a limited subset of homes in these markets. Those who own qualifying homes will see the cash offer displayed at the top of their property information on Zillow, the company reports. As Zillow Offers grows, the company expects to continue expanding the number of eligible homes for the Zestimate cash offer.

Additionally, the company states the initial offer is before taxes and fees and is subject to both eligibility and the accuracy of the property’s description.

“For 15 years, homeowners and home shoppers have come to rely on the Zestimate as an essential first step. This exciting advancement demonstrates the confidence we have in the Zestimate and the lengths we are willing to go to make selling your home truly seamless and easy,” said Zillow Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Wacksman in a statement. “This is a proud moment for Zillow’s tech team and speaks to the advancements they’ve made in machine learning and AI technology. Zillow is transforming the way people sell and buy homes. Presenting the Zestimate as a cash offer to qualifying homes up front will save time, reduce friction and provide greater transparency—getting us closer to our vision of helping customers transact with the click of a button.”

A hot-button issue in the past has been the accuracy of Zestimates. Real estate agents have long complained of sellers pushing back on proposed listing prices that don’t meet the expectations set by their Zestimate.

“Zillow’s move to use their Zestimate as the basis for a cash offer is bold, although I’m more amused than concerned. The accuracy of Zestimates have long been a running joke among the real estate community, but I wouldn’t put it past Zillow to make it work through careful selection and their continued acquisition of more data,” says Josh Harley, chairman and CEO of Fathom Realty.

Kit Fitzgerald, regional designated broker for the Kit Fitzgerald Team at Equity Northwest Real Estate, says that because the Zestimate is algorithm-based, it’s impossible to get the same accuracy that a living person such as a REALTOR® can provide. “It plugs in a bunch of numbers, zip codes, mapping, etc., and spits out a general number,” says Fitzgerald, who adds that without going inside of a home, assessing the overall condition of a home, the layout, amenities, street scene, etc., the accuracy is just not there.

According to Zillow, the Zestimate is available for nearly 100 million homes in the U.S. with a “nationwide median error rate for on-market homes of 1.9%.” To come up with a property Zestimate, Zillow reportedly uses data from public records, multiple listings services, brokers and artificial intelligence that pulls information from photographs.

Is photo-based data enough to support neighborhood comparables to come up with a home valuation, however? Michael Hickman, CEO and president of Seven Gables Real Estate, a member of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World®, doesn’t think so.

“The issue with Zestimates is the interior,” says Hickman. “Any AI can look at comps, but what about the interior improvements that an AI would not pick up? Without AI scanning interior upgrades, the Zestimate will never be accurate.”

As Harley suggests, Zillow’s recent endeavors suggest the company is seeking out more data to build out their capabilities, and according to David Serle, broker/owner of RE/MAX Services, this could be a good thing—at least when it comes to Zestimates.

“I think this is a positive thing. There have been concerns since 2006, when Zestimates first became available, about the accuracy of these valuations,” says Serle. “This will create greater transparency for the consumer and the real estate industry.”

What it comes down to, however, is that Zillow’s iBuyer solution won’t meet the needs of every home seller, according to brokers and agents, regardless of whether or not they are offering an initial cash offer based off the Zestimate.

“There is a certain amount of people who would gravitate to an iBuyer sale and many who will not,” says Serle. “Typically, a cash offer in most iBuyer programs could be as much as 10-15% off the market value, especially in a ‘hot’ seller’s market around the country. I do not believe real estate brokers or agents are competing against iBuyer programs or consumer portals; we are relationship driven and strive to push forth the best consumer experience possible. All of these tools cannot replace what an experienced, knowledgeable and excellent real estate agent does.”

In today’s market, for example, Cathy Strittmater—team leader of Cathy’s Home Team of Keller Williams Solutions—says sellers can expect multiple-offer scenarios, and that should impact decisions about going on the market or accepting an instant cash offer.

“In today’s market of multiple offers on properties, and values rising quickly, it’s in sellers’ best interests to sell their home on the open market rather than sell to a single vendor who is also ascertaining value,” says Strittmater. “I would personally consider that a conflict of interest—no differently than dual agency is also a conflict of interest.”

Fitzgerald is of the same mindset, stating a Zestimate might give sellers a general idea of their pricing ballpark, but it’s not a great overall tool to assess value.

“In an ever-changing real estate market, you’d hate to potentially leave money on the table by not opening up the sale of your home to a much larger number of well-qualified buyers,” says Fitzgerald. “The instant purchase is a good tool for some, but I believe that for the vast majority of homeowners, the open market provides more healthy competition for your home.”

While the iBuyer model won’t appeal to all, Harley does caution that industry practitioners should maintain a competitive stance when it comes to Zillow and these instant-cash business models.

“They’re smart and they are a monster of our own creation,” says Harley. “We allowed it to happen and now agents are shocked that the foil-hat wearing conspiracy theorists were actually right. iBuyer programs have a long, long way to go before they are a real threat. Right now, it’s more smoke than fire, but if we’re not careful and figure out ways to compete effectively and provide a true value exchange for our services, REALTORS® and their clients will be the ones who get burned.”

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