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That Zillow `zestimate' isn't worth losing any zzz's over

March 05, 2006|Ann Brenoff | Times Staff Writer

By now, chances are you've been to www.zillow.com and may have concluded that the "zestimate" of your home's value isn't -- make that izn't -- worth the time it took to type in its street address.

"Insufficient data" was the bleak verdict from BusinessWeek Online of the much-ballyhooed and anticipated website, which purports to tell you how much your home is worth.

In a place like Southern California -- where it's not uncommon for nightly dinner-table conversation to start with, "How much do you think we could sell for today, honey?" -- it would make sense that a website promising to track this vital information without a fee would be popular. And indeed the site -- the brainchild of Expedia founder Richard Barton -- bolted out of the starting gate even though a number of others, including Realtors and county assessors, have long offered the same basic information on the Web for free.

On Feb. 8, its first day of operation, Zillow.com crashed under the weight of 300,000 hits. One man, reported the Seattle Times, checked the home values of everyone on his Christmas list. Others checked on their neighbors', their bosses', their in-laws', Bill Gates'. It was a day of Internet infamy, when little work got done in offices across the land.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Zillow.com -- An article in the Sunday Real Estate section quoted Andrew Lipsman of ComScore Networks Inc. as saying the Zillow website was on their radar, but "thus far, we are not seeing enough traffic to report." The article failed to note that Lipsman's quote was based on incomplete data from ComScore, which tracks website data weekly and monthly and had not yet completed its totals for February.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 12, 2006 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Zillow.com -- A March 5 article quoted Andrew Lipsman of ComScore Networks Inc. as saying the Zillow website was on their radar, but "thus far, we are not seeing enough traffic to report." The article failed to note that Lipsman's quote was based on incomplete data from ComScore, which tracks website data weekly and monthly and had not yet completed its totals for February.

But the zoom and zeal of Zillow-checking has faded faster than the introductory low rate on an adjustable mortgage.

When the site launched -- still in its beta testing mode -- it had enough data to provide zestimates on roughly 40 million homes. Since then, it has increased its data coverage to 46.5 million homes. "We're slowly but steadily increasing our breadth," said company spokeswoman Amanda Hoffman.

Also moving slowly are the numbers of visitors to the site since the initial rush.

Hoffman allows that traffic has "leveled off" but declined to say by how much. Andrew Lipsman of ComScore Networks Inc., which tracks network traffic, says that although Zillow is on their radar, "thus far, we are not seeing enough traffic to report."

Zillow's Hoffman remains undaunted. "When there's a news story or a spot on 'Good Morning America,' traffic spikes again. We are still pleased."

Less pleased are some of Zillow's visitors. The problem is that not all of the site's zestimates are based on complete or accurate information.

Take the case of Hope Edelman's Topanga home. Finished in 1994, it has 3,300 square feet on 2.1 acres. Zillow.com listed it as built in 1992 with 2,900 square feet on .59 acres -- and now worth $1.4 million.

"Anyone looking at that site is going to get a very skewed and inaccurate view of our house," Edelman said.

To be fair, the site has been saying all along that it expects to improve as its database grows. The site provides a link to Zillow's accuracy tables, which list the geographic areas for which it has the most data, and hence is the most accurate. New information is added daily.

Zillow estimates that the majority of its home valuations are within 10% of the selling price of the home. And, to further refine a value, it invites users to amend their personal data using the My Zestimator feature to add in views and recent remodels.

Zillow also reminds users that to get a federally guaranteed loan, they'll need a professional appraisal. A Zillow zestimate will get you zilch.

But such disclaimers have done little to quell the cries from disenchanted Zillowphiles.

At first, it was easy to dismiss as predictable the reaction from the Chicago-based Appraisal Institute. "Purchasing a home is the largest investment most families ever make. Would you trust such an important and life-changing decision to an Internet estimate?" asked a release from the trade group about a week after Zillow.com debuted.

The Appraisal Institute would prefer that you entrust that decision to one of its 21,000 members nationwide -- some of whom have taken out ads on the site.

"Zillow is intriguing, fun and free," said Don Kelly, vice president of the Appraisal Institute's public affairs office. "But free advice is often worth what you pay for it."

Even on Zillow's own blog, company President Lloyd Frink posted on Day 2 that of the more than 1,000 first-day e-mails, 21% were complaints that the site's facts about their homes "have inaccuracies."

Edelman is unhappy not only that Zillow got the particulars about her home wrong, but also that anyone can punch in her address and find out what they think it -- and she -- are worth.

"They have way more information about my house online than I am comfortable making public," she said. "How much I paid in 1997 and what my annual property taxes are now -- anyone can make an assumption about how much I'm worth and how much I could bear in damages if they wanted to sue me.

"People at dinner the other night were saying that they'd already Zillowed 10 or 15 of their friends and clients to see what their houses were worth. And I was sitting there wondering if they'd also Zillowed me," she said. "It's even become a verb already -- Zillowed."

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