By WALTER S. MOSSBERG and KATHERINE BOEHRET
If there's anything Americans obsess over as much as sports, pop
culture and college for their kids, it's real estate. All over the
country, people love to talk about how much their homes, and those of
their neighbors, might be worth if sold today and what it would take
to snag a new house.
Trouble is, it's hard for average folks to obtain solid, neutral
estimates of the market values of homes without consulting a
real-estate agent. There have been a few Web sites that offer
estimates of a home's value, such as housevalues.com. But they require
you to enter your contact information and to be contacted by a
real-estate agent or mortgage broker in order to actually receive a
detailed estimate. While these sites look like they are focused on the
consumer, they are actually designed to generate sales leads for
Now there's a new, well-designed, free online service for finding the
value of a home that doesn't require you to identify yourself or to
communicate with an agent or broker, and provides heaps of information
directly to consumers. It's called Zillow, and it is launching today,
in beta, or test, form at http://zillow.com.
Zillow uses data such as tax records, sales history and the actual
prices of "comparables" -- homes in your area that are similar to
yours -- to come up with an estimate, which it calls a "Zestimate."
It backs up the estimate with lavish data -- aerial photos and maps
showing prices in a neighborhood; loads of charts and graphs
displaying historical data and price movements, as well as details on
the size and room totals of a home. It even allows you to enter
information, like the types and prices of recent renovations, that
might change an estimate.
A home needn't be for sale to be searched in Zillow, which claims to
cover 62 million houses and to update its estimates daily. The
company, founded by people who formerly ran the Expedia travel Web
site, hopes to make money through advertising.
When estimating home values, real-estate agents can draw on their
industry's massive database, called the Multiple Listing System, as
well as on their own local knowledge. Zillow doesn't have access to
the MLS or to agents' local savvy. So, it draws on roughly 10
commercial providers of real-estate data, which supply information
like a home's sale history; tax assessment and payment history;
comparable-home sale prices; and numbers of rooms in a home. This
information is largely collected by the commercial-data providers from
Zillow also obtains some government records directly. Zillow then
crunches these numbers using its own proprietary computer formula and
comes up with an estimate. The company acknowledges that its raw data
on comparable sales can be three to six weeks older than the data in
the MLS system that agents use.
We've been testing Zillow for a couple of days, and we are favorably
impressed. The site is fast, broad and deep. It's easy to use and is
nicely laid out. It even offers to email updates on its estimates for
any property that interests you.