Coffee heat rising

Zillow is full of beans

What with the proposal that the government should force mortgage rates down to 4 percent, I mentioned to M’hijito that we should be prepared to re-refinance the Investment House, the place he and I are copurchasing partly as shelter for him and a paying roommate and partly as what we imagined would be an investment. He said he didn’t think we’d qualify, because we’re now upside-down in that house. Whence this intelligence? Zillow!

So I thought I’d better check Zillow to see what it claims the house is currently worth. Yup: the site estimates its value at $188,500, which is $46,500 less than we paid for it. But… Directly behind our house is a nearly identical cute little brick house in foreclosure. It has been partially renovated (ours has been completely renovated), but the owners dropped out of the picture before they could finish the job. Flooring is down to the concrete; bathrooms are unfinished; it needs a new roof. Zillow values that wreck at $225,000!

Our house has a new roof, new air conditioner, updated wiring and plumbing, and has been completely gutted out and rebuilt inside. Makes sense, eh?

If Zillow is figuring on a straight square-footage basis, at $188,500 our house is worth $143 a square foot. The house behind it has a 500-square-foot add-on. That should add $71,500 to its value, over the value of ours; in that case, it would be worth $260,00.

Interesting. I wondered what Zillow thinks my place is worth. Entering my address brought up an estimate of $284,500, or $52,500 more than I paid. Noticing a “recently sold” icon to the north, I clicked on it, thinking it was the rental house that Manny, the font of all neighborhood gossip, said was on the market.

But no! It was my neighbor Sally’s house, directly behind me. Zillow claimed it had sold in October for $192,500.

Say what? Sally is still very much in evidence. No “for sale” sign has ever gone up, though sometimes houses around here sell with no notice. But if the house had been sold last October, surely Sally would have moved by now.

A little further investigation showed Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum (now under new management) also sold last October, for the same price.

Hmh. Well, these houses are on two parallel roads with the same name, one ending in “Lane” and one in “Way.” The street numbers are the same, so that packages and workmen meant for 501 West Erewhon Way often end up at 501 West Erewhon Lane, and vice versa. Clearly, someone got the address wrong, and Zillow picked up the error. Not enough, however, to post a picture of Dave’s house when you click on Sally’s: what comes up is a fine photo of Sally’s front elevation.

It gets better. Despite the alleged fire-sale price, Zillow values Sally’s house at $300,000, well above what any house in this neighborhood has commanded over the past two years. Her house is old and unrenovated, replete with the original harvest gold Formica counters and matching appliances. It’s clean and neat, but it needs a paint job, a new roof, a new air conditioner, and a full interior remake to bring it into the three-hundred-grand range.

Dave’s house is valued at $289,500, despite the $192,500 selling price. It is two square feet larger than mine, sits on the same-sized corner lot directly across the street from mine, has a pool about the same as mine, and landscaping comparable to mine (but lacking fruit and shade trees). It was built in the same year as mine by the same builder. It has a minuscule, dark kitchen, needs a new roof and new air conditioner, and soon will need new pool equipment. My house, in contrast, has a large, bright kitchen with a skylight (one of four in the house), sunny and open rooms, gorgeous tile floors throughout, a park-like yard with not one, not two, but three beautiful outdoor sitting and entertaining areas, a new roof, new kitchen appliances, new pool equipment, new bathroom everythings: Zillow values it at $284,000.

And this makes sense…how?

Zillow is the last place I would go to get a reasonable estimate on the value of a house. If you’re interested in buying a house, get your Realtor (and do engage one who alleges to represent the buyer, despite the speciousness of that claim) to run the comparables in the area and show you a printout. Visit those houses to be sure they really are comparable to the place you covet.

If you want to know what your house is worth, any Realtor will run the comps for your place. This is generally a free service, offered in hopes that you will list with the Realtor who is nicest to you. Ask a real, live Realtor, not Zillow, about the value of your house.

4 thoughts on “Zillow is full of beans”

  1. Zillow is for entertainment purposes ONLY. Trulia is not much better. Redfin is a tiny bit better than Trulia, but not much. With the advent of the internet anyone to put up a website and claim to be an expert at something. It pays to do your research and verify information on more than one source.

  2. I’m sure Zillow is going to get better. In general, if both are equally accurate, I prefer machine- to human-based sources of information, because I never know if the human is incompetent or trying to manipulate me. Zillow doesn’t sound like it’s there yet, but I’m looking forward to when it is.

    I should also say that Zillow’s user-friendly interface meant that it was very easy for my friend who was moving out-of-state to use it to decide generally whether to rent or buy at her new location. She could look at the general level of prices in neighborhoods near work or farther away and see how much of a tradeoff there was. She did decide to buy and used traditional channels to pick out her specific condo.

  3. I’m with you – Zillow is full of it, although I do cruise it for entertainment. I would never take the word of Zillow over someone who really knows local markets. Interesting post – thanks.

Comments are closed.