Q: Knowing that I would be selling my home, I have been following price ranges for comparable properties to my home on a couple of major real estate websites. Now that I am ready to list, all the agents I’ve talked to say that the websites are so out of line that their recommendations are worthless. What a shock!

A: Real estate websites have transformed the whole experience consumers have of homebuying or selling — they have made public what used to be private and difficult to get to — namely, listing and sales data about homes across the country.

Several of these sites offer nearby recent sales, with the promise that savvy sellers like yourself can simply go online, input your address and find out what specific homes in your neighborhood have sold for lately — some even go so far as to take the leap from what those homes have sold for to placing an estimated value on your home.

These sites try hard to do a lot of the work for you — surfacing the homes they see as comparable to yours. However, these are, at bottom, computer programs.

So, what’s involved is a computer taking the description of your home from the public records (which usually reside at the county recorder’s office and in their databases) or from a recent listing (if your home has been sold in the past few years), in terms of the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and square feet, primarily, and pulling out the closest homes to yours that have sold recently that have similar data on record.

And therein lies the rub. The computer can’t necessarily distinguish nuances in a property’s condition or aesthetics, nor does it always correct for whether the house two blocks over was a short sale or a foreclosure.

Depending on where you live, how similar homes are to each other in your area, the level of sales activity near your home and the level of accuracy found in the public records for your house and nearby homes, these sites can offer very comparable "comps" — or comparables that aren’t really comparable at all.

If you live in a fairly cookie-cutter subdivision where several homes just like yours have sold very recently, you’re likely to get a good set of comparables, and a value estimate that’s at least in the ballpark. But in many areas, lots of fairly common scenarios can come between you and a good set of automated comps:

  • if your home is older and has had a lot of improvements and even additions that are not in the county records, you’re likely to get bad comps;
  • if homes in your area are very different from each other, you might get bad comps;
  • if you live in a neighborhood very nearby another neighborhood where homes have a much higher or lower value than your area’s (say, because they belong in a better school district or even on the other side of the city limits), you’re prone to getting bad comps;
  • if your home is in an area where homes are dense, the algorithm might jump over many very nearby properties to get to a relatively dissimilar one even a half-mile away, and that can give you bad comps.

The listings provided by the sites can be very useful for homeowners trying to stay on top of what homes around theirs are selling for — not listed for, but actually selling for. They are less useful, in my opinion, at placing values on properties; the sites that do this usually have their accuracy rates listed somewhere on the site, and I haven’t yet seen one that’s impressive.

But when it’s time to actually list your home, or figure out what it is worth, no computer — no algorithm — is as accurate as a living, breathing local real estate professional who sees and sells all the different specimens of homes in your neighborhood and sees firsthand what ready, willing, qualified buyers actually pay for them, day in and day out.

I think it’s important for sellers interviewing listing agents to discuss the online comparables with prospective listing agents, but not as a counterargument to what the listing agents recommend you list your home at.

Rather, it’s a smart way to see what the agents know — and what you can learn — about the other properties in your area.

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