Last week one of my clients asked to see a property she’d found on Zillow. I looked it up, and it was listed as a for-sale-by-owner. The details stated that the owner would work with real estate agents.
I clicked on the link next to the listing to send an inquiry. Identifying myself as a real estate agent, I explained that I had an interested buyer, and asked if we could set up an appointment to see the home.
My email was never answered. I followed up with two phone calls that were not returned.
My client was very disappointed. She asked me why someone would announce that their home was for sale, and not respond to inquiries from potential buyers.
I explained to her that Zillow is free and public. Sometimes homeowners change the status of their homes to “for sale” just to see if there’s any interest. It’s even possible that a homeowner doesn’t know that Zillow shows their home as being on the market.
A few days later, the same buyer contacted me again. A friend of hers had found another home for sale on Zillow. She loved the property and asked me if we could see it. I found a Realtor’s name next to the listing, but couldn’t find the home on our multiple listing service.
When I called the agent he told me that he was just “premarketing” — getting names of interested parties. It would be a week or more before the home is on the market and shown to buyers.
I predict that the home will have offers on it the day it comes on the market — and before my buyer can see it.
We could blame Zillow for these problems, but it isn’t Zillow’s fault.
Let’s blame the people who list the homes for sale that are not for sale. Real estate agents and home sellers and even scam artists exploit real estate websites any way they can.
During the same week I was chasing after phantom homes for sale on Zillow, three homes sold on the same day they were listed on our MLS.
In all three cases, it was “dual agency” transaction, with a single agent or brokerage representing both sides in the deal. Other interested buyers never got the chance to look at the property or make an offer. The sellers may not have gotten the opportunity to choose the best of five or six offers.
It is likely that just like the home that wasn’t really for sale yet on Zillow, all three of these homes were “premarketed.” Disappointed buyers will never know why they missed out, and that the Internet is for sellers and real estate agents, not for buyers.
Our local MLS isn’t perfect either, but it is harder to exploit than third-party sites because we have more rules and only members can list homes for sale. If an agent breaks a rule and lets a home that is sold remain active in the MLS, she will be fined. If we list a 1.5-story home as a two-story home, we are asked to change it immediately, and if we don’t, we get a fine. Some agents would rather pay the fines than follow the rules.
The homebuyers I am working with are angered by what they are finding on the Internet and discouraged because they end up chasing after homes that are not for sale. They always seem to be the most interested in the phantom properties their friends find on the Internet, and most of the time I cannot find properties that look as good. They ask me why is it that the homes they love are always already sold or not for sale.
If I look at the online house-hunting experience from the point of view of a homebuyer, I understand their frustration. They are subjected to poor photography, bad information and misleading data.
At every step, they have the opportunity to click on a link or make a phone call, and talk to someone who knows little or nothing about the home they are interested in seeing, but will be happy to send them information about other homes for sale and put them in a drip email campaign.
Zillow and others are just providing the website. Real estate agents and home sellers are providing misleading information, and many real estate agents are willing to support the sites with their advertising dollars. Let’s not blame the third-party sites for all of the bad information buyers find on them.
Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.