In a 1925 New Yorker magazine short story, “A Certain Lady,” Dorothy Parker wrote: “…she may be found frequently inspecting and pricing Park Avenue apartments, and hopefully calling up real estate agents to inquire if the prices in that part of town have taken a change for the better since her last inquiry.”
Curiosity about home prices is not new, there are just more people curious today, as Zillow learned yesterday when its servers crashed trying to feed the mad rush to get home valuations.
Zillow launched on Wednesday after a year of speculation and secrecy over what the company’s founder Rich Barton, who created online travel giant Expedia, could do in real estate. Zillow’s tool enables consumers to look up home valuations online, but the company suffered outages most of the day as hundreds of thousands of people tried to log on.
In 1999, HomeGain launched a free home-valuation tool, using 40 million public records at the time. We required registration but it still knocked us cold on some days. I remember the scramble to get back up, so I felt for Barton and his team yesterday.
HomeGain registered 3 million people in a year or so for the service before modifying it to become more focused on Realtor leads and less focused on the valuation service.
Those were fun days as we fed people’s obsession with learning the value of their homes. The obsession today has turned into real estate hysteria.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about setting home-valuation data free. In two states, I was personally named in legal complaints for illegally practicing the work of an appraiser. My madman mantra at the time was, “I will gladly go to jail for committing the crime of giving public records to the public.”
HomeGain offered two tools when it launched — the popular home-valuation tool and the seller/agent matching service. My idea behind the second service was to give home sellers a way to negotiate commissions while staying anonymous by reviewing multiple bids from Realtors. It still works today, and HomeGain is pushing ahead under its new owner, Classified Ventures, which acquired the company in July 2005.
The Zillow valuation tool is much more robust than HomeGain’s old tool, giving the new company a unique relationship to 70 million homeowners. Some day it could use that connection to deliver customers to Realtors or it could build its own home-selling engine. I suspect something much bigger down the road.
Over the last few days, I was a tad nostalgic. But then I got a grip and realized how happy I am that Barton is taking up the fight now, not me.
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