Editor’s note: A new wave of online real estate innovators is gathering force, offering consumers more interactive and comprehensive online home searches and more transparency in property data and transactions. In this three-part report, we explore how newcomers like Zillow, Trulia, HomeThinking, PropertyShark, Redfin and others are bringing a new focus to the online consumer. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

When new online home-valuation site Zillow.com launched its beta version in February, reactions popped up in real estate offices, e-mail lists and blogs throughout the country.

“Any time you come out with something new and different, I think human nature has a tendency to resist or look at that with apprehension,” said Jorrit Van der Meulen, vice president of Zillow, of the wide spectrum of reactions. Zillow offers home-value estimates and data on more than 60 million houses in the United States.

A new wave of online real estate innovators has arrived, offering consumers more information up front and more transparency. These innovators offerinteractive map searching, the ability to search listings from many different sources at once, the ability to check on a home’s value without having to talk with a Realtor or give up an e-mail address or telephone number, and the ability to handle one’s own offers as a buyer, among other things.

This all adds up to greater transparency and access to information for consumers. But as services like Zillow, Redfin, Trulia and Homethinking launch, they sometimes meet with resistance from older, traditional companies.

“My favorite moment came at a real estate conference during a mobile panel where four technology companies whose technology delivered leads to agents via cell phones presented, and I was the fifth panelist,” said Glenn Kelman, CEO of online home-search company Redfin.

Redfin is a home-search Web site known for its mapping technology, which allows site visitors to view detailed property information and find information on for-sale and recently sold properties. Though generally the service is used by consumers who visit the Web site, Kelman spoke on a mobile technology panel because his company was considering offering its information on mobile devices.

“When the other panelists spoke, they were received politely and no one interrupted. When I started, I said, ‘We’re a consumer service. We are planning to deliver information to consumers via mobile devices.’ Hands shot up across the room. I wasn’t able to finish my spiel,” Kelman said.

“One guy interrupted me and said, “Not in Manhattan. It’s not going to work here!” Kelman said.

The CEO said traditional agents have “threatened to break our kneecaps on blogs and stuff like that.”

“Everybody’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” he said.

On the other hand, Kelman said, with customers, “it hasn’t been an issue.” According to Kelman, 75 percent of customers polled by Redfin said the service was “much better” than that of the traditional agent.

Propsmart, a national site, allows users to view detailed information and photos at its site, while providing links for consumers to view the source of listing information. There are links to “source” and “cache” information for each listing, for example, and other links for property details and a property map.

Ron Hornbaker, co-founder of Propsmart.com, told Inman News he was awakened to the industry’s internal conflict when he launched the site in December. “It’s really been an eye-opener, as industry outsiders, to see this kind of polarized thing going on,” he said.

While he said the response to Propsmart has been mostly positive from agents and brokers, he has received a bit of pushback from a few people in the multiple listing service community. “First of all, they’re using the word ‘illegal’ and … ‘copyright infringement.’ I’ve just been polite and talked to them. We don’t want to do anything people don’t want us to do.”

Hornbaker said he has complied with the wishes of industry professionals who wish to remove their listings from inclusion at the site.

“My concern is they are speaking for way more interest than they should be. I do not believe we are a Napster-like model, and that’s what we’re being equated to,” he said, referring to Napster’s past problems in offering up a service that allowed users to illegally download music. “I would ask the people who say we’re doing illegal things to point out where the harm is — who are we damaging?”

The property listings displayed at Propsmart, he said, “are being used simply for display to consumers to point them to a home for sale. I would think that the opposite side of this could be argued more effectively: By restricting consumer access to the listings, that has more (potential) for being illegal.

“I believe it’s the seller who’s being forgotten in this situation. It is the seller we’re trying to stand up for and do the right thing for,” Hornbaker said.

“There is a real public good underlying some of these services making real estate data more available,” said Lockhart Steele, publisher of Curbed.com, a real estate blog that launched in New York in 2004. “When it’s property metasearch like what Trulia is doing, it’s trickier. Some of the real estate brokers in New York have decided not to play with Trulia. The battle of who controls the information is being fought here.

“These services can do a lot for consumers, but the industry is coming to terms with it,” Steele said. “There’s a fear here on the part of brokers in New York of having their information spidered in a way that is potentially easy to access, making a company potentially as powerful or more powerful than you are. Some people here see it as a threat. It would be a net positive for consumers; I’m in favor of it and hope they find a way to work it out.”

Despite receiving some brickbats, Zillow’s Van der Meulen is positive about the industry’s response to his company’s service. “We have spoken to real estate professionals all across the industry and the ones we have spoken to have looked at it and said, ‘This is cool. This is complementary to what we are doing; thankfully, it’s not competitive.’

“A lot of them are advertisers on our site,” Van der Meulen said. The vice president mentioned that a Tampa, Fla., Realtor, John Mudd, has recently added Zillow to his Web site.

“This is exactly what we are trying to do: to provide tools and information to make consumers better informed, and we think this is beneficial for the consumer as well as the people in the industry,” Van der Meulen said.


Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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