Editor’s note: More Web users today are creating their own content and uploading it to the Internet for the world to see, and the trend is catching on in real estate. In this three-part series, Inman News digs into the user-created content trend to explore consumer feedback on property listings, the emergence of new local user-created community sites, and the latest in user-created online video content.

Editor’s note: More Web users today are creating their own content and uploading it to the Internet for the world to see, and the trend is catching on in real estate. In this three-part series, Inman News digs into the user-created content trend to explore consumer feedback on property listings, the emergence of new local user-created community sites, and the latest in user-created online video content. (Read Part 2 and Part 3.)

Your home can now be a water-cooler conversation piece for the world.

The Internet has brought digital photos, virtual tours, videos and maps to the wide world of online property listings. And a growing number of Internet sites have added a new layer of interactivity that allows Web site users to post comments on specific properties.

ZipRealty, a national real estate brokerage company, in August announced a “Client Ratings” feature that allows registered users of the site to rate and review individual properties listed on multiple listing services in markets where the company operates.

And ShackYack.com, a Web site created by Los Angeles-area real estate company Brock Real Estate, launched earlier this year with house ratings and user comments.

Other real estate-related Web sites have integrated user comments, such as sites that allow consumers to rate and review real estate agents and brokers. ApartmentRatings.com allows user comments about apartment properties.

Such sites have opened a door for a new level of communication with Internet-savvy consumers, and some sites have taken different approaches in how far to crack open this door. Completely unregulated comments can open the floodgates to an entire spectrum of good, bad, glowing or profane commentary, for example, while some sites choose to moderate comments or allow users to self-police the content to help weed out the bad apples.

ZipRealty, which operates in 19 major markets, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Boston, Miami, Houston and Seattle, among others, hired Bazaarvoice, a technology company that specializes in customer ratings and reviews services, to manage the user-generated content at ZipRealty.com. Bazaarvoice reviews each rating before it is publicly posted on the Web site “in order to ensure that illegal, inappropriate or demeaning language is not included,” according to a company announcement this month.

A pioneer in online property feedback, ApartmentRatings.com, has evolved its model for handling comments — and complaints about comments — since its launch in 2000.

Jeremy Bencken, co-founder and CEO for ApartmentRatings.com, said the site maintains a user agreement that sets guidelines for what users can and can’t post in reviews of apartments. Users are advised not to post reviews that contain profanity, hateful language or personally identifiable comments.

There is a complaint process through which users can call attention to a specific review, and the company employs a customer service representative who follows up with these complaints to determine whether a particular review violates company policies. Site users can also rate reviews for usefulness, and they can post responses to reviews at the site.

“When we first launched the site we didn’t have a defined process around having complaints for reviews,” Bencken said. “We had to resolve that very quickly. Out of the gate we certainly didn’t have a quick turnaround on examining reviews.”

There are about 450,000 reviews posted at the site, which lists about 54,000 apartment communities across the country and attracts about 11 million to 15 million unique visitors each year. In addition to property reviews, the site’s users can also rate apartment-property attributes on a scale of one to five in several categories, including parking, maintenance, construction, noise, grounds, safety and office staff.

Complaints about reviews are rare, Bencken said, and typically there are about three complaints per day. If a site user is posting spam, the company can delete that user’s account. Those incidents typically “stand out like a sore thumb,” he said.

Property reviews are definitely more accepted in the real estate industry today than they were when ApartmentRatings.com first launched, he said.

“There has been a shift. The real estate industry, in general, tends to be one cycle or two behind in terms of technology and attitudes toward it. When we launched our site it was almost revolutionary. Now that the industry has become more familiar with the Internet, and user-generated content has taken off over the last couple of years, (the industry is) starting to understand that this is something that will exist … with or without their blessing,” Bencken said. “They are trying to figure out how to harness it now. Now there is more of a climate of sharing and back-and-forth. It’s a two-way street with information. Consumers have a way to talk back.”

User-generated property reviews can lead to more informed consumers who have more realistic expectations about properties, he added. “It’s definitely a good thing, both for those sites and for consumers in general. To the extent that anyone in the industry adopts ratings and reviews, they are going to find that consumers are going to be happier.”

ZipRealty hasn’t yet received any feedback from other real estate companies about the user-generated comments at its Web site, said Patrick Lashinsky, a senior vice president for the company, though he said the company is creating a tool “to allow listing agents to be able to opt out of the user-review feature for their clients.” If agents do make that request, he said that the Web site will carry a note that states “client reviews not allowed at agent’s request,” or a similar message to that effect.

Lashinsky said there is “a very clear line” about the types of comments that will not be allowed at the site. “Any (Fair Housing Act) violation, vulgarity or anybody trying to promote a Web site, e-mail address or phone number will not be allowed. Pretty much anything else is fair game.”

There is no notification at this time to let ZipRealty sellers know when comments are posted about their properties, he said, though “most of our sellers look at the sight regularly.” Sellers are welcome to comment about their own home, he said.

“User-generated comments add more transparency to the home for buyers,” Lashinsky said. “It allows sellers to know what others are thinking about their property and it also saves buyers the time of not having to go out and see a property that doesn’t fit their needs. The number of reviews has been increasing each week since it debuted. So far the reviews have come down exactly 50-50 — half have been positive, the other half expressing some concern.”

Brian Larson, a lawyer who has represented multiple listing services and real estate trade associations on a range of issues, said that he isn’t aware of any MLSs that have created policies related to online consumer comments about members’ property listings. MLS rules relating to online sharing and display of property listings data by member brokers do typically provide that other brokers’ property listings information must be clearly separated from other content on the Web page, he said.

So user comments would typically be OK on member Web sites “as long as it’s clear that the source of those pieces of content is not the same as the source of the (broker-exchange) data,” he said. “The issue has just not come up as a problem with any of my clients so far.” The laws differ from state to state in addressing user-supplied information at a Web site that is disparaging or defamatory, he noted.

Brock Harris, broker-owner at Brock Harris Real Estate in Los Angeles, the company that operates ShackYack.com, said he hasn’t yet been contacted by real estate brokers or agents about the user comments at his site. ShackYack.com allows ratings and reviews on specific homes, and the site displays property listings from four Southern California MLSs.

If real estate professionals ask for public comments to be removed from the site, Harris said he “would probably honor those requests as simple professional courtesy and make a note in the listing that that is the case. However, agents who don’t allow comments will likely be seen like agents who don’t put pictures up: slightly suspect — at best, out of touch with technology.”

Illegal comments will not be posted at the site, he said. “I really haven’t had anything questionable posted on my site. Feedback, like feedback on all consumer sites, tends to be well thought out and reasonable.”

So far, the comment feature has not been widely used since the site launched three months ago, Harris said. “However, as houses stay longer on the market and buyers have more choice I expect comment levels to rise.”

Comments on homes for sale, he said, “benefit the same way that movies, books and products of every strip benefit — user feedback and comments add transparency and clarity to the real estate listing. This will keep brokers and sellers honest and make listing the whole process more efficient for everyone.”

Readers of the Inman News blog expressed some reservations about opening up property listings to user-generated comments. One blog commenter wrote, “Bad idea, as if we learned nothing from click fraud about greed and agendas. If you think (that) the lead peddlers abused pay per click, wait until you see what agents do with comments.”

And another offered, “It is shameful to let people leave comments. The potential for abuse is staggering to consider. I hope somebody sues one of these companies for damages.”

There are numerous real estate sites that allow consumer reviews of agents and brokers, such as Brokerate.com (see Inman News article), HomeThinking.com (see Inman News article), RealtyRators.com (see Inman News article) and Realty Baron (see Inman News article). Another company, Quality Service Certification (see Inman News article), works with real estate brokerage companies to survey consumers about customer satisfaction following real estate transactions.

Homethinking features property maps that display current for-sale listings and past sales, as well as information about the real estate agents associated with those listings. Site users can post and view reviews of real estate professionals.

The company has received a small number of requests to delete reviews at the site, and there is a “challenge policy” for these instances, said Niki Scevak, CEO of Homethinking and a former analyst for JupiterResearch.

“Our general policy is to do two things: one is to run a check against the public record to ensure that the home sale involved with the review has occurred in the timeframe that is specified. The second is to contact the reviewer to ensure that the e-mail address is a real one and they are able to confirm their review within a reasonable amount of time,” Scevak said.

Also, Homethinking staff monitor the site for spam activity, including multiple postings from a single computer within a short period of time. “Our goal is to have legitimate opinions on the site, whether good or bad,” he said. There are plans to add a “rebuttal” feature to allow agents to respond to a consumer’s comments, he said.

In addition to detailed comments, the site also allows consumers to rate real estate professionals on a scale of one to five stars. The majority of reviews are positive, though they tend to be polarized — either one star for a bad review or five stars for a good one, he said.

“Consumer reviews and ratings are digital amplifications of the age-old practice of recommendations and referrals, which better agents have always relied on,” he said. “Instead of one friend telling another … now a recommendation can reach the whole community.”

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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