Editor’s note: In this three-part report, Inman News catches up with a few of the latest developments to cross our desks.

Editor’s note: In this three-part report, Inman News catches up with a few of the latest developments to cross our desks. We examine a new home valuation and lead generation service, a site where sellers proactively look for buyers, and a new service among many that now offer a rich multimedia home-shopping experience. (Read Part 2 and Part 3.)

Some real estate professionals take a dim view of Web site developers who offer consumers access to information that once only they could provide — such as listings — and then try to sell the contact information they collect from their visitors to agents, brokers and lenders as leads.

At first glance, Saris Technologies’ eppraisal.com looks like another lead-generation site that has obvious attractions for consumers, but which could leave some industry professionals asking what’s in it for them.

Like one of the hottest real estate sites on the Internet, Zillow, eppraisal.com taps into public property records to offer consumers rough valuations of millions of homes.

Unlike Zillow, which makes its money from advertising, Saris says eppraisal.com is geared to connecting each visitor to a real estate agent — or, in the future, other real estate professionals. Although visitors can get a basic valuation range of a property without giving up any personal information, they must register to get more detailed information about the property and others around it.

That personal information becomes an eppraisal.com lead. Each lead will be provided to just one real estate professional, Scott said, so that visitors aren’t bombarded with offers of services from multiple sources.

“We call it a virtual handshake,” said Damian Scott, president of Saris Technologies. “Yes, it’s lead generation, but it’s a more thoughtful way of doing it. We’re giving the consumer something up front.”

Saris also plans to give licensed real estate professionals the ability to integrate eppraisal’s lead-generating capabilities into their own Web sites. The company will unveil more details and pricing for the eppraisal pro service Nov. 10 at the National Association of Realtors convention in New Orleans, Scott said.

Zillow grants free licenses allowing partners to incorporate its API, or application programming interface, into their Web sites. Building the Zillow API into a site may help generate additional traffic, but it’s up to the agent to capitalize on it by creating a “call to action” that leads a visitor make contact.

Saris’ eppraisal pro will generate leads that will belong to the owner of the site that originates them.

“They stay in control of the relationship with the customer, because the customer comes to their site, and the data is entered right there,” said Erik Hersman, Saris’ director of Web marketing and strategy.

“One of the things we’ve found … talking to real estate professionals was it wasn’t that they didn’t want to embrace new technology,” Scott said. What was holding them back, he said, was the frustration of dealing with “Web sites that were out of their control. We’re trying to provide the product that provides them the control, and then get out of the way.”

So how good are the valuations produced by eppraisal.com? Saris says it has access to public records on 70 million homes, and uses a proprietary algorithm to come up with a “valuation range” that is broader than Zillow’s “Zestimates.”

So instead of trying to position eppraisal.com as a superior valuation tool to Zillow, Saris is acknowledging that the ranges it provides consumers are the first step in the process of contacting a real estate professional.

After Saris launched eppraisal.com in beta, the company started receiving feedback right away.

“The chief recurring theme that I see being asked is, ‘What value does an automated valuation actually add to the real estate transaction?'” Hersman wrote on the company’s blog. “Our answer is very little. It’s a person’s first step towards a real estate decision, that is it.”

A real estate valuation, Hersman went on, “is very much a hands-on job. Someone needs to be on the ground and in the neighborhood to make an accurate evaluation of the property. We all know about the famous ‘unzillowables.’ That’s why we give an estimated valuation range and encourage our users to sign up to be connected with a real estate professional,” such as an agent, broker or certified appraiser.

Zillow officials say their valuations should also be seen as a starting point for consumers who want to learn more about the value of their homes.

But the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Zillow does not adequately disclose the degree to which its free automated home valuations can over- or underestimate a property’s value. The site is “likely to cause substantial injury to consumers who rely on the inaccurate representations made by the company,” the complaint alleged.

Zillow officials called the allegations groundless, saying they make every effort to explain the site’s role as a starting point for research, and display accuracy rates for every area covered by the site.

In a confusing twist, a nonprofit group formed by NCRC to promote best practices in the appraisal industry has hired another company, Eppraisal LLC, to provide a service similar to Saris Technologies’ eppraisal.com.

The NCRC offshoot, the Center for Responsible Appraisals and Valuations, is contracting with Eppraisal LLC to operate its www.BuySmartProgram.com Web site, which offers consumers appraisals using an automated valuation model in conjunction with the services of an appraiser.

NCRC vice president David Berenbaum said there is no contradiction in NCRC’s complaint against Zillow and CRAV’s use of an AVM on the www.BuySmartProgram.com Web site.

“The product being offered is an appraisal involving a site visit. It is not limited to an AVM,” Berenbaum said. “We do not have a problem with accurate AVMs, especially if they are combined with (the services of) an appraiser.”

Berenbaum said Eppraisal LLC is a subcontractor with no influence over policy decisions at NCRC or CRAV.

Based in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, Eppraisal LLC offers access to a network of 10,000 appraisers through its Web site, www.uappraiseit.com.

Scott said the term eppraisal has not been trademarked, and that Saris and its www.eppraisal.com service have no ties to Eppraisal LLC.

Another unrelated company with a similar name, Missouri-based Eppraisals, has developed a wireless technology for conducting residential appraisals and owns the Web site www.eppraisals.biz.

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to matt@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 150.

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