I had just finished writing a post about the lack of interesting consumer innovation this winter in real estate. Then, along came Zillow’s Agent Finder. It’s exactly what you’d expect: an attractive, easy-to-use interface that lets consumers see agents in a geographic location based on reviews, listings and past sales. Of course, there are also some spots up top for agents who are paid advertisers.
Are there holes in the data? Absolutely. Will consumers care? Probably not. Agent Finder feels like Yelp for real estate; it allows for positive and negative reviews, without interpreting the company’s financial success. Yelp makes consumers feel comfortable that even though they might not have all of the available information, they have enough to make a good decision. That’s the feeling Agent Finder might give to real estate consumers — comfort that they’ve been able to make a good choice, even if all of the choices might not have been present.
Agent Finder will still present an inaccurate profile of some agents because of the lack of comprehensive sales data, but it will do so with less antagonism than the stark ranking via production data that we saw in the past with Redfin’s Scouting Reports or NeighborCity’s scoring system. Much of the agents’ past sales data has to be manually input, ensuring that we’ll have a picture that’s skewed toward the Zillow-friendly agent. That will likely boost agent adoption of the platform. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Agent Finder will draw out the agent pitchforks in the way past ratings systems did. It will still have some agents justifiably upset at the way they’re portrayed.
Having been on the advisory board for realtor.com’s AgentMatch, Find A Realtor and NAR’s Realtor Ratings Committee, there’s a simultaneous feeling of frustration and admiration watching Zillow build a tool like this. We have the membership and the data to make it happen through NAR, but we move cautiously for our membership. Most tech companies ask forgiveness instead of permission.
There’s still an opportunity for NAR to build a more comprehensive, broker/agent-supported platform for Realtor reviews. A more robust database can win in the long run, but the consumer mind share for reviews is hard to get back after a certain threshold has been reached. Zillow is climbing that ladder quickly.
The business rundown
The business side of the real estate Web has been volatile. In just a few months, Zillow swallowed Trulia, realtor.com upended the new Z-appendage for the No. 2 traffic spot, and NRT started unearthing its much-misinterpreted Flanker project. Upstream and the National Broker Public Portal are gaining steam.
In 2015, if you utter any version of “Company X is here to stay” or “You can’t compete with Y,” you’re voted off the island. That mindset is so not real estate. Real estaters are the fiercely independent, never-stop-striving, scrappy Rocky Balboas of sales. The day our industry becomes pacified followers is the day a website should take our jobs away from us.
Captain Obvious: “Remember when we used to wear watches? And when realtor.com and brokerage sites dominated search rankings? Hahaha. That’ll never happen again … unless by some crazy chance there are genius billionaires who invest in technology and real estate.”
The strange thing with all of these investors making it rain in the real estate club is that the true innovation on behalf of consumers has felt somewhat stagnant for months (the new spring exception being Zillow’s Agent Finder). Everyone is increasing their ad spending, but few are building something that will make the average consumer say, “Wow! I bought/sold a home in a measurably faster and better way.”
The more traditional, complex and investment-heavy these top real estate outfits get, the more difficult they’ll be to overcome by joining the financial arms race. There’s so much good money being thrown after bad right now, though, that there seems to be plenty of space for smaller investors to do something unique and succinct at a reasonable price for consumers without trying to out-gorilla the big boys.
Project Upstream and the data integrity projects under the same idea umbrella have serious legs now. The non-geek crowd seems to finally be noticing that fair display guidelines and feed agreements are important. Unfortunately, many boards and brokers have been so deafened by their screaming agents that they missed out on this opportunity for real guidance when they signed the first portal feed agreements that were thrown in front of them. If you don’t know whether you’ve signed away the rights to your clients’ interior home photos in perpetuity to a marketing portal, you need to go freshen up on these topics.
The cultural reach
“Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate” was the best consumer real estate entertainment this winter, and it’s being quoted every 1.3 seconds by a real estate reporter. It’s strategic genius in terms of marketing and public relations. If there’s one thing Zillow knows, it’s consumer attention.
The book’s takeaways are pop culture shareable trivia like those in “Freakonomics.” There are a mix of interesting insights, such as how to pick the next up-and-coming neighborhood. There are also some cringeworthy statistics-turned-sound bites that you’re going to undoubtedly hear at cocktail parties in the future.
One such revelation: The words you use in your listing description can cost you money. “Luxurious,” “impeccable” or “spotless” in a listing description results in a higher-than-expected sale price on average, while “fixer,” “TLC” and “investor” point to a lower-than-expected price. The Zestimate is the “expected price” that you’re probably asking yourself about, which is as appropriate as calling a child with an American Girl doll an “expectant mother” — but I digress.
Captain Obvious: “So you’re telling me that when the real estate agents, who actually saw the property, specifically tell us what condition the homes are in and use words that mean good condition, it will result in higher values than words that mean poor condition? Genius!”
You can’t fault Zillow for playing the statistical click-bait game with the consumer entertainment topics. The reusable content is pure gold for media relations and will drive traffic and brand building. Just ask Buzzfeed. It’s less attractive when easily refutable statistical analyses are lazily used to suggest policy changes, such as restricting the mortgage interest deduction.
The hopeful future
The National Broker Public Portal hit its initial funding goal of $250,000. The prognosticators will say it’s an insignificant number; that if the portal can’t match Zillow or Move in funding, it can’t compete — poppycock.
Name whichever company you’ve attached the term “disruptive” to this week, and ask yourself if it became successful by outspending gigantic traditional competitors on advertising. It’s true that the NBPP has a long way to go in attracting consumers, but outspending others on advertising is a lost cause. Delivering a proprietary, crystal-clear tool to consumers, on the other hand, makes organic growth just one good idea away.
Ask Homesnap. With what looks like less than $10 million in total funding, it’s a top five consumer app that wants to drive its growth by joining with brokers and MLSs — much like NBPP would like to do. Homesnap is leveraging agent/broker/MLS connections to build support from the industry floor upward. In the markets where it has signed up seven of the nation’s 20 largest MLSs, as far as consumers and agents on mobile are concerned, Homesnap’s MLS app is the MLS.
The silly little tool that lets consumers snap a picture of a home and pull up its data is just a gimmick based on GPS and a gyroscope, right? It couldn’t be that Homesnap is building an unmatched database of millions upon millions of photos, taken by consumers, of real estate with GPS coordinates and public records data attached. There’s no way to compete with the biggest boys without hundreds of millions of dollars. Nothing to see here, move along.
Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors.