OpinionMLS & Associations

Zillow’s Long Form does the opposite of ‘advocate for consumers’

Transparency, price and consumer value: Portal goes 0-for-3

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct statements that Zillow will select lenders based on the highest bidder; a Zillow representative stated that Zillow will collect a flat-rate fee for this service, and Zillow will not offer the service to the highest bidder.

I like a good mystery, but not when it comes to buying big-ticket items such as a house or condo. Fortunately, the Internet has been a boon to consumers seeking all manner of goods and services, from cars and vacations to mortgages and homes.

One major benefit of moving transactions online is transparency — what do you get, how much does it cost and how does it compare to the competition? Lifting the veil of secrecy for mortgages and cars, in particular, has been positive for consumers, and transparency has also boosted competition.

Today, finding a mortgage online and through mobile apps is gaining popularity, especially with the influx of millennials looking to become first-time homebuyers. The ability to make transactions faster and more efficient (and to move away from paper and the fax machine) appeals to everyone.

Yet there’s one thing that’s important to consumers whether a transaction is on paper or online — trust.

How a company behaves — online and offline — matters to customers. Not just today, but for the long term. That’s why I’m scratching my head over Zillow Long Form, the new online mortgage prequalification tool from Zillow, the biggest player in online real estate.

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It essentially routes a borrower to a loan officer — an officer who pays a fee. Not only is this practice not always in the consumer’s best interest, but potential homebuyers will also now see less competition for their business. And that could have potentially serious financial consequences for consumers.

Yet Zillow has long promoted itself as an advocate for homebuyers. It led a new breed of real estate technology solutions that provided customers with a transparent and centralized home-search experience.

Unfortunately, this new online tool scraps that stated mission for something quite different. Instead, Zillow is essentially selling mortgage applications to a different customer — online lenders. That translates to a bigger profit for the company at the expense of consumers.

Transparency? No. Price and consumer value? Ditto. Trustworthiness? Nope.

I don’t have a problem with Zillow making a profit, but I do believe there’s value in thinking about the trade-off between direct, short-term financial results and a permanent dent in how homebuyers think about the entire online mortgage business. Zillow’s move might very well erode its credibility and utility in the marketplace — and that’s not good for anyone.

My hope is that a major player such as Zillow would take the long view and realize that making a few extra dollars today is a foolish long-term strategy. It’s hard to call yourself an advocate for the consumer when you’re not transparent about how the process works.

The reality is that buying a home is an expensive proposition. Consumers need to have confidence they have access to a competitive mortgage lending market.

The mortgage industry is only now shedding the disastrous aftereffects of the 2008 meltdown and re-establishing trust with customers. With a stronger economy, many customers are looking to buy their first new homes or purchase a larger place to accommodate a growing family.

We in the real estate industry have a unique opportunity to provide consumers with online tools to make their mortgage experience more trusted and streamlined. I think we must make it clear that our industry is on the side of the consumer — offering transparency, price and value. We must earn trust — not a fast dollar.

Rajesh Bhat co-founded and is the CEO of Roostify, which aims to create an easier and more efficient way of securing a loan and purchasing a home.

Email Rajesh Bhat.