Thanks to the Internet, we are more connected, better informed and more efficient too. That goes for us as individuals, but also as buyers, sellers and agents as well. Past sales data, current listings, virtual tours, photos and floor plans are all available on a single web page, and that helps everyone involved in a transaction to benefit from the power of instant information.
Of course, not all websites are created equal, and not every participant knows how to properly harness the opportunities offered by the Web. Agents to this day are relying on blurry cell-phone-camera photographs to help them sell their listings, and sellers are not vigilant in their monitoring of their listings for mistakes. Even yesterday I was with a client at a listing that was inaccessible because an agent had not answered her cell phone in a week and did not even know how to set up her voicemail. In a crowded market of tech-savvy agents and well-connected sellers, there really isn’t room for agents who can’t properly market their listings or, at the very least, be available by phone to respond to agent and buyer inquiries.
Buyers, too, have a responsibility to themselves to learn the differences in online information sources. While Trulia and Zillow are often quoted by major media outlets as the definitive sources of real estate data, the truth is that most of their listings contain inaccuracies. Most notably, Trulia and Zillow are notorious for posting listings as “Active” that have long since sold. Importantly, they also rarely post listings at the moment they are listed. This prevents a serious homebuyer from learning about a new home listing quickly enough to act on it, especially in a situation where there could be multiple offers.
Why is there this deficiency from such well-regarded sources of information? In a way, it’s because of their sheer size. Trulia and Zillow are nationwide sources of data, and to collect data from every corner of the country, they cannot possibly rely on a direct connection to each online database (Multiple Listing Service, or MLS) for each area. This is especially true when some areas are served by several MLS’s, and also when many of these services charge upwards of tens of thousands of dollars for direct access to their services.
Instead, they rely on relationships with the major brokerages that exist nationwide to feed information to them directly, and they also have built-in programs to scour the web for additional listing and sale data. Unfortunately, sale data is inaccurate at best: for example, recorded deeds often list a sale price at $1 and the actual sale price can only be back-calculated based on the transfer and recordation taxes that are paid (which vary by jurisdiction, price range and other factors). In addition, if a major concession was offered to the buyer from the seller as part of the deal, that will not be reflected in the sale price or the taxes paid, but is important to be able to accurately assess the value of a comparable sale.
In addition, because only the larger brokerages have a direct method for feeding listing data to those websites, any property listed by a smaller brokerage may never show up in those sites.
So what is a buyer to do to ensure they are looking at complete, current and accurate listings? And what should a seller do to ensure their listings are seen everywhere, even on Trulia and Zillow, despite their flaws? Buyers should visit REALTOR.com or, locally, HomesDatabase.com, which is the public side of the only MLS that serves Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas. In addition, some individual and broker websites (including ours at www.DwightandDavid.com) have direct connections to the MLS so we have live data that is just as accurate. Some websites, including ours, also offer email updates that put buyers in control by instantly alerting them to new listings that meet their search criteria.
Sellers should ask any agent they are considering to list their home if their brokerage has a direct feed to Trulia and Zillow. In addition, they should ask if their agent pays to advertise on those sites, or pays to increase the visibility of their listings there. Despite all its flaws, Dwight and I know that the websites are very well known and often used, so we do pay to advertise on the site and to increase our listings’ visibility. That helps us sell our listings faster and higher, since our listings are on there as soon as they go online anywhere, and show up at the top of any search results page.
Sellers should also ensure their agents are available 24/7 and have a support network in case they’re indisposed or out of town. Finally, they should just take a look at photos of the agents past listings. A picture tells a thousand words, not just about the properties, but about the people trying to sell them too.