What went wrong at Zillow

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In 2019, Seattle-based Zillow launched its iBuyer business, called Zillow Offers, to purchase homes directly from owners, make repairs and put them back on the market.

Zillow was so confident in its pricing algorithm that it said earlier this year its Zestimates would serve as the initial offer price on eligible homes. That didn’t last.

The company recently announced that it was exiting the iBuying business. In a quarterly earnings call, CEO Rich Barton said Zillow was unable to correctly forecast future home prices amid volatility in the pandemic-driven housing frenzy.

Indeed, an unexpected desire for new housing by work-from-home Americans, combined with ultralow mortgage rates, drove U.S. housing prices to new highs.

Rick Sharga, an executive with RealtyTrac, says Zillow’s business model was flawed, noting on his company’s site that house-flipping investors often pay too much and underestimate the time and cost to ready a home to sell.

“Zillow Offers appears to have made both mistakes and done so at a large enough scale to result in hundreds of millions of dollars of losses,” Sharga writes.

The best ways to determine a home’s value

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One lesson stands out from the Zillow fiasco: Property values can change fast. Do your homework on fair market value.

Find a qualified real estate agent

Your real estate agent must know your neighborhood. Good realtors analyze recent similar property sales to recommend a list price, says Corey Burr of TTR Sotheby's International Realty in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t know any seasoned agents who depend on the Zestimate for a pricing recommendation,” Burr says. “But because the marketplace is so familiar with Zestimates, it often would be discussed relative to what buyers’ expectations of a property might be.”

Get an appraisal

Your lender will require an appraisal when you take out a mortgage — and sometimes for a refinance — to ensure the house or condo is worth the amount you want to borrow.

An appraiser examines the home and studies market trends, along with other factors such as location and whether the house is in a flood zone.

In a rapidly appreciating market, it’s not unusual for an appraisal to come in below the price a buyer is willing to pay. In those cases, some appraisers are willing to accept additional information about the local market and revise their valuation, Burr says. But if they’re not, the buyer and seller may have to renegotiate the price.

Look beyond computer-based valuations

It’s tempting to accept the prices spit out by private real estate websites — Zillow is one of many — but remember that those figures are simply estimates. Zillow even says buyers and sellers should supplement Zestimates with their own research.

With your realtor or on your own, compare a home with similar properties. Be sure to consider less obvious factors such as school zones. Two similar houses in the same area can have wildly different values if only one is zoned to a top-rated public school.

And as another point of reference, check the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s house price calculator, which projects home appreciation values for many areas.

More ideas to save

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  • The best mortgage rates go to the borrowers with the strongest credit histories, so check your credit score for free to see if it might need some work.

  • If you’re carrying extra debts and need to boost your credit score, consider rolling your high-interest balances into a single, lower-interest debt consolidation loan to try to wipe out your debts sooner.

  • And even if your budget doesn’t allow for a lot of discretionary purchases, it can be surprisingly easy to wring some income out of the stock market. A popular app lets you invest in a diversified portfolio using just your "spare change" from everyday purchases. That’s money that could go toward a future down payment on a home.

About the Author

Nancy Sarnoff

Nancy Sarnoff

Freelance Contributor

Nancy Sarnoff is a freelance contributor with MoneyWise. Previously, she covered commercial and residential real estate for the Houston Chronicle where she also hosted Looped In, a podcast about the region’s growth, development and economy. Her work has been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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