Are Zillow's Free Home Appraisals Accurate?

Category: Finance

When you are buying or selling a home, it’s important to seek independent opinions of the property’s value. Historically, buyers and sellers have relied on real estate agents, “the neighborhood professionals” who have years of experience with local markets. But today, online real estate price estimators such as Zillow are considered by many to be more objective and honest than the appraisals of real estate agents. But who is right? Read on to learn why computerized home valuations are not always on the mark...

Are Online Home Price Estimates Reliable?

The thinking by some is that a real estate agent has a conflict of interest. He or she wants to close a deal and earn a commission, and that generally means persuading a buyer to bid more and a seller to ask less. It’s just common sense that a disinterested party will come up with a fairer market valuation. But "disinterested" does not always mean "fully informed."

Zillow has become “the Google of real estate” by promoting that rationale. Founded in 2006, the company receives millions of online queries. The site allows users to enter an address or zip code to retrieve listings of homes that are on the market with asking prices. It also provides “Zestimates” of the market value of listed homes and surrounding homes that are not on the market. Key details are included, such as square footage, lot size, number of bedrooms and baths, photos, taxes, school district, etc.

Sellers and shoppers rely heavily on Zestimates, and that makes life difficult for real estate agents. Zestimates “are the bane of my existence,” said one anonymous agent on the industry blog ActiveRain. People tend to take Zestimates as gospel, and argue with the real estate agent’s valuation of a property. Such disputes are killing a lot of deals, say some agents.

Online house value estimators

Zestimates “are a good starting point,” according to Zillow CEO Richard Barton. Zestimates have “median error rates” ranging from 1.3% to 3.6% depending on your locale. (See Zestimate median error rates for major metropolitan areas.)

On a typical San Francisco home worth $1,379,000, that’s a $49,644 disparity -- not exactly chump change, but perhaps not a deal killer in a seller's market.

A Real Estate Distortion Field?

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Apple is so good at marketing their products that some people have joked that they use a "reality distortion field" to persuade consumers that there is no alternative to their brand. In similar fashion, the popularity of Zillow may be creating a real estate distortion field.

Real estate brokers all over the country have done their own studies comparing Zestimates to actual sale prices. One real estate agent found Zillow underestimated the final selling price up to 70% of the time, by as much as $70,000. In 25% of sales, the Zestimate was higher than the contract price. (So 5% of the time, Zillow got it right.) In another ZIP code, Zestimates were off 100% of the time, by as much as $190,000.

On the flip side, Zillow's home price estimates seem to reflect reality pretty well in my town. That could be because it's a very active real estate market, so there's a lot of current data (actual sales prices) on which to base estimates. If you want to estimate what a home is worth right now, you need to look at recent sales of comparable nearby homes. That is what real estate agents do every day.

Zillow does provide an interactive map which shows nearby homes that are sold, or listed for sale. But it's very difficult for a computer program to understand which of those homes are truly comparable to yours, or the one in which you are interested. Matching up homes with similar square footage, number of bedrooms, etc., may not take into account the fact that one home had a recent kitchen remodel, a new roof, or other important factors in determining the value.

The moral is that Zillow estimates should be just one factor in determining the value of a home.

Zillow does let you login and claim your home, so you can update any information that's not correct. I did just that when preparing to sell my home 3 years ago. Zillow had the number of bedrooms and square footage wrong, so when I changed those numbers, the Zestimate jumped up accordingly. You can also list your home as "for sale by owner," upload photos, and set a price you think is fair, given current market conditions. I'm certain that helped me get a top dollar offer, in just two days, without needing a real estate agent.

Other Home Value Estimators

There are other online real estate price estimators, including Eppraisal, Redfin, and the Chase Home Value Estimator. They all rely on data pulled from local government records, which are often outdated, incomplete, or inaccurate.

But they must use other factors as well, because if you query each one of them, you'll get different estimates for any given property. The good news is that most of them allow you to login, claim your home, and update the details if they're not correct.

Have you checked the estimated value of your home using one or more of these tools? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are Zillow's Free Home Appraisals Accurate?"

Posted by:

10 Apr 2020

Another interesting article Bob.

For anyone concerned that pictures of the interior of their home is a security issue ( pictures will likely be on Zillow if the home has been listed since the website started ) they can be deleted by the homeowner.

Posted by:

James Horn
10 Apr 2020

Zillow does a good job of leveling they field where many RE agents want to lowball a selling price in order to earn a quick commission from a fast sale.

Getting ready to sell myself, I will offer my house for a price slightly lower than Zillow but higher than the MLMLS which lists houses sold in recent years, not valuations based on what is coming.

Posted by:

10 Apr 2020

In many states, licensed real estate appraisers are hired by the mortgage or lending company through a third party to determine the value of a house. Real estate agents may have a sense of the value but have no specific standards they follow. If the appraisal doesn't warrant the sale price, the sales contract may need to be renegotiated or the buyer must put down a larger down payment. Appraisers adhere to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice, and those standards are adopted by many states. Appraisers do take into account number of bathrooms and bedrooms and whether they are above ground (not in the basement), improvements, sales of comparable properties and many other factors of which the general public isn't aware.

Posted by:

Ken H
10 Apr 2020

I checked out the 4 sites you gave with less than satisfactory results.
Redfin isn't selling houses in my area.
Chase had me sign in, then I could no longer find the link to home appraisals.
Zillow gave me a $151,000 estimate with no information about my house, much less the Garage/shop/inlaw and front porch and rear deck additions in 2013. When I added this information the estimate remained unchanged!
Epraisel gave me a $183,000 appraisal with even less info than Zillow, though the did know Zillow's estimate.

Posted by:

10 Apr 2020

You may have noticed that in a recent sale of his personal residence, the sale of the head of Zillow's house, the closed price was less than his "Zestimate" on over a $1,000,000 sale.

Posted by:

Kenneth Mitchell
10 Apr 2020

Zillow knows only the published details of a property; house size, lot size, and basic geometry, and recent sales. They know nothing about any enhancements or problems, or whether a house needs a new air conditioning system or a new roof.

It's research tool, NOT an appraisal.

Posted by:

Morgan Smith
09 Nov 2020


How was your weekend?

I just wanted to quickly follow up with you to make sure you received my email about the broken Chase link on your page.

Additionally, if you are not the correct person to contact about this, would you mind connecting me with the right person?

Thank you so much. I hope you have a lovely start to a new week.

Take care,

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