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Real estate agents bristle at online listings

Marketplace Contributor May 2, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: We’ll get some indication this morning of how the housing market is doing. The Mortgage Bankers Association tells us how many people are applying for new mortgages or refinancing their old ones. Another way to gauge the health of the housing market, of course, is to check one of those websites — like Zillow or Trulia — to see how much your own house is worth.

But as Marketplace’s Bob Moon reports, there are questions about the reliability of those sites.

Bob Moon: Spend any time combing through the big home-listing websites, and some of the properties might ring a bell in more ways than one. Maybe the same home is pictured multiple times, with different prices or conflicting descriptions. Or perhaps the listing is so old the home has long since been sold.

Jim Abbott runs a San Diego real estate firm. He says he recently heard from clients complaining their house was still online ten months after closing escrow.

Jim Abbott: You know, we have people coming to the front door, frequently, peeking in our windows.

All the inaccurate listings, he says, are skewing pricing perceptions among both sellers and buyers — and that, he claims, might even be slowing the housing recovery.

Abbott: Telling the public there are three to four times as many properties on the market than there actually are, you’re giving them the false sense of this huge inventory.

Abbott is so convinced his sales are being hurt, he recently pulled his listings from three leading websites — Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com. But Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff told us that decision will only hurt Abbott’s own clients.

Spencer Rascoff: What seller on earth, especially in a down real estate market, would choose to list their home with an agent who was not going to put their home on the biggest websites in their city?

Rascoff insists Zillow is “extremely focused on listings quality.” Zillow says it gathers listings through hundreds of sources, from national listing services, to broker websites. Then it uses a kind of “secret sauce” computer algorithm to weed through the data.

Rascoff: Obviously it serves our business interest to satisfy our consumers, and our consumers demand accurate listings — that’s why we’re focused on it.

Hoby Hanna is a real estate executive in Ohio. He agrees with Abbott that the websites need to be more accurate. But rather than pull his listings, Hanna is trying a different tactic. He recently made a deal to advertise on Zillow, and in return, he controls the information posted for his properties. Hanna says customers want their listings everywhere.

Hoby Hanna: If you’re trying to sell your house in today’s market, your attitude is, expose it to as many places — I want to get my house sold, I don’t want it to be the secret house nobody knows is for sale.

Hanna says whether real estate agents like it or not, they’re no longer the only place to go to find a home.

I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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