A residential real estate website with an unlikely name, Zillow, can be quite helpful to home buyers and sellers alike — but it’s more than a little scary for anyone who puts the least value on privacy. This website, at www.zillow.com, reveals just about everything about just about every house in the country. Does your roof need some patching up? Have you built a playhouse in your backyard? Are your real estate taxes out of control? Is your house now worth less than you paid for it? Zillow claims to know. And so does anyone who visits its website.
Zillow’s maps come in many types — street view, street grid, satellite, zoom in, zoom all around. One set of maps puts a price on the head — or roof — of every house on every block, whether or not it is for sale. Click once on the roof and you get the address. Click twice and you get much more (not all of it completely accurate, but some of it breathtakingly on the mark).
Here’s an example.
A Princeton Borough homeowner we know has a downtown house that very recently underwent a major renovation — new basement, updated kitchen, new bathrooms, the works. He thought this property was worth about $600,000. Zillow puts its value at $601,500. Dead on? Yes, in this case, for sure. But the figure would have been off just one year ago, before the makeover took place. But maybe the website just figures — correctly in this case — that any home in this neighborhood would be updated and in great shape.
One fascinating — and potentially hypnotic — feature of Zillow is the 30 day change in value that it provides for each house. This is slightly bad news for our downtown Princeton homeowner. It shows that his house lost $9,000 worth of value in the last month. Surely this is an estimate based on shifting sands. It would seem that seasonality alone could be at play, or perhaps the sale of one or two Borough homes at the low end of the price scale.
Moving out from the specific to the general, Zillow has good news for 08542 zip code residents. The homes in Princeton Borough have appreciated in value by a whopping 28.7 percent this past year.
While this is very probably close to the truth is this highly desirable town, it is a good idea to pause a second and remember that Jeffrey Otteau, owner of a respected New Jersey appraisal company bearing his name, likes to caution that the sale of just a few very high priced homes can skew this figure.
Other factors can skew a home’s value too, and Zillow may well miss them. It values a large home with outbuildings in a bucolic section of Lawrenceville at $470,500. But the homeowner has just had the house appraised, and it came in at $360,000. Told of the Zillow figure, the homeowner is not surprised. He says that the house will indeed be worth $470,500 — or more — when its ongoing renovation is complete. As was the case in Princeton Borough, where Zillow assumed that a house in a desirable neighborhood would be in mint condition, the website assumed that this Lawrenceville home, also in a decidedly upscale area, would be fully modernized. In this case, it was wrong.
The Lawrenceville homeowner also believes that Zillow is off the mark in valuing a close neighbor’s house at $477,000. That house is improved in every possible way, has significant energy saving features, and sits on a large lot. In his opinion, it would fetch a good deal more than $477,000.
Let’s move a little east, to Princeton Junction, to see how Zillow analyzes homes for sale. The website’s signature feature is its “Zestimate” of a home’s market value. It assigns an exact value of $566,500 to a handsome brick ranch at 59 Cambridge Way. That house is now on the market for $559,000, and if Zillow is right, it is priced just right — maybe even a little bit low.
Zillow informs potential buyers that the house last sold for $434,800 on March 6, 2004, and that its annual tax bill is $11,076.
According to Zillow, the owners of that Princeton Junction house could have sold it for $772,00 in 2007. Its value has decreased 2.6 percent during the past month and 15.1 percent during the past year, but on the up side, Zillow says that its value is up 17.5 percent from 5 years ago, and a whopping 123.5 percent from 10 years ago.
In addition to posting the real estate agent’s photos of the house at 59 Cambridge Way, Zillow provides a bird’s eye map that shows a well-kept house on a corner lot with what looks like a new driveway. There is a little white fence stretching off to the right at the back of the driveway. Potential buyers with young children might be happy to see that the neighbor to the right has a large, impressive play house/jungle gym in his yard. Those without young children might be happy to see that a fence separates the two yards.
Want to get a really good look at other houses in the neighborhood? Just mouse around the streets for a first rate, up close virtual tour.
The virtual neighborhood tour feature can be especially helpful in an area like Trenton, where home hunters living just a few miles away could be pleasantly surprised by Zillow’s up-close computer tours, which reveal streets lined with meticulously kept Tudor homes in some areas and by Dutch Colonials with extensive gardens in others. Yes, there certainly are streets featuring tumbledown houses, too. A Zillow tour quickly reveals the differences in neighborhoods within a diverse city like Trenton.
The same diversity throws Zillow a curve ball when it comes to valuation. It assigns a value of $214,000 to a small carefully tended ranch in the Island section of the city, at 239 Columbia Avenue. For this house, and for all houses that are now on the market, Zillow provides four recent comparable sales. Within a development in a suburban area, this is pretty easy. It’s harder in an older town like Princeton, where houses of many sizes and styles sit side by side on the same street. It can be tremendously difficult in Trenton, where houses within a dozen blocks of one another may be in very different neighborhoods.
That is the case with the Columbia Avenue house. Zillow’s comp houses are all over the place. It uses two in Yardley, Pennsylvania, which is just across the Delaware River from the Island, an easy swim away. But while these houses are geographically very close, they are in a very different neighborhood, one with schools that are generally much more highly regarded, with shops nearby.
Zillow, clearly shooting in the dark on this one, also used as a comp a house at nearby Sanhican Drive, a mostly poor neighborhood, that recently sold for $32,000.
In other ways, Zillow’s guidance is off the mark — and downright silly. The website tries to help home buyers out by describing what their neighbors will be like in any given section of any given town. It misses by a wide margin for the house on Columbia, in the Island section of Trenton, by describing the indigent people as “corporate climbers.” It’s possible that there isn’t a single corporate climber in this area. Nurses, teachers, sociology professors (at least three), one or more ministers, a couple of social workers, three or more non-profit executives, three journalists, but no corporate climbers.
Zillow comes closer in describing Princeton Borough’s residents as “affluent immigrants,” “suburban retirees,” and “college life.”
Right or wrong about population mix, Zillow is endearing in that it puts a high value on walkability — assigning every house a walking score. The higher the score, the less a home buyer will need to get into his car. Its score for our Princeton homeowner’s house, located just a block from Nassau Street, is a 98. “Walker’s paradise!” exclaims Zillow, and few could argue. By way of contrast, the Princeton Junction house earns a 6.
Zillow is better at providing correct Zestimates in some areas than in others. It relies on assessor data in some counties, including Mercer County, while in others, including Midlesex County, it uses detailed data from recent sales.
Zillow is a good place to start a house hunt or to begin the process of pricing a house for sale, but the website is no substitute for knowledgeable local real estate agents, especially in a rapidly changing market like this one.