Zillow is a brand new Internet real estate tool with an impressive set of bells and whistles. When fully developed, it promises to use “zillions” of bits of data to tell you exactly what your house is worth. It also will let you know what your new neighbor paid for his house, what you might expect to pay for a pied-a-terre in Manhattan, and whether there are any bargains at the Jersey Shore.
Planning to relocate? Zillow will give you exact home values in cities across the country — and it will tell you whether prices are trending up or down in any given neighborhood, and to what degree.
Zillow, at www.zillow.com, headed up by Expedia founder Richard Barton and Expedia senior vice president Lloyd Frink, launched in February, and is still in its beta, or test, phase. It is a deep, deep site, with information on everything from your neighbors’ tax assessments to just how much a new high-end kitchen should add to the sale price of your home.
Several things set Zillow apart from similar services. On a nuts and bolts level, it is completely free and requires no registration of any kind. On the gee-whiz gauge, it zaps the competition by incorporating Google Earth-like satellite technology. This means that, armed only with a mouse, you can zoom around, quickly moving from Princeton Township to Lawrenceville, say, or cruising the entire coast of Florida. As you “travel,” you see, clearly marked on rooftops below, the price of each house you are passing.
Want to know the value of each unit in a condominium building you are “flying” over? Just click on its roof and a complete list of data for each unit will appear.
There is so much good news about Zillow, but there is also some bad news. The service has not yet filled in data for central New Jersey. A call to the company’s Seattle headquarters revealed that the company is working as fast as it can, and that our towns will soon be fully mapped. “You need a lot of data for 60 million houses,” said a representative. Meanwhile, Zillow’s values for central Jersey houses appear to be several years behind. But the website offers to E-mail homeowners as soon as their neighborhood data is complete and online.
Zillow is well worth a bookmark right now, and anyone who is thinking of selling — or buying — soon would do well to sign up for that E-mail notification.
A Zillow test drive around the Jersey Shore quickly demonstrates just how helpful this tool can be. Its data is updated every week, and it calculates that a 3,123 square-foot house at 100 South Oakland Avenue in Ventnor City has appreciated $8,627 since last week. Zillow indicates that the house, on a beach block, has a greater value than 88 percent of the homes in its Zip code. It also provides a graph showing that the home, whose value it “zestimates” at $735,072, was worth $601,000 at the beginning of February last year, zoomed up to $675,000 by the end of March, peak shore selling season, and dropped back down to about $610,000 in August.
Prospective purchasers who want to know more are presented with an aerial map of 10 comparables nearby. Click on each, and Zillow gives information on everything from square footage to number of bedrooms to the amount of yearly taxes. It also reveals the dates on which each house last sold, and the sale price of each transaction.
Because Zillow provides an aerial view and lets potential buyers move around a neighborhood easily, it shows setting in addition to structure. Tennis courts, streams, highways, train stations, playgrounds — it’s all there, providing a full picture of each house in its setting.
For sellers, Zillow encourages them to enter any and all factors that might make their home worth more or less than its exhaustive statistics on comparables and sales trends might indicate, and then, again at no charge, comes up with an even more customized estimate.
One tool helps sellers figure out how a whole range of improvements may affect value. It puts upscale siding replacement at the top of a list of worthwhile improvements, estimating that homeowners will recoup 103.6 percent of their outlay. A mid-range bathroom remodel on an existing bathroom that is at least 25 years old comes in next, adding 102.2 percent of its cost to the sale price.
A basement remodel adds 90.1 percent of its cost, an upscale roofing replacement 85.9 percent, a family room addition 83 percent, and a home office remodel, including 20 feet of laminate desktop, wiring for electronic equipment, and commercial grade carpet, 72.8 percent.
This is valuable information for anyone trying to price a house for sale, but is also a good tool for a homeowner trying to decide whether it is really worthwhile to remodel a few years before selling, and trying to calculate whether a high-end remodeling job will yield appreciably more than a mid-range remodeling job. In other words, is it really worth the money to put in slate rather than vinyl?
While Zillow is prepared to weigh in, it does tell buyers and sellers alike that its high-flying view does not replace on-the-ground research. Input from residents in an area where you are relocating, and from real estate agents in an area you are considering leaving can provide insights that even the highest, deepest stack of statistics cannot match.