Price estimates on Zillow can be volatile

By July 16, 2011

Homebuyers (and homeowners) are often curious about the estimated value of a property. And during the past few years, the website Zillow.com has capitalized on that curiosity, offering price estimates based on trends in recent home sales, filtered through a complex mathematical formula.

But as local residents have observed in recent months, Zillow’s estimates can swing up and down — sometimes within a matter of days.

Rosemary Shahan told The Enterprise that she started following Zillow’s price estimate of her parents’ home — a duplex in the Stonegate area — several months ago.

“I heard from a friend who works at UC Davis that my parents’ home was listed as having a $100,000 price cut, right when it was first listed,” Shahan said. “Naturally, my friend wondered why. It turned out than an agent had made a typo on the price on the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), and then corrected it. But Zillow automatically listed it on their site as a price cut. A pretty drastic one.”

That mistake got corrected after a few phone calls and email messages, Shahan said.

“Meanwhile I became aware of other problems,” Shahan said. “For example, my parents’ home is a duplex. (At first), Zillow gave an estimate of $357,000. The adjoining half of the duplex got an estimate of $409,000. However, my parents’ home has a slightly bigger lot, professionally landscaped garden, lovely mature trees, and recent upgrades to the master bath. The adjoining property hasn’t been upgraded much at all.”

Shahan said she asked Zillow why “the upgraded property would be worth $52,000 less than its conjoined twin, which lacks the upgrades.”

Shahan said that after her calls and emails, the Zillow estimate on her parents’ house rose to $411,000. This was midway into June.

But a subsequent check by The Enterprise last week found that Zillow’s estimate for the property went to $335,700 on Thursday, and then adjusted to $341,000 on Saturday.

Is the value of the property really changing by thousands of dollars every couple of weeks? Probably not. And the online price estimates offered by websites are rarely based on an actual walk-through of a property.

On the company website, Zillow says “A Zestimate home valuation is Zillow’s estimated market value. It is not an appraisal. Use it as a starting point to determine a home’s value.” The Zillow website also notes “The home data we have compiled to generate a Zestimate home valuation varies by location. Some counties provide all the data we could hope for, but others are lacking such key things as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, or, in some cases, the square footage of the home.”

The Zillow listing for Shahan’s parents’ home includes the number of bedrooms, baths and the home’s square footage. But the Zillow listing for the other half of the duplex does not list the number of bedrooms, baths and that home’s square footage. The Yolo County Assessor does not typically post a home’s square footage on the Internet.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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