Home & Garden Columns
If your house disappears from zillow.com, does that mean it no longer exists? Because that’s exactly what happened last month.
My house became N/A. Not Applicable. I was pretty sure it was still there, given that I was living in it, but still, it gave me pause. For one thing, I had already watched its value drop precipitously from $1,025,000 to $644,000 inside of two weeks, sometime around the end of last year. But to disappear altogether, like the hundred plus years it’s been here mean nothing? That’s harsh.
At first I thought maybe it had been removed from their algorithm because it’s an anomaly—there are few other 3800 square foot bunga-mansions in my Fruitvale neighborhood. But this week it suddenly reappeared, now sporting a value of $723,000. All is right with the world.
For those who have not dabbled in the various forms of real estate porn, zillow.com is a website that will give you a value for your house, your neighbor’s house, your employer’s house, or any other house you have an address for.
The number is pretty much meaningless, since the only way to really determine the value of your house is to sell it. A price agreed upon by a willing seller and a willing buyer (and these days, a willing lender) is the market value. Of course you could have an appraisal done, but an appraisal is essentially a well-educated guess, and also it’s not free, unlike Zillow. So Zillow is mostly for amusement purposes, although it vaguely shows price trends.
The problem with Zillow here in the East Bay is that the housing stock varies greatly, unlike newer tract homes in the suburbs where lots of houses were built at the same time that are the same size, floor plan, etc. Nor does it allow much for upgrades that may have been done, or the fact that one house has been maintained and the other is falling apart.
And like any computer program, it’s garbage in-garbage out, so if the data from public records isn’t up to date, it’s not really based in reality. Nor does it know the things that real estate agents and people in the neighborhood know—that this is the one good block on an otherwise questionable street, or that a huge condo project has just been approved that will cut off all privacy in a particular house’s backyard, or that a new neighborhood amenity is about to open. (All real estate ads in my neighborhood now seem to announce, “Close to Farmer Joe’s!”)
Just to get an average, I tried a couple of other sites besides Zillow. At cyberhomes.com, my house was valued at $905,256. Makes it seem like it must be really accurate, that $256. Over at eppraisal.com, I got a range of prices, from $1,241,667 at the low end, $1,460,875 in the middle, and $1,679,902 at the top. This site actually gives you the addresses and values for the comps they used. That the comps were all in Crocker Highlands, Montclair, and Piedmont didn’t surprise me—my house, as I said, is an anomaly, hard to find comparables for. But all the comps were from eight months ago—things have changed rather a lot since then.
Does any of this matter? Well, yes, to the extent that people accept Zillow’s figures as reflecting reality. Though I think most people take it all with a large grain of salt, some people whose Zillow values have dropped are up in arms, threatening to report them to the Better Business Bureau and such. Maybe I should go after them—after all, eppraisal says my house is worth $1.6 million.
Jane Powell is available for restoration consulting at email@example.com, because her house isn’t really worth $1.6 million and she still has to work.