By DAMON DARLIN
Published: October 31, 2006
Zillow.com, the Web site that provides free home valuations, has been accused by a coalition of community activist groups of undervaluing the homes in black and Latino neighborhoods.
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The Complaint Against Zillow.com (pdf)
In a letter sent by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition to the Federal Trade Commission last Thursday, the group asserted that Zillow’s Web site misrepresented home values and placed residents in low-income neighborhoods “more at risk for discriminatory and predatory lending practices.”
The organization also asserted, but would not provide substantiation for the accusation, that real estate and lending industry professionals use Zillow’s information to “perpetrate fraud.”
An improper appraisal could force a homeowner to borrow more than the value of the home and put money invested in the home at risk, according to the group. It urged the F.T.C. to start an investigation and permanently restrain Zillow from providing home value estimates.
Zillow said the charges were groundless. Zillow collects data from public sources on a home’s characteristics, tax assessments and recent sales and uses computers to make its estimate. It has not disclosed the algorithm that it uses, but the company, which is based in Seattle, said it did not use demographic data in the calculations. On its site, it notes that the estimate is not an appraisal, but a free research tool.
The coalition, based in Washington, said that its review of the site found that Zillow’s estimates of home value were within 10 percent of appraised value less than a third of the time and that in low-income neighborhoods the inaccuracy was much more frequent. The group, however, would not release that data. It cited a single review of 200 properties in six Washington State counties that, in the most extreme example, showed one property’s estimate was off by 50 percent.
Zillow said on its site that 62 percent of its estimates fell within 10 percent of the actual sale price of a home. But in some cities, where it is harder to obtain sales data, the accuracy is much lower. For instance, in the San Francisco area, 76 percent of estimates are within 10 percent of the selling price, but in the New York City area, accuracy falls to 52 percent. Detailed information on its accuracy is displayed on the Zillow Web site.
Staff at the Federal Trade Commission did not return calls for comment on the letter.
A Zillow spokeswoman, Amy Bohutinsky, said the site’s valuations, which it calls Zestimates, were intended for consumers and had never been marketed to real estate professionals. The company sees the tool as a way to empower consumers who in the past would have to rely on a real estate agent to make an estimate based on the sales of comparable homes in a neighborhood.
The company has said that estimates of homes at the high end and low end of the market tend to be less accurate because there are fewer sales to use as comparisons.
The accuracy of the Zillow information has been questioned from the day the site was introduced last February. Questions about its accuracy, though, have not hurt its popularity. With more than 3.5 million visitors last month, the company said it is the fifth-most-visited real estate Web site in the United States. Zillow’s data also appears on Yahoo’s real estate pages and those of Zip Realty and Redfin, two online real estate brokerage firms. Last week the company allowed other sites to display Zillow data.
The National Community Reinvestment Coalition is an umbrella group that organizes local communities against lenders and other financial institutions that they see as using discriminatory practices. It won an agreement earlier this month to provide training to 64,000 real estate agents working for the NRT unit of the Realogy Corporation, the nation’s largest residential real estate brokerage company and formerly a division of Cendant.
Zillow said it was disappointed that the coalition did not contact the company first before sending its letter to the F.T.C. “We try really hard to be approachable and open about what we’re doing, and take all feedback seriously,” Lloyd Frink, the company’s president and co-founder, wrote on the company’s blog.
Zillow has received financing from venture capitalists of $57 million.