The Zestimate Part II

zestimate_noAs a realtor in Southern New Hampshire I get a lot of questions from buyers and sellers about the Zillow.com “Zestimate”. The most common questions include: How accurate is the Zestimate? Why is the Zestimate lower than the seller’s asking price? Why is the Zestimate higher than the seller’s asking price? Why is the Zestimate so intent on preventing me from selling my home?

The simplest answer to those questions is that the Zestimate is flawed. It is only accurate, or close to accurate, when the comparison properties it uses to price a particular home are 1) good comparisons, 2) recently sold comparisons, and 3) comparisons with a reasonably accurate Zestimate. You see, all too often the Zestimate of a home is based on already existing Zestimates of other homes that it has determined are good comparisons. For the system to work, those Zestimates have to be right. It is a problem when the comparisons used to estimate a home’s value are based on other estimated values that do not really reflect true activity in a housing market.

Last May I wrote about some of these issues and said I was going to track some Zestimates for homes on the market to determine how closely they mirrored the home’s sale price later on. As an initial example, I used one of my own listings to show what most realtors already know: the Zestimate is more of a nuisance than a helpful resource. Zillow’s automated home value estimate is not exactly the gold standard for determining a property’s worth. Moreover, these estimated values have the potential to impact a buyer’s perception of a home’s market value.

Why is this a problem? Well, if the Zestimate is lower than the asking price then a buyer might interpret it as confirmation the seller/s (and/or the seller’s real estate agent) priced the property too high. That’s not outside of the realm of possibility, right? Sometimes sellers and realtors do over price homes, and it is not always done intentionally either. Depending on the market and variables influencing it at the time, a price determined by a thorough market analysis may or may not reflect what a buyer is willing to pay for the home.

The Zestimate being low is an understandable problem, but what happens when it is too high? If the Zestimate is much higher than the asking price it may prompt buyers to ask what is so wrong with this house that the seller has discounted it so significantly. Realistically, the home may be priced appropriately when compared to recently sold comparison properties, but how would a buyer know this without being told? How would they know the Zestimate is potentially false without seeing evidence showing this? The sad fact is they wouldn’t. It is troubling for buyers when they are faced with a Zestimate that varies considerably from the asking price – especially when there is no clear explanation as to why.

When I wrote about this topic before, I used 1 Grove Court in Litchfield, NH as an example. I selected it mainly because of how large the gap was between the asking price at the time and the Zestimate. At the time my original post on this topic was written, the asking price was $460,000. The Zestimate, however, was $387,805. That is a big difference.

The above Zestimate was based on two specific properties: 47 Garden Drive and 2 Garden Drive. I described these properties in detail previously to demonstrate the reasons why they were not good comparisons. One glaring problem with these two comparisons is that when they were used for comparison purposes by Zillow they were still on the market. Many real estate agents use active and pending listings to evaluate a home’s worth, but it is important realtors use recently sold comparisons in a market analysis to show what buyers have paid for similar homes in the market. If a comparison property is still active it is helpful in terms of indicating what buyers probably won’t pay for the home, but it does not show how much lower the seller would need to price their home to sell it.

Getting back to the property I used as an example, 1 Grove ultimately sold for $455,000. According to the buyers’ lender, the home appraised at that value. The Zestimate was wrong and not just by a little. It was off by $67,195.

Even though the home sold for much higher, the Zestimate can’t or won’t admit when it is wrong. It does not seem to be coded in a way that takes real market activity pertaining to the property into account. I say “seem” because perhaps it does and it just does not attach enough weight to make a difference in the Zestimate after the property sale is complete. For instance, as I am writing this Zillow reports that 1 Grove is worth less than the final selling price of $455,000. However, I should point out that instead of the original $387,805, the Zestimate has increased ever so slightly and currently values the house at $389,889. That could change though. Tomorrow it might suggest the value is more or less. The bottom line is that it’s wrong today. 

Putting aside the home on Grove Court, what about the properties Zillow used as comparisons for that home when it was on the market in May? What became of those properties? Did they sell for as much, or even near, the same price as 1 Grove?

Let’s take a look at that.

47 Garden was the first comparison included in Zillow’s estimate. When I wrote last about the Zestimate this home was being sold by the owner. The owner eventually got a realtor and then the home sold for $330,000. The current Zestimate values the home at $347,906 (as of the time of this writing). If accurate, this home has increased in value substantially in just a matter of months. Such a massive improvement does not seem likely, does it?

Then we have the other comparison Zillow used for Grove Court: 2 Garden. This property sold shortly after my original post about the Zestimate. The actual closing price in June of 2016 was $290,533. Right now the Zestimate considers the value to be $337,500. Does it matter though if buyers will not really pay that much for the home? Apparently not. 

Since it does not seem as though the Zestimate is going anywhere soon, realtors and sellers have to find ways to overcome the estimated values that are not in line with the market. One way of addressing the issue is to have accurate comparison sales ready to show buyers and/or their agents why the selling price is different than the Zestimate. It also helps to have currently active and pending comparisons to illustrate what is happening in the market at a particular moment in time. Another means of breaking down this barrier is for sellers to claim the property through Zillow as their own and update the description and features. This action comes with a warning though: it may or may not help to bring the Zestimate in line with the price the owner is asking. It may increase or decrease the value, depending on how accurate the description of the property was before the changes. And that value is still based on other Zestimates.

Ultimately we are all at the mercy of Zillow and it’s seemingly arbitrary selection of properties it deems as comparable, and so it helps to understand how the Zestimate works, and doesn’t work.

Uncomfortable home disclosure questions

In New Hampshire, sellers typically fill out a standard disclosure form. For the most part the items covered are predictable, such as the age of a home’s roof or the estimated annual heating costs. However, there are a few somewhat unexpected questions on the disclosure form that catch sellers off guard. For instance, one asks simply, “Do you have knowledge of methamphetamine production ever occurring on the property?” The seller has the option of checking either “yes” or “no”, and if “yes” they are prompted to explain. While I have never yet seen a disclosure form with the box checked “yes”, it has obviously been an issue before since it made its way onto one of many pages that make up the property/seller disclosure form.

meth-lab

Closing time

Many first time home buyers do not know what to expect when they get to the date they are supposed to close on their house. Sometimes, if the buyers have faced stressful challenges associated with their financing, they feel a little shell shocked by that time.

In New Hampshire, the closing process works like this: the buyer signs a lot of paperwork and seller usually signs a smaller amount of paperwork. Then the closing concludes and the buyer gets the keys to the house.

But did I mention there is a lot of paperwork?

closing paperwork

 

Creative landscaping

In real estate, much emphasis is placed on a property’s curb appeal. Taking time to improve the exterior of a home prior to putting it on the market can be an effective means of motivating buyers to make an appointment to see the inside of the house. Many buyers drive by homes they think have potential to get a better feel for the property and the neighborhood. Sadly, many homes are crossed off a buyer’s list before an appointment is even scheduled due to an unsatisfactory drive by.

While improving curb appeal typically calls for maintenance and landscaping work there are times when sellers do not think they need to put in any extra time on the exterior since they regularly maintain what they already have. However, in some cases sellers must consider whether their current approach to landscaping is one that will appeal to prospective buyers. Sometimes bizarre landscaping themes can detract from other positive aspects of the property.

children of the sunflowers

Contingent upon the seller…

Contingencies within a Purchase and Sales Agreement in the state of New Hampshire are common. When the realtor working with a buyer assists in making an offer on a home, he or she will include appropriate protective contingencies based upon a buyer’s circumstances and needs. Inspection and financing contingencies are among the most common, followed by requests for seller concessions. Appraisal contingencies are often included as well – either within the P&S or, in the case of FHA and VA loans, on an amendatory or escape clause form.

Sometimes sellers will include a contingency that makes a purchase agreement subject to something specific, such as the seller finding suitable housing. This is not all that uncommon as sellers want to know they will have a place to live by the time they close on the sale of their home and hand the keys over to the buyers. However, once in a while a seller will throw a curveball at buyers and ask for something a little less typical.

An example might be the seller requesting access to the home for a number of days following the closing to complete their move out of the home. Another possibility is they may ask to remain in the home for a longer period of time as a kind of short-term lease arrangement. It is important for buyers and sellers to understand that some of the less common contingencies come with risks that must be carefully weighed before a decision is made. Buyers and sellers should discuss the implications of an unusual or uncommon contingency within a legally binding purchase contract before they sign it.

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Tenant occupied

There comes a time (or two-hundred) in the life of every listing agent when they are asked to list a home, condo, or townhouse that is occupied by a tenant paying rent to live there. Many that rent a property owned by a person, versus an investor or management company, know that at some point the owner may choose to sell and they will have to move out once the lease concludes or upon receiving proper notice; however, once in a while an agent encounters a tenant that appears to have no intention of moving out. Ever. And this can contribute to a variety of complications and challenges when it comes to completing a sale of the property

On the purchase side of the equation, a buyer and their agent may be mindful of certain red flags that hint to potential purchase difficulties regarding these situations down the road. They should not ignore them, but rather they should address them directly if a buyer is interested in such a place.

tenants