Are Real Estate Websites Your Friend?

Real estate websites came up in yesterday’s post. The basic question was, “Can buyers rely on public real estate websites during a home search?” I think we can all agree that they’re fun to look at, and they do a very nice job at presenting and consolidating data. But do they have a buyer’s (or seller’s) best interests in mind?

Downtown Hartford from Bushnell ParkI don’t think they do. Their goal is to make money. Basically all the sites make money by selling advertising to realtors, mortgage lenders, and credit people. They want to generate as many page views and clicks as possible, since that’s what translates into revenue. Buyers are heavy users during their search, but once they get a home under contract they no longer need to keep their preferred site open in the browser tab all day at work.

It comes down to an alignment of incentives. The public websites need to be engaging enough to capture a buyer’s interest, but not so helpful that they find a home immediately and are no longer a user (potential source of revenue). They benefit from extended home searches.

There are a few different ways that sites disrupt the search process, whether it’s intentional or unintentional:

Data Lag: Listing information is updated on different schedules for different sites. In all honesty, this could be related to how the different MLS systems (realtors) around the country make their data available. All I know is that some sites are faster than others.

Not Clearly Marking Homes Under Contract: We get a lot of calls about listings people see online that are already sold. They’re not closed yet, but the seller has already accepted a bid from a buyer. Getting distracted, or even emotionally hijacked, by a property that’s not really available causes buyers to miss out on legitimate opportunities.

Suspect Valuation Estimates: One site in particular touts their ability to value any property in the Country. Our experience is that buyers who take these valuations too seriously are unable to make realistic bids and have trouble buying a home. The estimates are inevitably too low, and the buyer isn’t going to “overpay,” so they keep lowballing sellers and never get a home.

Distressed Properties: Introducing distressed properties into the mix makes buyers more uncertain. Some try to use foreclosure pricing to support bids on non-distressed properties, which is generally not effective in this area. Others decide they want to pursue a foreclosure, not realizing that the process can be very different and it may take months to get a response.

Despite these concerns about the public real estate sites, I think they’re entertaining and provide a valuable service. They each have their own angle, and generally do a nice job presenting their data. As long as home buyers recognize the motivations and potential weaknesses of each site, they should definitely feel comfortable using the one they like best.

In the comments of yesterday’s post, Michael suggested that the realtors offer the general public the opportunity to subscribe to the actual MLS. It’s an interesting idea, and could be a way to reduce the (modest) annual fees that agents pay to support the existing system. I wonder if the local board has considered that possibility? Anyone from GHAR reading today? In some ways the site is just that … the data is updated very frequently and comes directly from the MLS. However, it’s also like all the other sites in that there are ads and attempts to collect contact information.

Even this site has an agenda, though our incentives are much more aligned with our clients. We only benefit when someone successfully completes their transaction … so hopefully the GHREB can still be your friend.