Paraphrasing an old saw, home shoppers conduct their research online even if they deal one-on-one at purchase time.
According to the National Association of Realtors, many home buyers use the Internet but most choose to deal with a real estate professional when it’s at the point to purchase a house.
Consumers’ reliance on online data when hunting for a house to buy showcases the importance of Internet real estate sites in providing the latest, most precise information on available properties for sale. The information desired by consumers includes whether the listings are active or under contract; their current listing prices; even square footage and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms.
Some recent media reports question the accuracy of current listing information and home valuation tools on national websites such as Zillow and Trulia, which are merging operations, and Realtor.com. The national online sites don’t have information on all available properties for sale and may rely on public records for sold data — which, while official, may be dated or include errors.
Conversely, the manager of at least one Charleston area real estate website says local online sites supply accurate, up-to-date figures: The information derives from the local “multiple listing service,” which provides information on all properties for sale.
What irks Michael Scarafile, president of Carolina One Real Estate which handles close to 30 percent of local sales, is the press accounts don’t differentiate between national and local sites, giving consumers the impression that local sites, too, are suspect.
Instead, he believes just the opposite is the case and that national sites lack information or the incentive to provide complete, accurate and fast-breaking information.
“The first question should be, ‘what is the intent of the real estate site you are visiting?’” he says.
Scarafile singled out Zillow, which now owns competitor Trulia.
“It’s a home valuation site attempting to drive traffic, much of which is by owners checking the value of their own home on a monthly basis, to generate advertising dollars, much like a television station or newspaper.”
In contrast, his company’s CarolinaOne.com “and most other local real estate sites” focus on relevant and current information to help the home buyer and seller, not to sell ads.
National sites, he says, can be off the mark when they try to estimate home values.
According to Scarafile, Zillow’s chief executive in an interview last month on CBS said its “Zestimates” carry a “media error rate” of about 8 percent.
Scarafile contends the error rates locally can be much higher, and the estimates are “particularly weak when dealing with water or marsh-front property.”
Even at 8 percent, the estimate range can be uncomfortably wide.
“With the average sales price last year in our local market at just under $300,000, that means the average Zestimate is nearly $24,000 off, in one direction or another, creating a $48,000 area of uncertainty for any buyer or seller,” Scarafile says.
He believes other problems that national Internet sites face are they gather sold information from public records, which can be three or four months old; they do not have information on all properties for sale; and, with the information they do have, it’s not always accurate or current – for instance, showing properties available for sale that are already under contract.
“This is not true for local real estate sites, like CarolinaOne.com, which show almost every house on the market, at least all of those in MLS, and are updated three times per day,” Scarafile says.
Frequent updates by the Charleston area brokerage community “insures that your local real estate site has accurate listing prices for all properties,” he says.
Local real estate sites possess spot-on information specific to each house, such as square footage, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms and many other specific details since the information, coming from the local MLS, is being provided by “the agent representing the seller and not public records,” Scarafile says.
Charleston Trident Multiple Listing Service downplayed its relationships with countrywide “third-party” websites. The service says it defers to listing brokers, who can designate how they want MLS information disseminated or if they want to expose it at all.
“Brokerages all employ different strategies with regard to third-party listing syndication websites,” the service’s Executive Director Joseph Cullom says.
“It is the policy of the Charleston Trident Multiple Listing Service to provide — or not provide — data to third-party sites at the direction of the individual broker.”
Scarafile did note a few pieces of information that are not provided online or should be more carefully examined by home buyers. One would be homeowners insurance costs. “Since they’re based on the buyer’s credit score, it is tough to give more than a range without knowing the buyer,” he says.
Also, property taxes are based on the home’s assessed value, and a buyer cannot “just rely on what the seller is currently paying.”
While taxes can go up for new owners after home sales are consummated, in some cases tax bills may drop, for instance “when the home was (originally) purchased in 2005 or 2006, when values were higher,” Scarafile says.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.