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Unzillowable: why technology still can’t do the job of a real estate pro

Years ago, the term “unzillowable” was coined, and many startups and algorithms have launched since then,but have yet to supplant real estate professionals.

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The “unzillowable” factors of a home

Back in 2006, Joseph Ferrara coined the term “unzillowable.” It represents all of those things about real estate that a piece of software and an algorithm can never capture or consider – traffic noise, smells, the fact your neighbors have a 1963 pickup with no doors up on blocks in the front yard, the cat that persistently jumps the fence to take a dump in your plants, the street light that brutally shines into the master bedroom window. The list is endless.

Fast forward to 2012. While technology has greatly improved the way we communicate and transact real estate, it has yet to substitute the unzillowable aspects of houses, neighborhoods, and lifestyle with a piece of software.

It’s not to say that it hasn’t been attempted. Pricing estimates are better, but only slightly. The technology space is in a rush to commoditize, package, and resell lifestyle. Yet still no score, rating, or website has been able to replace the experience of actually being somewhere.

This truly excites me. Not because I fear technology, but because I love real estate and the intangible things that distinguish a house from a home. To me, the unzillowable is what makes a collection of homes into a community.

The unzillowable makes a collection of homes into a community

See, the traffic noise doesn’t personally bother me, it’s quite soothing. It means I’m home, and I swear I can smell the barbecue smoke from Railhead every time I hit I-30 going east. The smell of slow cooked brisket slices through the city air like sweet perfume.

The A.M. radio still works in that 1963 Chevy next door. Every October, we sit around it and listen to the World Series with a few of our friends. The neighborhood cat sits shotgun and that street light shining in my bedroom gives off just enough light for us to see each other. It never bothered me anyway. I put curtains up.

Rest easy, blogosphere of yesteryear. Technology continues to help us do our job better, but the AVM has not replaced the agent, and a website will never define what it means to live somewhere. A neighborhood is made up of a collection of subjective stories that transcend physical location and time anyway. Communities still have their secrets. It’s a beautiful thing, if you ask me.

Greg is the principal owner of Fischer Real Estate Services, a Fort Worth firm specializing in customer value and community enrichment. He's also an MBA at TCU, and a proud member of the Naval Reserves. In his spare time - he sleeps.

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36 Comments

36 Comments

  1. AgentSteph

    December 7, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Right on.

    • Greg Fischer

      December 7, 2012 at 12:59 pm

      @AgentSteph Thanks for the love Steph.

  2. StevePeeleII

    December 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Couldn’t agree more.

    • Greg Fischer

      December 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      @StevePeeleII Thanks for the Cincinnati support Steve.

  3. StevePeeleII

    December 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Couldn’t agree more.

  4. RichardDeVita

    December 7, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Hear here !

    • Greg Fischer

      December 7, 2012 at 1:04 pm

      @RichardDeVita Thanks for the shout from FL Richard

      • RichardDeVita

        December 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm

        @Greg Fischer my pleasure. Well written, hits the nail on the head. Technology is great, we all use it, but, you cannot replace the boots on the ground local knowledge acquired by spending time in a particular neighborhood.

  5. MattThomson

    December 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Just over 30% of my business this year is from buyers relocating from out of the state (or country). It’s fascinating how much they can learn using the Internet (Google street view, AVM’s, forums, neighborhood Facebook pages). Yet everyone of them is happy to have those tools and truly grateful to have my perspectives. That cute bridge over the lagoon on Google Maps? Yep, it’s tidal so 12hrs a day it’s not a lagoon, it’s a mud pit.  And the bridge…those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re brake lights ’cause it’s bumper to bumper 2x a day.
    My clients’ access to technology makes their job and my job much easier. Facetime and Skype allow me to walk through a home with my tablet while they’re 1000’s of miles away and they can really grasp the floor plan, but it’s me showing them how the floors upstairs all squeak or how off the master deck there’s a great view of the water that the agent forgot to put a picture of.
    Technology is great. It helps the client and the agent. Doesn’t replace us.
    The agent who uses technology WILL replace the agent who doesn’t, however.

    • Greg Fischer

      December 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      @MattThomson excellent points Matt. Technology really helps all of us do a better job. I hope agents stop being scared of it and instead embrace and harness it for its true potential. I also, love all of the low-tech and no-tech opportunities we encounter as real estate pros.

  6. FischRealEstate

    December 7, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    @MattThomson thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Matt

  7. FischRealEstate

    December 7, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    @micheleserro hey, thanks for the love

  8. RobertaMurphy

    December 7, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    And it is up to us, as agents, to make our listings and neighborhoods unzillowable. We present them and live them as no technology can.  But through technology, we try–in a way that Zillow cannot.

    • Greg Fischer

      December 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      @RobertaMurphy we are neighborhood ambassadors, and it’s also our job to help clients find their best fit. Technology helps us do this, but ultimately we are all such different people, leading very different lives, and therefore have different experiences in our environments. That’s the wonderful thing about real estate. Your experience as my neighbor might be totally different from mine, and I think that’s pretty cool

  9. Mark Brian

    December 8, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Perfect example of unzillowable: Former client emails today about how the zestimate has risen on his home. However the algorithm does not drive over the bridge just around the corner from this property everyday. The algorithm does not know that due to the drought that lake levels have dropped and this “lakefront” home is now about a quarter mile from the water…

    • Greg Fischer

      December 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm

      @Mark Brian we saw some issues with this in northwest Fort Worth over the last couple of years. It’s unfortunate for the land owners, but agree – very important for potential buyers to understand the ramifications of it. An expert insight on your part

  10. davidpylyp1

    December 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    With all the listings available to be seen, we are vital to sit through the application and interpretation of all that RAW DATA>   You need to understand what the market barometer is; Buyers or Sellers Market and the Temperature of that Listing  Is it Hot or Cold.   Other wise you never pull the trigger fast enough  or struggle to negotiate with Listings that are over priced and don’t get it.
     
    I welcome the new changes   I’m able to provide outside the Box solutions.  Its the Results that Matter.
     
    David Pylyp
    Etobicoke Real Estate Specialist

    • Greg Fischer

      December 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm

      @davidpylyp1 David, some of the neighborhood nuances are so fascinating here. We are talking about block by block major differentiators based on a variety of factors. Proximity to the interstate, school, east of a certain North/South thru street can all have major impacts on the listings ability to sell quickly. The interesting thing is, these nuances are positive for some, and negative for others.

  11. SilverySage

    December 10, 2012 at 9:55 am

    @acummings @Chris_Smth RIGHT ON!

  12. FischRealEstate

    December 10, 2012 at 10:15 am

    @Chris_Smth thanks for the mention Chris

  13. TBoard

    December 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

    @lauramonroe heck some real estate pros cam’t even do the job of a real estate pro

    • LauraMonroe

      December 10, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      @TBoard 🙂

    • FischRealEstate

      December 10, 2012 at 6:31 pm

      @TBoard @LauraMonroe thanks for reading Teresa and Laura

  14. RenterLobby

    December 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    @narREach @Chris_Smth what great timing for this article. RenterLobby embraces this theory! Launch 2013.

  15. FischRealEstate

    December 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    @GuaranteedRate thanks for putting this out

    • GuaranteedRate

      December 11, 2012 at 5:13 am

      @FischRealEstate You’re welcome!

  16. FischRealEstate

    December 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    @BrandonLCohen thanks Brandon

    • BrandonLCohen

      December 10, 2012 at 8:10 pm

      @FischRealEstate thank you!

  17. Roslynw0ztrdge0

    December 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    @BucksCtyRealtor https://t.co/UYEt5qDg

  18. Brian Hickey

    December 11, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Chicken or the egg?  Aren’t the things that are discovered to be “unzillowable” only evident after being “Zillowed” 🙂

    • Greg Fischer

      December 11, 2012 at 11:17 am

      @Brian Hickey Brian, I believe not. In my article I describe a few items that people claimed were unzillowable in 2006, things like traffic noise which they claimed couldn’t be considered in an AVM. I took this slant to be a slightly negative one, and so I went on to describe how traffic noise was not a negative item to me, along with some of the other factors, which were actually things I loved about the neighborhood. If we all experience the same neighborhood in different ways, how can we possibly capture the experience in software?

      • Brian Hickey

        December 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm

        @Greg Fischer  @Brian Hickey Greg,
        I understand your position in your great article and share your thoughts.  My point was simply to bring up the fact (what, some 30+million people visit Zillow each month?) that in order to get to the physical attributes of housing a whole bunch of people start at Z, T, R, RE.com etc. (as an example).
         
        No negativity here……….just twisting, turning and trying to provoke some thought 🙂
         
        Thanks,

  19. Joe Loomer

    December 17, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I loved this post, Greg.  Reminds me of how I typically take buyers off the beaten track to point out the things I love about my own community – pointing out dog parks, sports complexes, museums, libraries, parks, best places to eat, etc….  I consider it part of our agent credo to be an ambassador for our towns. 
     
    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

  20. Tommy Unger

    February 23, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    It’s not even about “secrets”. It’s merely the fact there are many more factors (or, more precisely, combinations of factors) than there are homes for sale. I’ve worked at Zillow and Redfin and I completely share your sentiments.

  21. Pingback: How Much Is My House Worth? A Road Map To True Market Value - PropertyCashMoney

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Opinion Editorials

DNA tests are cool, but are they worth it?

(OPINION EDITORIAL) DNA tests are all the rage currently but are they worth potentially having your genetic makeup sold and distributed?

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Over the last few years, DNA testing went mainstream. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have offered easy access to the insights of your genetics, including potential health risks and family heritage, through simple tests.

However, as a famously ageless actor once suggested in a dinosaur movie, don’t focus too much on if you can do this, without asking if you should do this.

When you look closely, you can find several reasons to wonder if sending your DNA to these companies is a wise choice.

These reasons mostly come down to privacy protection, and while most companies do have privacy policies in place, you will find some surprising loopholes in the fine print. For one, most of the big players don’t give you the option to not have your data sold.

These companies, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, can always sell your data so long as your data is “anonymized,” thanks to the HIPPA Act of 1996. Anonymization involves separating key identifying features about a person from their medical or biological data.

These companies know that loophole well; Ancestry.com, for example, won’t even give customers an opt-out of having their DNA data sold.

Aside from how disconcerting it is that these companies will exploit this loophole for their gain at your expense, it’s also worth noting that standards for anonymizing data don’t work all that well.

In one incident, reportedly, “one MIT scientists was able to ID the people behind five supposedly anonymous genetic samples randomly selected from a public research database. It took him less than a day.”

There’s also the issue of the places where that data goes when it goes out. That report the MIT story comes from noted that 23andMe has sold data to at least 14 outside pharmaceutical firms.

Additionally, Ancestry.com has a formal data-sharing agreement with a biotech firm. That’s not good for you as the consumer, because you may not know how that firm will handle the data.

Some companies give data away to the public databases for free, but as we saw from the earlier example, those can be easy targets if you wanted to reverse engineer the data back to the person.

It would appear the only safe course of action is to have this data destroyed once your results are in. However, according to US federal regulation for laboratory compliance stipulates that US labs hold raw information for a minimum of 10 years before destruction.

Now, consider all that privacy concern in the context of what happens when your DNA data is compromised. For one, this kind of privacy breach is irreversible.

It’s not as simple as resetting all your passwords or freezing your credit.

If hackers don’t get it, the government certainly can; there’s even an instance of authorities successfully obtaining a warrant for DNA evidence from Ancestry.com in a murder trial.

Even if you’re not the criminal type who would worry about such a thing, the precedent is concerning.

Finally, if these companies are already selling data to entities in the biomedical field, how long until medical and life insurance providers get their hands on it?

I’ll be the first to admit that the slippery slope fallacy is strong here, but there are a few troubling patterns of behavior and incorrect assumptions already in play regarding the handling of your DNA evidence.

The best course of action is to take extra precaution.

Read the fine print carefully, especially what’s in between the lines. As less scrupulous companies look to cash in on the trend, be aware of entities who skimp on privacy details; DNA Explained chronicles a lot of questionable experiences with other testing companies.

Above all, really think about what you’re comfortable with before you send in those cheek swabs or tubes of spit. While the commercials make this look fun, it is a serious choice and should be treated like one.

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Opinion Editorials

How to deal with an abusive boss and keep your job, too

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Sometimes bosses can be the absolute worst, but also, you depend on them. Here’s how to deal with an abusive boss and, hopefully, not get fired.

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Nothing can ruin your work life like an abusive boss or supervisor. But when you’re dependent on your boss for assignments, promotions – heck, your paycheck – how can you respond to supervisor abuse in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your job or invite retaliation?

A new study to be published in the next Academy of Management Journal suggests an intriguing approach to responding to an abusive boss. As you might expect, their study shows that avoiding the abuser does little to change the dynamic.

But the study also found that confronting the abuser was equally ineffective.

Instead, the study suggests that workers in an abusive situation “flip the script” on their bosses, “shifting the balance of power.” But how?

The researchers tracked the relationship between “leader-follower dyads” at a real estate agency and a commercial bank. They found that, without any intervention, abuse tended to persist over time.

However, they also discovered two worker-initiated strategies that “can strategically influence supervisors to stop abuse and even motivate them to mend strained relationships.”

The first strategy is to make your boss more dependent on you. For example, one worker in the study found out that his boss wanted to develop a new analytic procedure.

The worker became an expert on the subject and also educated his fellow co-workers. When the boss realized how important the worker was to the new project, the abuse subsided.

In other words, find out what your boss’s goals are, and then make yourself indispensable.

In the second strategy, workers who were being abused formed coalitions with one another, or with other workers that had better relationships with the boss. The study found that “abusive behavior against isolated targets tends to stop once the supervisor realizes it can trigger opposition from an entire coalition.”

Workplace abuse is not cool, and it shouldn’t really be up to the worker to correct it. At times, the company will need to intervene to curb bad supervisor behavior. However, this study does suggest a few strategies that abused workers can use to try to the tip the balance in their favor.

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Opinion Editorials

Avoid the stack, conquer busy work as it comes

(PRODUCTIVITY) It’s easy overwhelmed with emails and a stack of real mail. But tackling as it comes may help to enhance organization and productivity.

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A few weeks ago, I was walking through my office (also known as my bedroom after 5 p.m.) and I noticed a stack of mail that I had tossed aside over the course of the last few months. While they were non-urgent, this collection of paperwork had been opened, read, and left unattended.

Now, this was a classic move of mine – leave a mess for Future Taylor to clean up. So, imagine my surprise when Present Taylor woke up and decided to put an end to “the stack.”

I sat down, went through everything, and took care of what needed to be done. Even though my wallet took a few hits, it felt great to have this cleared up and off my desk.

Right then and there, I made it a rule to let things only cross my desk once (unless there’s some extenuating circumstance in which it requires me to come back to it; i.e. my favorite sentence on this paperwork “This is not a final bill.”) There’s no point in drawing out the stress that “the stack” induce.

This led me to finally attacking something that’s been on my to-do list since I created my Gmail account in 2009 – create an organizational system.

I set aside some time to create folders (for individual projects, people I communicate with frequently, etc.)

While this is all stuff that you may have already implemented, my point is that this increase my productivity and lifted a weight off of my shoulders I didn’t acknowledge was there.

So, I encourage you to find one of those menial tasks that has been on your to-do list forever and tackle it.

This can include, organizing all of your electronic files into folders, updating your phone and email contacts, or going through all of your desk drawers to get rid of unneeded items. Organizing and freshening up your workspace can help increase your focus.

Once you’re organized and in gear, try the “let it cross your desk once” method. When an email comes in, respond to it or file it. When a bill comes in, pay it. You may be surprised at your rise in productivity.

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