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Watch out: Zillow’s terms of service have some sinister notes

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) Zillow’s updated terms of service allow them to make a lot of decisions with your data—none of which need your approval.

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Computer searching online open to terms of service page.

Zillow has a bit of a shady record. Between their excessive patent-hoarding and the aggressive nature with which they tend to squash competing services, you wouldn’t be remiss in treating them with caution—especially now that the real estate service is revamping their terms of service with some seemingly sinister changes in mind.

The actual terms of service prove for a lengthy—but recommended—read. However, WAV Group, a real estate consulting service, highlighted a few specific stipulations in the terms of service. If you’re here for the short version, it’s this: Have a lawyer look over the updated terms before agreeing to them if you’re a Zillow user. Otherwise, keep reading for a deep-dive on some of the more concerning aspects of these changes.

Data, regardless of the form in which it appears, should be considered an asset; if you aren’t worried about how Zillow (or other companies in their wake) will use the terms of service to legitimize sending away your information at a moment’s notice, you absolutely should be. To wit, WAV Group also recommends having a lawyer look over Zillow’s privacy policy which, while not on par with the terms of service, also underwent a bit of a redesign.

In a nutshell, Zillow’s updates allow them to use and distribute your data—including information associated with your listings—at their discretion. That sounds pretty standard, but Zillow makes it clear that they aren’t just using your data: They own it. What that means is you can’t repurpose or reuse that data again without specific parameters in place if you want to avoid breaking Zillow’s terms of service.

Zillow is also kind enough to alert you that they will take no responsibility for anything negative that happens as a result of your data use on their behalf, a process which can include unauthorized credit checks, the appropriation and use of your data by third-party services, and all of the downsides that accompany these actions.

So, for example, if Zillow passes along your data to a third-party service that has shaky web security, you can’t hold Zillow accountable for the hand-off regardless of negative repercussions on your end.

Now, you wouldn’t be wrong to want to delete your listing and clear out of Zillow after all of this, but you would be wrong in thinking it’s that simple. According to the new terms of service, you may delete your account, listing, and preferences; you just can’t delete any listing data from Zillow since, upon accepting those terms, your data is their data.

Finally—and, as WAV Group mentions, extremely importantly—Zillow’s new terms of service allow them to claim referral fees on your behalf without accepting any responsibility for potential harm to you, your property, your company, or—you guessed it—your data. This basically means that Zillow can act as a referring agency on your behalf without asking for your consent, which runs the risk of everything from raising your bottom line to risking your privacy.

It’s undeniable that Zillow has a motive here: Recuse themselves of responsibility for reckless and irresponsible behavior. Don’t trust the terms of service like you most likely do with other products here—make sure you have a lawyer (or at least a particularly shrewd second pair of eyes) to look over these terms before you sign any kind of deal with this real estate devil.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

Real Estate Corporate

Zillow: This HUGE patent grab has us asking, what’s left?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) Zillow’s latest patent bid is terrifyingly broad and will likely lead to a real estate monopoly, if it’s granted.

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Man reviewing paperwork from Zillow listing with couple looking to buy

Zillow is no stranger to controversy, largely due to their propensity for acquiring obscenely broad patents. These patents often expand Zillow’s privileges while limiting the mobility of competing real estate companies’ websites and apps, elevating Zillow’s position in the market along the way. Now, Zillow is applying for a monster of a patent—one that, if granted, would effectively bar every other real estate service from the market.

We’ve written extensively about Zillow’s overzealous acquisition of patents that, by and large, demonstrate a desire to complicate the daily operations of competing real estate services. Those patents have included the presentation of photos on real estate sites and how information is formatted, the commonality being that Zillow’s patent requests have been so vaguely worded that competing businesses are forced to alter significantly their practices.

For example, their patent regarding photo use prevents anyone other than Zillow from portraying photos, panoramas, or videos in such a way that they “simulate movement” through a house. This basically means that other real estate services will be forced to arrange their photos in a nonsensical way, thus reducing site usability and increasing the likelihood that former users will migrate to Zillow.

The real estate monolith has also sued competitors for copyright infringement, most notably going after Trulia for having the audacity to tailor search results based on “input” from a user.
This most recent patent request makes it clear that Zillow has no intention of stopping their rampage—at least, not without achieving a literal monopoly in the process. In summary, the patent would afford Zillow complete control over “validation and optimization in an online marketing platform for home sellers.”

In simple terms, the patent refers to any technology or tools used to support the process of real estate searches.

The patent summary corroborates this interpretation: “In some embodiments, the disclosed technology provides a validation tool for users of the online marketing platform to quality check the users’ home feeds in real-time through a graphical user interface of the online marketing platform. In some embodiments, the disclosed technology provides an optimizer tool for the users to optimize the users’ home feeds through a graphical user interface…”

This summary concludes with, “The users of the online marketing platform can be home sellers, which can include, for example, home builders, brokers, and their agents,” describing what one would reasonably assume comprises all possible real estate clients.

Restricting the act of searching for real estate to Zillow alone would prevent competition, full stop. With the power to sue anyone who allowed their real estate listings to be browsed or searched, Zillow would control the entire real estate market for all parties, including home builders. Obviously, this is a problem for several reasons.

The most glaring problem here is that any monopoly is cause for alarm, and the current housing market does not seem poised to benefit from a lack of variety in listing agencies—especially in the wake of COVID and the turmoil we can feasibly expect for years to come.

The patent also fails to take into consideration that Zillow, for all their innovation, did not create the features to which they’re staking their claim. While they may have used search engines with a level of effectiveness heretofore unchallenged by competitors, the fact remains that this patent’s contents cannot, in good conscience, be attributed wholly to Zillow.

Zillow’s justification alleges that homeowners who list their properties on multiple different sites face a “steep learning curve” that can hinder their progress since not all sites use the same listing process and selling tools, but the irony of this faux-concern couldn’t be clearer: By manipulating patents to purposely obfuscate listings on competitors’ sites, Zillow has created the very problem they claim to want to solve.

As this situation develops, bear in mind that Zillow’s predatory patent-trolling may dictate the course of this country’s real estate market for decades to come if they are allowed to continue expanding unchecked.

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Real Estate Corporate

Did rental companies take too much advantage of COVID evictions?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) With the convulsing housing market forcing people out of their apartment, massive rental companies are partnering with AirBNB to make up lost profit, and then some.

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As national lockdowns have left Americans feeling confined, the demand for short term rentals remains strong—despite the rampant rental crisis. It’s mighty convenient for corporate landlords and rental companies dealing with a backload of vacancies from recent waves of evictions.

ABC reports that the largest apartment landlord in the country, Greystar Real Estate, is gaining infamy for subletting their vacant apartments online. They manage over 500,000 rental units in the US.

One tenant, interviewed by Eyewitness News, stated they had found their apartment complex on the site, as well as 570 other Greystar properties across the country under the same host. Their landlord hadn’t disclosed these postings to them, either.

Most standard statewide rental contracts strictly forbid tenants from subletting to others through websites like AirBNB. But they don’t necessarily keep landlords from doing the same thing.

And in the absence of rent control laws, nothing stops them from rent gouging to drive their permanent tenants out.

Short term renters who apply for an apartment through AirBNB don’t agree to the same terms as long term renters. The actual residents of these buildings are ultimately held to a stricter standard, and potentially have to put up with more grief.

For example, if the property manager doesn’t intervene when disruptive behavior occurs in an STR, permanent residents are forced to put up with whatever trouble these guests might bring, from noise violations to dangerous activities. Anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck in a lease there is effectively trapped in a would-be hotel with no oversight. Over time, it creates a living environment that drives regular tenants out (meaning more space for overpriced Airbnb units.)

The practice puts disproportionate pressure on tenants that share complexes with temporary renters. And it’s not just unfair—this creates a potential health hazard, too.

Tenants in these buildings are rightfully concerned with the potential health risks of people constantly moving in and out of their building during a pandemic. Each new person passing through could potentially expose the rest of the building to the coronavirus (which is currently raging harder than ever, pushing hospitals to capacity across the country.)

All this stinks suspiciously like a potential violation of the Fair Housing Act to us. Renting an apartment through AirBNB or other rental companies would allow someone to potentially skirt the criteria that a regular applicant would otherwise be held to, and possibly rejected for.

In fairness, there are hosts doing their best to use their resources to help people, too.

Still, taking advantage of people’s desperation in the middle of an unprecedented economic depression is shameful—and AirBNB must take accountability for their role, too.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow continues to build their patent collection – looking back, is anyone surprised?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATIONS) The real estate giant Zillow continues the trend of the last decade and even adds another four patents to their ever growing patent collection.

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Overhead of farm home on Zillow, where a patent may be held.

In 2006 Zillow, the online real estate marketplace company, hit the world scene. Little did we know that this little website would explode over the last 15 years into the massive business venture it is now. Total assets in 2019 reached up to $6.1 billion. The founders, Rich Barton & Lloyd Frink, have been building this company from the ground up, pulling in new acquisitions and pursuing new avenues of revenue. Always adventuring into the next frontier of real-estate, and taking a patent or four along the way.

In a new move that surprised real-estate moguls around the country, Zillow Mobile was developed and they began creating mobile applications (listed below). However, I don’t think anyone expected what this would lead to in 2018.

  • April 29th, 2009 – iPhone Application
  • March 18th, 2010 – Android Application
  • April 2nd, 2010 – iPad Application
  • March 31st, 2011 – Blackberry Application
  • July 13th, 2012 – Windows Phone Application
  • November 27th, 2013 – Windows 8.1 Application
  • November 2015 – Apple TV Application

Once these apps were in place Zillow announced some news that would rock the real-estate world, Zillow Offers. The app provides a unique position for the company to directly purchase a seller’s home from them and do all the work to sell. Completely eliminating the go between aspect of the job. In the first year of this and leading into 2020, the company took a massive hit to their revenue because of the front end of purchasing all of this property.

Zillow 2.0 is still holding strong however. The current CEO Rich Barton is not worried about the downswing. He has been molded in the world of business over the years, having learned about the benefits of “risk that is tempered” while he founded/co-founded Expedia and Glassdoor. This business guru is a force to be reckoned with.

These highly aggressive tactics don’t just stop at the purchasing arena either. Over the last 15 years the business has acquired 21 patents. The patents in recent years are starting hedge competitors into a tight spot. Listed below are some of the more recent patents that have been cleared.

1. “Automated Control of Image Acquisition Via Use of Mobile Device User Interface” – Filing Date 8/21/2020

  • Techniques are described for using computing devices to perform automated operations to control acquisition of images in a defined area, including obtaining and using data from one or more hardware sensors on a mobile device that is acquiring the images, analyzing the sensor data (e.g., in a real-time manner) to determine the geometric orientation of the mobile device in three-dimensional (3D) space, and using that determined orientation to control the acquisition of further images by the mobile device. In some situations, the determined orientation information may be used in part to automatically generate and display a corresponding GUI (graphical user interface) that is overlaid on and augments displayed images of the environment surrounding the mobile device during the image acquisition process, so as to control the mobile device’s geometric orientation in 3D space.

2. “Estimating the value of property in a manner sensitive to nearby value-affecting geographic features” – Filing Date 7/7/2014

  • A facility for determining an estimated value of a home is described. The facility applies a first valuation model that is insensitive to value-affecting geographic features near the home to obtain a first valuation. The facility applies a second valuation model that is sensitive to value-affecting geographic features near the home to obtain a second valuation. The facility combines the first and second valuations to obtain an estimated value of the home.

3. “Automatically determining a current value for a real estate property, such as a home, that is tailored to input from a human user, such as its owner Utility Patent Grant (B2)” – Filing Date 9/4/2015

  • A facility procuring information about a distinguished property from a user knowledgeable about the distinguished property that is usable to refine an automatic valuation of the distinguished property is described. The facility displays information about the distinguished property used in the automatic valuation of the distinguished property. The facility obtains user input from of the user adjusting at least one aspect of information about the distinguished property used in the automatic valuation of the distinguished property. On a later the day, facility displays to the user a refined valuation of the distinguished property that is based on the adjustment of the obtained user input.

4. Providing Simulated Lighting Information for 3D Building Models – Filed Date 4/6/2020

  • Techniques are described for using computing devices to perform automated operations related to, with respect to a computer model of a house or other building’s interior, generating and displaying simulated lighting information in the model based on sunlight or other external light that is estimated to enter the building and be visible in particular rooms of the interior under specified conditions, such as using ambient occlusion and light transport matrix calculations. The computer model may be a 3D (three-dimensional) or 2.5D representation that is generated after the house is built and that shows physical components of the actual house’s interior (e.g., walls), and may be displayed to a user of a client computing device in a displayed GUI (graphical user interface) via which the user specifies conditions for which the simulated lighting display is generated.

But what do these patents do to the market? They are cornering their position as THE online real estate company. The stranglehold on any competitors is going to be hard to fight. The numerous patents typically tend to revolve around automated or multi-faceted searching and pricing on people homes. One of the newest ones actually takes images and translates into pricing.

This patent trolling technique is definitely something to take into account for other companies. This way, businesses hold their top place is to sue people into the ground with scrupulous patent lawsuits based on patent law. They throw red tape and paper on top of new competitors to drown them in fees before they can actually become competitive. Personally, I find it disgusting but from what I’ve learned, that’s capitalism at its finest. Beat them down with paper so you can stay on top.

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