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New Zillow strategy – telling you to take your money and shove it

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow is adding a new feature that is raising eyebrows, but could go a long way toward consumers’ trust in their new direction.

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In college I would spend hours investigating what courses I would be taking the next semester. My university provided a flow chart of the kinds of classes I needed to enroll in, but it was completely up to me which one I chose. I used two main sites that helped my make my decision. One was a site that showed me every single variation of my potential schedule and the other was a crowd sourced rating site for the professor. Since then, several rating sites have come out all in different industries, and as you already know, real estate is no exception.

As a consumer, I have a very strange relationship with Zillow. I’ve never bought a house, but I’ve used Zillow to find multiple rental homes, to dream about homes I’ll never afford because I like avocado toast and to look at the before photos of a home my friends bought.

I also have a strange consumer opposition to them after their little Zestimates drama last year, their recent foray into alleged photo poaching, and their not so blatant attempt to run the table by buying a mortgage company.

That said, Zillow’s new strategy has my interest piqued.

With the purchase of Mortgage Lenders of America, Zillow has secured their place at the adults table of the real estate world. They’re now the search engine that will help you find a house, the company that will connect you to a Realtor and the lender that can help you buy it. Zillow is taking their one-stop shopping a step further and allowing you to rate your real estate agent (beyond their existing rating system) — just like I did with my professors.

Customers will be asked for input on agents’ communication style, responsiveness, trustworthiness, and expertise (sound like HomeLight? Yeah, I know).

In an effort to be customer satisfaction driven, Zillow’s Premier Agent customers will be privy to reports based on data that Zillow will collect from other customers that will gauge agents’ performance.

Zillow believes their customers are all about customer service and I can’t say they’re wrong. I don’t know of any industry where customers don’t want quality assistance. The irony is not lost on me, though, that they’re an online company trying to measure human interaction.

Zillow’s President, Greg Schwartz, explained, “we promise you this: we’re going to give you the greatest platform to make it happen. And we’ll keep pushing to get it right so you can deliver exceptional experiences.”

Solid promise, but how is it going to work? Will it be like the website I used to rate my professors where it was an option to do so or I could just lurk in the shadows and reap the benefits of the reviews? Or is it going to be like Uber / Favor / fill-in-the-blank-phone-app-service where I am required to submit a review before I’m allowed to do literally anything else? They’ve long had agent ratings, but insiders suggest that an Uber-esque rating is really what’s in play here.

Schwartz went on to talk about agents who aren’t performing up to customer standards — again, are there hard and fast guidelines? Because I can guarantee you that as a customer, I will have different standards than Mariah Carrey.

Schwartz said, “For agents who aren’t performing up to customers standards — Zillow will no longer be interested in taking their money. The company wants to be able to tell every consumer who comes to the site that the agent they select will deliver a high-quality experience.”

Whoaaaaaa. Schwartz is really swingin’ for the fences there. If you aren’t up to Zillow’s standards, they’ll tell you to take your money and shove it. Despite a shaky opinion of the mega-company, this speaks to me.

I’m not entirely sure alienating large groups of a people you’re trying to work with is the best strategy, but Zillow seems to have the appearance of trying to do good things. We’ll see what shareholders think, how brokers will respond to a potential Uber-esque rating for their agents, and ultimately, how consumers opt to trust the data in a sea of subjective agent ratings alongside endless lawsuits against that shake confidence in the brand.

Kiri Isaac is the Web Producer at The American Genius and studied communications at Texas A&M. She is fluent in sarcasm and movie quotes and her love language is tacos.

Real Estate Corporate

The tables have turned: Zillow being sued for violating antitrust law

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) A Vermont real estate company is bringing a lawsuit against Zillow for violating antitrust laws. Will it be enough to slow the real estate giant?

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Pen laying on a document covering antitrust law.

In a shocking upset, a Vermont real estate website is suing Zillow for violating antitrust law. The website, called Picket Fence, alleges that Zillow’s operation in Vermont led to millions in lost revenue, both past and projected.

According to court documents supplied by the state of Vermont, Picket Fence—a for-sale-by-owner business that originated and is located in Vermont—was one of the first significant FSBO businesses in the state. Picket Fence purportedly endeavored to use their services in order to connect private sellers with clients, thus negating the need for an agent or traditional real estate service.

Zillow, by contrast, is a “Foreign Profit Corporation” in Vermont. Since Zillow is located predominantly in Seattle, Washington, their presence in the state of Vermont falls under a different classification than that of Picket Fence.

The court document alleges that Zillow, by providing aggressive competition in a state other than that of its origin, deprived Picket Fence of due revenue. It also alleges that Zillow violated “state and federal consumer and antitrust laws” in addition to a handful of Vermont laws. The document refers to “unfair and deceptive acts” on behalf of Zillow, insinuating that Zillow’s operation in Vermont was damaging to FSBO services like Picket Fence.

While much of Zillow’s purported damage to Picket Fence is projected based on profit estimations from 2017, the fact remains that Zillow used the tactics they have used across the country to monopolize real estate business in Vermont. Picket Fence estimates that this will result in a net loss of over $142 million by 2030, so their case prioritizes monetary recompense.

On a separate note in the document, Picket Fence shows that Zillow’s operation and interference in Vermont prevented local FSBO and other real estate endeavors from taking hold despite the best efforts of Picket Fence. The complaint addresses this issue as another nail in the antitrust violation coffin.

Picket Fence continues to suggest that Zillow’s actions were and are illegal, damaging, and in violation of significant antitrust law. This isn’t surprising given Zillow’s long history of shady activity from patent-grabbing to lengthy court cases designed to crush competitors; it is these exact behaviors that Picket Fence is hoping to address in their complaint.

Zillow, for their part, will have to answer for a lot over the course of the last 12 months. This Vermont case is sure to be one of the first of many attempts to bring the real estate giant to its wobbly, monopoly-seeking knees—and, with any luck, it will be the first successful one.

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Real Estate Corporate

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.

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Real Estate Corporate

Are rental companies taking too much advantage of apartment 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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