6 Expert Tips for Using Zillow, According to Real Estate Agents

published Jan 26, 2019
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Zillow was the matchmaker that introduced me to my dream home. I had been saving for a down payment and was “just curious” what I could get near Denver in my budget, which led me to casually scroll through listings on my lunch break. I found my three-bedroom row home on the real estate site, and it was love at first site. I then called up a real estate agent my friend referred to me, had a showing the next day, and closed a few weeks later.

I’m not alone. About 51 percent of buyers found the homes they eventually purchased online, according to research from the National Association of Realtors.

Zillow, of course, allows you to window shop for places to rent or buy, which is the main draw. But that’s really just scratching the surface.

Here’s what else you can use Zillow for—and expert tips from real estate pros on what to keep in mind when perusing the online real estate hub.

Don’t rely on your Zestimate

Curious about what your home would appraise for? Plugging your address into Zillow will reveal the “Zestimate,” or the estimate of what your home (or any home, for that matter) is worth. I get something in the mail once a year from my county assessor estimating my home’s value, but on Zillow I can check back every month or so—it’s addictive.

A spokesperson for Zillow told us that you should account for a 4.5 percent median error rate. To arrive at the Zestimate, the computer algorithm that Zillow uses pulls in lots of data, including public records from county tax assessors and sales record information of similar homes. It even considers things like topographical data to decide whether you’ve got a great view and street noise data to determine if you live in a noisy neighborhood.

The margin of error can be problematic when, say, someone goes to sell and they’re relying on a “Zestimate” that might be inflated. “Those who get a high or more favorable Zestimate usually will not want to hear that their home is worth less,” explains Lukasz Kukwa, a residential real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Westfield, New Jersey. If a seller doesn’t want to budge on price in an area where the Zestimate has a high margin of error, it could translate to their home being on the market for a prolonged period of time. Nationwide, homes stay on the market for an average of 46 days, according to the latest figures from the National Association of Realtors. If a home sits on the market far longer than average, it can be a red flag for buyers.

Use Zillow to find a real estate agent—but do your research

Zillow can help you find a real estate agent, points out Bethany Nolan, a realtor in the Greater East Texas area. The “agent finder” tool allows you to search for agents in your area and apply filters to help find someone who specializes as a buyer’s agent, seller’s agent, or in things like relocations or foreclosures. “You can also check out reviews for the agents,” Nolan says.

But something you should definitely be aware of? Zillow is probably strategically putting agents in front of you who have bought into their “Premier Agent” program. Agents can pay Zillow to get more exposure and receive more leads in certain zip codes than those who are using the site for free. Also, double check when you’re looking at a property, because you’re likely seeing a “Premier Agent” pop up. To find the actual listing agent, you’ll need to scroll down a bit to the “Listing provided by” section.

Hire your whole real estate team through Zillow

Beyond hiring an agent to buy or sell your home, you can find home improvement companies, movers, property managers, home inspectors, and photographers (to get high-quality listing photos for your home). You can read client reviews before reaching out to hire a professional.

Related: 8 People You Need When Buying a Home, According to Experts

Double-check building policies

Oftentimes, data about buildings you’re looking to rent or buy is outdated or inaccurate, especially when it comes to policies about whether pets are allowed, cautions Allison Chiaramonte, an agent with Warburg Realty in New York City. You and your agent should do some fact-checking before getting too serious about moving in. For example, a building on Zillow or StreetEasy (which is a New York City real estate marketplace owned by Zillow) may say pets are allowed, but doesn’t mention that dogs need to be under 35 pounds. (Sorry, Golden Retrievers!)

Pets aside, some other information about buildings might be outdated. For example, it’s possible a flip tax in co-ops has increased or financing rules have become more lenient.

Use their financial tools to estimate budgeting

Zillow features several types of financial calculators, points out Howard Margolis a New York City real estate agent with Douglas Elliman. For example, their mortgage calculator layers in information about loan programs, interest rates, home price ,and down payments to give you a rough idea of how much your mortgage payment would be. Their affordability calculator helps you figure out how much you can realistically afford to spend on a home. Zillow also has a debt-to-income calculator, a refinance calculator, and an amortization calculator.

Follow homes you’re interested in

If you’re in the market to rent or buy, Zillow tells us to make use of the “save” feature when you’re browsing listings. It’s a convenient way to corral the properties you’re interested in, and you’ll be notified if there’s a price drop or a change in the listing. Plus, it will recommend similar homes you may have missed.

Once you get serious and start thinking about a mortgage, here’s some tips to navigate mortgage comparison sites like a pro.