Lawsuit dismissed against Zillow’s Zestimates

Lawsuit dismissed against Zillow’s Zestimates

Kenneth R. Harney on May 18, 2018

WASHINGTON – A Federal district court has dismissed a closely followed class-action lawsuit that charged Zillow – creator of the controversial Zestimate online home-valuation tool – with deceptive business practices designed to mislead consumers.

The suit, filed last year by Chicago-area home sellers, alleged that Zillow systematically engages in a confusing, unfair and deceptive marketing scheme that impairs homeowners and sellers in the sale of their houses. Plaintiffs charged that Zillow hides its multiple financial arrangements with realty agents and lenders, and that it ignores or refuses to correct “Zestimates that homeowners challenge as inaccurate or unfounded.” Plaintiffs also alleged that the company lowballs value estimates on so-called “FSBOs” – for sale by owner homes on its website – then increases them if a realty agent who pays money to Zillow subsequently lists them. An earlier version of the suit alleged that Zestimates undervalued plaintiffs’ homes and violated Illinois appraisal rules by serving as the functional equivalent of appraisals. That suit was dismissed, but the court allowed the plaintiffs to file an amended version.

If you’re not familiar with Zestimates, just tap any home address in the country into your search engine; you’ll likely see a value estimate pop up along with descriptions of the property’s features, photos and square footage. Zillow says it has Zestimates on more than 100 million homes, whether they are actively for sale or off the market. The estimates are based on “millions of public and user-submitted” information on homes, which get fed through its proprietary algorithms to generate value estimates, one-year forecasts of future value and rent estimates.

The company insists that its Zestimates are relatively accurate, with a “median [national] error rate” of 4.6 percent. But for years, consumers, appraisers and realty agents have criticized the company for having much higher error rates on individual properties – sometimes 10 percent or more in areas where housing types vary widely or property data is difficult to obtain. Some major metropolitan areas have error rates well in excess of Zillow’s national median – Dallas-Ft Worth’s rate is 8.2 percent – and some states have exceptionally high rates. Delaware’s statewide median error rate is 11.9 percent; certain counties in some states have error rates of 20 percent or higher. In Illinois, at least five counties have error rates of 20 percent or higher and one, Perry County, has a 26.7 percent rate.

In her decision, Judge Amy J. St. Eve of the U.S. District Court in Chicago, concluded that “Zestimates are not false or misleading representations of fact” that are likely “to confuse consumers” because they are “merely” an estimate of the market value of a home. Nor do they constitute a “bait and switch” scheme as alleged by the plaintiffs or constitute “self-dealing” because they “funnel” FSBO sellers to Zillow’s “premier” realty agents – those who pay the company for special advertising placement and leads on who is shopping for a home.

Asked for comment on the decision, Zillow said that “we are pleased that the court has dismissed the claims in this lawsuit not once, but now twice – finding the allegations in the lawsuit without merit.”

Barbara Andersen, an attorney whose frustrations with an allegedly lowball estimate on her home prompted her to file the original suit, said in an email that the court “is disregarding” the reality that consumers give credibility to Zestimates and use them for their own purposes.

“If you can give … buyer(s) a tool to manipulate a seller, they will use it and vice versa,” she said, “depending on whether the Zestimate is too high or too low.”

Andersen said she finds it “disappointing” that “the buying public does not realize Zillow’s income is from brokers who pay” money for leads and advertising tied to Zestimate pages. “So basically Zillow is financially motivated to keep the Zestimate inaccurate so it can ‘funnel’ disgruntled sellers to brokers” who then “cure an issue [inaccurate valuations] that Zillow created,” she said.

In response, Zillow said “the Zestimate is incredibly accurate, and Zillow is constantly working to improve its accuracy even more.”

What to make of the Zestimate decision? Best advice is to take Zillow’s own suggestion and see Zestimates as starting points, not end conclusions as to true value. Plus, be aware of how the Zillow model works- The company makes most of its money – $213.7 million, 71 percent of total revenues in the first quarter of 2018, according to its latest securities filing – from realty agents and brokers who pay it for advertising on its websites.

The growing gender gap that gets little notice- home buying

The growing gender gap that gets little notice – home buying

Kenneth R. Harney on May 11, 2018

WASHINGTON – It’s the gender gap you don’t hear so much about- Single women are buying homes and condos at what may be more than twice the rate of single males, and the trend appears to be accelerating.

Consider-

- Single women accounted for 18 percent of all home purchases last year compared with just 7 percent by single males, according to survey data from the National Association of Realtors. This makes single women the second largest segment in the entire home-purchase marketplace, behind married couples.

- Citing data from the most recent U.S. Census Current Population Survey, which covered 60,000 households, Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for consulting firm Veritas Urbis Economics LLC, found that the share of home purchases by single women in 2017 – including never-married individuals, widows and divorcees – hit 22.8 percent, the highest on record. The gap between single females and single men was not as dramatic as in the Realtor study, however.

- Home builders have picked up on the trend and increasingly are designing homes and subdivisions to appeal to women’s preferences, including singles. Pat McKee, president of McKee Homes, a builder active in four North Carolina markets, has found that in some of the company’s developments, significant percentages of the homes – upward of 50 percent in one case – were purchased by single women in their 30s, 40s and older, so this is not just a phenomenon limited to younger singles. Many of these buyers, he told me, “are tired of living in apartments and now feel confident enough to buy a new home.”

- Single female purchasers tend to be more likely to see buying a home as an investment, according to Jessica Lautz, director of demographic and behavioral insights for the National Association of Realtors. Single women pay slightly more on their purchase on average than single men – $185,000 compared with $175,000 – and are more likely to have children under 18 in their households.

- Rising rents appear to be a hotter button for single women than for men. In a recent tracking study conducted by research and publishing firm Builders Digital Experience, 23 percent of single women cited rising rents as a “trigger” motivation behind a home purchase, well above the 16 percent average for all recent buyers.

Colleen Fleming of Chicago illustrates some of the aspects of the single-female buyer trend. She’s an instructional design program manager for the American College of Surgeons and, working with a RE/MAX broker in the city, recently bought her first home – a two-bedroom, two-bath condo with parking space in an uptown neighborhood. The condo cost $307,000 – more than she had originally planned – but far below what comparable units would command in the hyper-expensive San Francisco Bay area, where she previously lived.

“I found it more feasible to buy” than expected, Fleming said in an interview. She “definitely looked at it in investment terms,” but most important of all, “I had gotten to the point where I wanted having a place that’s really mine, where I could make the changes I wanted. Now financially it was a possibility.”

Shoshana Godwin, who is single and works as a real estate agent for brokerage company Redfin in Seattle, bought a condo close to downtown – a two-bedroom, one bath unit that cost her $285,000 two years ago. Comparable units in her building are now selling for $500,000 in Seattle’s crazy-hot market, confirming her impression that buying instead of renting would be a good investment. She says she encounters “lots of other” single women who are actively seeking the same- A place they can call their own that also will prove to be a productive use of their financial resources.

So what’s with the single guys out there? Why aren’t they doing what smart single women are doing? There appears to be less survey research available on that subject compared with women, but builder Pat McKee says that at least anecdotally from discussions he’s had, “planting roots just doesn’t seem to have the same priority” for single men as for single women.

Godwin, who works extensively with singles of both genders, notes that in markets like Seattle, where job transfers at high-tech companies are commonplace, single men appear to be “more concerned” than women about having to relocate. “They are a little more afraid” to make commitments in real estate but seem to be fine with living in a nice, well-located rental.

Appraisal-free loans save millions for buyers

Appraisal-free loans save millions for buyers

Kenneth R. Harney on May 4, 2018

WASHINGTON – For homeowners and buyers, it’s been an unexpected windfall- relief from having to pay for a traditional mortgage appraisal that usually costs between $400 and $600. The savings nationwide to consumers in just the past year alone may total tens of millions of dollars.

Sounds great. But to some key players in the home financing arena, the savings look ominous – potentially risky for taxpayers and financially nightmarish for the professionals who provide the service being eliminated.

Last year, the two largest sources of American mortgage financing – federally backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – began accepting home-purchase loans that carried no formal property appraisal. Instead, the valuations supporting the mortgages were performed by Fannie and Freddie in-house, using proprietary analytics and deep stores of property data. Only highly select loans were eligible for appraisal waivers, primarily those with sizable down payments (20 percent and up) plus previous appraisals on file. Buyers, refinancers and lenders were not permitted to request waivers; Fannie and Freddie were the ones that identified eligible properties and offered waivers at the application stage.

Both companies had introduced the no-appraisal concept earlier for refinancings. The expansion to home-purchase loans was a big deal, though, because they’re considered riskier than refinancings, where borrowers’ credit and equity are well established and known to lenders.

Fannie and Freddie haven’t publicly released data or the results of their shifts to no-appraisal mortgages, but last week both companies allowed a peek for this column. During 2017, Fannie Mae acquired roughly 60,000 no-appraisal mortgages – 5 percent of its total 1.2 million home-loan acquisitions. Assuming an average appraisal costs about $500, then the combined savings to buyers and refinancers totaled somewhere near $30 million. Freddie Mac declined to estimate specific savings but said through a spokesman that by accepting appraisal waivers, “borrowers may have saved millions.”

Fannie’s and Freddie’s no-appraisal option has been popular with lenders. Mat Ishbia, president and CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage, the country’s largest wholesale lender, says “we think it’s great for borrowers.” Not only does it “save time and money,” it leads to shorter interest-rate locks and quicker closings. The company is now doing more than 10 percent of its home-purchase loans appraisal-free.

Not surprisingly, all this gushing enthusiasm for appraisal-free mortgages isn’t shared by the segment of the housing industry most directly affected- Appraisers. Real estate brokers also have expressed concerns. Appraisers see the waivers not only as sucking money out of their pockets but as a potential threat to taxpayers – who had to bail out Fannie and Freddie because of ill-advised investments during the housing bust.

In a letter to Congress last fall, the Appraisal Institute, the largest professional group representing appraisers, warned of “a race to the bottom” between the two companies in pushing for more appraisal-free loans, which require no physical visit or inspection of homes being financed. The National Association of Realtors said Fannie and Freddie “must demonstrate” that their reliance on “data-based” valuations does not “put undue risk into the housing market.”

Individual appraisers are scathing in their criticism, arguing that professionals trained to perform interior and exterior inspections, identify recent sales comparables and render independent analyses are essential to accurate valuations. Ryan Lundquist, an appraiser in Sacramento, California, noted that computer programs “cannot smell 20 cats living at the property.” Nor can they spot other value-depressing interior conditions or severe deferred maintenance.

Pat Turner, a Richmond, Virginia appraiser, says worse yet, the “savings” from Fannie and Freddie may not always flow to buyers. He cited a recent case in the Richmond area where a major online lender allegedly charged a buyer $600 at settlement on a loan with an appraisal-free waiver. “The guy went ballistic,” says Turner, and “demanded to see the detailed appraisal report,” which did not exist. His money has yet to be refunded.

What’s all this mean for buyers? No. 1- Be aware that even if you are offered an appraisal waiver, the choice is yours. Fannie and Freddie require lenders to allow borrowers to opt for a traditional full appraisal. Also, careful as the two companies may be in offering waivers, the contract price you’re paying for the house may be inflated. Lundquist cited a local realty broker who recently had clients who declined the no-appraisal option and saved thousands of dollars as a result. A full appraisal found the property to be overvalued – which the waiver apparently missed – and allowed them to renegotiate the final price lower.

Tired of the hassle of selling your home? Try this all-cash alternative

Tired of the hassle of selling your home? Try this all-cash alternative

Kenneth R. Harney on Apr 27, 2018

WASHINGTON – It’s the oldest fix-and-flip pitch in American real estate- “We’ll buy your home, guaranteed, no matter what its condition, and we’ll pay you quick cash with no commissions, and close in seven days or less.”

You’ve probably encountered versions of this on TV or elsewhere. The only way such offers make sense is if the buyers are low-ballers, paying sellers much less than their house is really worth. Some bottom-feeders buy at 25 percent to 40 percent discounts, slap on some paint, tidy up and flip for a fat profit.

It’s a business model that’s been around for decades because it serves genuine needs- Some people simply want to get out of their houses fast with minimal hassles. Maybe it’s because of a divorce, death, sickness or an inability to handle the costs of ownership. They’re willing to sacrifice price for speed and certainty. It works.

Some deep-pocket, high-tech players in real estate have taken a close look at this model and concluded- Wow! The direct-buy concept has a much broader potential market. Extensive consumer research has shown that large numbers of owners consider the traditional home-selling process too long and too fraught with inconvenience and mumbo-jumbo.

If those sellers were presented with a relatively fair price and quick offer for their homes – even if they net less money – they’d be interested. Unlike the fix-and-flip target market, these owners’ homes are in good shape and sellers could easily take the traditional route – hiring a realty agent.

Enter the “iBuyer.” A handful of Internet companies, armed with proprietary valuation data and algorithms, have jumped into the cash-offer arena. At least two tell me they plan to expand to most major real estate markets nationwide. With no obligation, owners can enter basic information online about their homes and receive a tentative offer within 24 to 48 hours. Following an inspection, they may get a binding, all-cash offer. The iBuyer later resells the house.

The pioneer in the space, San Francisco-based Opendoor, has purchased around 15,000 houses and is buying about 1,000 a month, co-founder JD Ross told me last week. Sellers run the gamut- Downsizing seniors, move-up families and folks who don’t enjoy keeping their homes “show ready” for extended periods. The company currently operates in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, North Carolina, but plans nationwide expansion. Its basic deal for sellers- a “fair” price for the home, plus a “service fee” around 7 percent that can go higher depending on needed property repairs and market conditions. Sellers are under no obligation to accept the offer and can use it to comparison-shop deals from traditional realty agents.

Opendoor’s chief rival so far is OfferPad, which is active in most of the same markets plus Tampa, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. According to the company, it’s currently doing around $125 million in buy-sell transactions per month. Its basic fee to sellers is 6 percent. Additional charges vary with the condition of the home, location and market trends. The average fee is 7 percent, according to Brian Bair, co-CEO.

Relative newcomers include Zillow – best known for its Zestimate valuation tool and advertising services it sells to realty agents-which is testing its “Instant Offers” program in three markets (Orlando, Las Vegas and Phoenix). Its model brings in institutional investors to bid on houses or allows Zillow to purchase directly for subsequent resale. Home sellers receive a comparative market analysis prepared by participating local Zillow “premier” agents. Sellers can accept the all-cash offer, list with an agent or shop for a better deal. Jeremy Wacksman, chief marketing officer for Zillow, told me total fees to sellers range from 8 percent to 15 percent, depending on expected repairs and updates and local market dynamics. Offers may be at a “slight discount” to market value, he added.

Redfin, a national realty brokerage, has begun offering its “Redfin Now” direct-buyer program in San Diego and California’s Inland Empire. Fees average 7 to 9 percent, according to Quinn Hawkins, Redfin new ventures director.

What to make of the iBuyer concept? Wherever you are, some version is probably coming your way. The concept offers you a tradeoff- You’re likely to net less on your sale but save significant time and hassle. You may not like the offer prices, fees or the repairs you’re asked to pay for, but you’re under no obligation until you commit to the deal. Meanwhile, you’ve got an innovative all-cash alternative to the traditional way of selling your home.

Are lower tax rates linked to higher home appreciation?

Are lower tax rates linked to higher home appreciation?

Kenneth R. Harney on Apr 20, 2018

WASHINGTON – Nobody likes getting tax bills, especially homeowners who are burdened with ever-escalating local property taxes. Last year, property taxes collected by local and state governments rose by an average 6 percent – $293.4 billion in total – almost three times the annual rate of inflation.

But the tax rates you pay are probably very different from what owners pay elsewhere. In Essex County, New Jersey, the average property tax on a single-family home last year was just under $12,000, according to a new study by ATTOM Data Solutions, a firm that tracks information on 155 million U.S. properties. In West Virginia, by contrast, the average was just $807.

Sure, average home values in New Jersey and West Virginia differ dramatically, as do the effective tax rates imposed by local governments to pay for the services they provide. But here’s a question- Is there a link between property-tax rates and the rate at which your home appreciates in value? Are areas with high housing costs and tax rates less likely to see high appreciation rates? Do markets with more affordable prices and low tax rates do better on appreciation?

It’s a complex subject. But ATTOM Data’s voluminous property-tax files, plus its trove of current and historical home value and price information, open the door to take at least a peek. For this column, I asked ATTOM to conduct a new statistical analysis, comparing recent appreciation rates and home-value data with effective local property rates around the U.S.

The findings are intriguing-

- Homes in areas with the highest effective property-tax rates – that is, the average tax rate expressed as a percentage of estimated home values – appear to have appreciated more slowly during the past year and the past five years on average than homes in markets with high tax rates. Homes in those areas increased in value by an average of 28 percent during the past five years and 3 percent in 2017.

- Homes in the middle third of markets, where effective tax rates are more modest, experienced higher rates of home-value appreciation – 35 percent on average over five years, 7 percent during the past year.

- Homes in the bottom third in terms of effective tax rates saw values increase faster – an average 42 percent over five years, 5 percent in the past year.

Daren Blomquist, senior vice president of ATTOM, cautions that there are exceptions to the overall trend here, “notably markets in Texas with high property-tax rates but also very strong home-price appreciation over the past year and five years.” Illinois has high tax rates (2.2 percent) yet saw average values statewide increase by 10 percent last year.

As a general rule, the highest effective tax rates in the nation are in the Northeast and the Midwest, with a smattering in Florida and Oregon. New Jersey had the highest overall rate (2.28 percent and an average five-year price appreciation rate of just 6 percent.) Connecticut’s 1.99 percent effective tax rate ranked it seventh highest nationwide. But the state experienced a one-year average price gain of just 1 percent and a five-year average of just 5 percent.

Maryland and Virginia average home prices are relatively high, but their effective tax rates are surprisingly moderate compared with the nation overall. Maryland posted an average rate of 1.03 percent and experienced a five-year, 15 percent average home-price gain. Virginia’s average tax rate was 1.05 percent; its five-year average gain 20 percent. The District of Columbia is a mixed bag – a below-average 0.65 percent effective rate on an average home value of $789,391, a 1 percent average value gain last year and a 26 percent appreciation rate over the past five years. California had a below-average effective property tax rate of 0.76 percent in 2017 and a one-year average gain in value of 8 percent.

What to make of these results? The study’s three general conclusions above are noteworthy, but keep in mind that the study’s scope and methodology were limited. Taxes alone do not determine demand – or home-appreciation rates. Multiple combined factors can also be important- local economic conditions, employment and school quality, among others.

But on average, low to modest tax rates appear to be connected to higher recent appreciation. If you’re on a fixed income and looking at potential retirement areas, or you’re a first-time buyer and affordability is key, tax rates may be an essential consideration.