Not that long ago, buying a home meant you scoured print advertisements and called up a realtor with access to Multiple Listing Service (MLS(Opens in a new window)) networks—there are 900+ of them in the US, only for agents and brokers. In the last 20 years, thanks of course to the mainstream internet, there's no lack of websites with house listings galore to whet your appetite for "real estate porn."
Chances are the first one you'll hit is Zillow. Founded in 2004 by former execs from the travel sites Hotwire.com and Microsoft's spin-off Expedia, Zillow calls itself a media company first and foremost—it simply happens to traffic in media (ads) about places to live. These days if you see an ad for a house or apartment in a print publication, it likely came from Zillow.
The company tried its hand at becoming an "instant buyer(Opens in a new window)" (aka iBuyer)—that is, it became a full-on house-flipping operation (buy cheap, fix up, sell high). That ended disastrously. The company's Zillow Offers group is actively unloading 7,000 houses and laid off a quarter of its workforce in late 2021, all after losing billions of dollars. Obviously, real estate isn't always a bulletproof market.
But the above snafu didn't have much impact on Zillow's standing among real estate listing sites. As of October 2021, Zillow was seeing 36 million monthly visits according to Statista(Opens in a new window), well ahead of Trulia (23 million) and Yahoo Homes (20 million). Probably because the number of US homes changing hands is crazy high: 6.1 million in 2021 alone, according to stats from Zillow itself. Zillow's other favorite stat: 67% of homebuyers use Zillow at some point.
Now we're in 2022. The Great Resignation(Opens in a new window) has more people quitting jobs/retiring early and moving than could have been predicted pre-COVID-19. That means there's a low supply of available houses(Opens in a new window), so prices continue to rise(Opens in a new window) (and it's why we just launched our second annual Best Work-From-Home Cities guide). You're more likely than ever to turn to Zillow and check out some Zestimates. Here's what you need to know, whether you're a buyer, a seller, or even a flipper.
Think Hard About FSBO
FSBO stands for "for sale by owner," which translates to "I'm not using a real estate agent." That can save money—the average a seller gives up is about 6% of the sale price. That means if you sell a house for $100,000, you only get $94,000; the other $6,000 goes to the realtor or their office at closing and is typically split with the buyer's broker. That math is simplistic to the extreme; no closing is that clear-cut. Having sold many houses, I can tell you having an agent or broker is worth it, but Zillow makes the FSBO option to save money look tempting. After all, the listing is free.
Look for the "Other Listings"
However, you're at a disadvantage from the get-go against all the other houses for sale, which are pulled from the MLS. For example, FSBOs may not get listed in the default view map on Zillow of nearby properties until the searcher clicks the "Other listings" link on the page. Also, most people who want to see your house for sale still have an agent or broker that wants to get paid their half of the typical commission. If you don't offer that, they have zero incentive to show your home to their client.
Zillow prefers to send people to agent-represented homes, not FSBO sellers—because the agents pay for those leads. Plus, only 30% of FSBOs ever work out. 70% eventually get an agent, and realtors know this. So expect to still pay 6% even if you do gamble on a FSBO.
A good real estate agent on your side is well worth the money. Especially if you're full of house-sale anxiety. If you don't get nervous, consider a discount real estate agent(Opens in a new window) that will do less handholding.
Get a Pro Photographer
Realtors are great, but like most of us, they're not necessarily skilled photographers. It may feel like a needless expense, but great photos of your home taken by a pro can make a huge difference in a sale. No home wants to end up featured on Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos(Opens in a new window).
You need quality shots with proper staging of a cleaned-up home. You also need quantity. The ideal range of photos in a listing, according to Zillow, is 22 to 27 images. More is better, so you may want to choose from 100s of shots to get the perfect mix. Images should be 2,048 by 1,536 pixels max—that's a 4:3 ratio.
Drone shots of the whole property from above are very popular now, to go along with the obligatory satellite shot taken from a site like Google Maps. A short drone video would be a nice option, too.
Shooting at dusk on a sunny day is the "magic hour" for interior pics. Remember, when you're staging, take out the screens in the windows to brighten things up, take down most of your artwork to declutter and depersonalize the walls so people can imagine their own things, and don't leave up any seasonal decorations. That Christmas tree won't help if your house is still listed in March.
If your house is historic, get closeups of the pieces that stand out, from door knockers to gargoyles. Don't skimp on showing things you think aren't always photogenic, either. My pet peeve: not seeing the interior of the garage or the outbuildings like sheds. They are just as important as any fancy upstairs bathroom, maybe more!
There are plenty more tips on house photography(Opens in a new window) to be had from the pros.
Walkthrough in Video
Give people who can't visit the house or condo in person a real feel for it with a walkthrough. Video tours are of course an option—you or your agent can upload a video or videos(Opens in a new window) of the home, from a PC or even a smartphone or tablet using the Zillow app. As can a Zillow Certified Photographer(Opens in a new window).
Video files have to be in MP4 or MOV format and less than 500MB in size. Zillow says the best practice is to make it about 2 minutes long. Definitely not more than 10 minutes. (Agents, you can put branding on the first and/or last 15 seconds of a video.)
It may not be a Zuckerberg level of meta, but you can indeed put a three-dimensional tour up in the listing. It requires you or your realtor to use the free app called Zillow 3D Home(Opens in a new window), available for iOS or Android. It's like taking a panorama shot of every room and hallway while you stand in the middle—you can even use it for exteriors. Or use a tripod-supported 360-degree camera—Zillow pushes people to the latest Ricoh Theta camera—that can send images to the app. Visitors can navigate around inside the 3D modeled interior with clicks, much like they would on Google Street View.
A key reason Zillow recommends going 3D is, there are 45% more views on listings with a 3D walkthrough.
Eventually, maybe you can do a 3D Home tour that also has an interactive floor plan(Opens in a new window). (Every listing really should have a floor plan, essentially a blueprint of the layout of the house.) This option lets people can see the house layout and where they'd be standing when looking at a 3D panorama of each spot. Sadly, the ability is limited to agents and pro photographers right now, in only 25 markets. Instead, snag a realtor or photog who uses a third-party 3D capture system, like Matterport(Opens in a new window) or iGuide(Opens in a new window). Both can be used in, or at least linked to via, Zillow listings.
Reset Your Days on Market
Twelve years ago, the average number of days on the market for a home was 140; in 2020 it dropped to 25 days(Opens in a new window). It's become one of those weird things about home sales: The longer a house stays on the market, even with (or maybe because of) price drops, a house gets a taint of...undesirable.
Zillow prominently displays how long a house has been on the market under the Overview section, as "Time on Zillow." There are ways to reset this back to zero. One is to go from being an FSBO to getting an agent, or vice versa. Another is to take the house off the market for 31+ days then put it back on. But you can't do anything on Zillow itself to reset the number.
Recommended by Our Editors
Real Estate Porn Is Real: Most Zillow Visitors Are Fantasizing or Snooping
How to Beat the Holiday Shopping Supply-Chain Blues
Pinterest Can Now Place Virtual Furniture in Your Home
The "views" and "saves" (seen next to Time on Zillow) are numbers you want to be high—but they are not cumulative for the time the house is on the market. They only show views and saves made over the previous 30 days. So don't be shocked if those numbers actually go down over time. Saves also do down if someone actively "unsaves" the listing.
Customize Your Search Area/Features
Make any shape search area you want
You may want to buy in a specific town or zip code, but that means getting listings even for areas/neighborhoods/sections you don't want. Go into the Zillow apps, or on the website, and use your finger or the mouse to draw your desired area on the map. It doesn't have to be one contiguous area. Make a blob to cover the east, and a square down to the southwest, whatever best covers your preferred future-home territory.
Couple this with narrowing your search for specifics like the number of bathrooms or bedrooms and you'll only see the listings that really fit for you. Create a personalized search by typing in a location at the top of www.zillow.com/homes/(Opens in a new window) and taping the buttons for Price, Beds & Baths, Home Type, and More to set your parameters (including keywords like "mother-in-law-suite"), then click Save Search. You can edit or delete them later at www.zillow.com/myzillow/SavedSearches(Opens in a new window).
Create Some Comps
"Comps" is real estate lingo for the most recently sold houses in the immediate area that closely match the one you're buying or selling. They give you a good idea of how to price a house (or whether an asking price is reasonable), which is a better gauge than a Zestimate (see below). Your realtor will do this for you, but you can create a quick comp list via a new search on Zillow, by only searching on Sold properties. List all the same stats you have on your house but leave the price open. Under the More menu, be sure to set "Sold in Last" to 6 months. The results should be comparable to your home. If you don't get any matching results, reset some of the parameters, such as expanding the range of years around when your house was built.
Compare House Stats Side-by-Side
Stop making spreadsheets to compare the houses you're interested in (or the comps you've created). Compare homes stat-for-stat on screen. Save the homes you like, click into your Saved Homes(Opens in a new window) listing, check off the Compare checkbox on up to five of them, and then tap the Compare button. You'll get a nice grid showing the status, price, Zestimates, number of rooms, and so on. It's all the data you'd get in a single listing but compared across multiple properties.
Zillow now has a feature (limited only to its iOS and iPadOS apps, versions 15.1 on up) to do collaborative shopping called SharePlay. Activate it during a FaceTime call on the iPhone or iPad, and you can share a whole listing with a partner (Zillow says 86% of their users are shopping for a house with someone else) or other interested family and friends. You can even share virtual walkthroughs and interactive floor plans, so it's almost like being there together.
Don't Trust the Zestimate
Zestimates rarely match reality
The Zestimate is arguably Zillow's biggest contribution to the home search world besides having listings—it's a home valuation model that tries to give buyers and sellers a real-world valuation of a home, using an algorithm based on previous sales, comparative sales, and locally assessed taxes and bank appraisals. In late 2021, Zillow upgraded the algorithm with a neural network, whatever that really means, to improve on its error rate.
But any agent or bank will tell you not to put faith in that number. The Zestimate has anywhere from a 4.5%(Opens in a new window) to a 6.9%(Opens in a new window) margin of error depending on what you read, which is a pretty big swing if you're in an area with expensive homes (481 US cities(Opens in a new window) now have homes with a median price of $1 million, though most are adjacent to major metro areas). Worse, unshakeable faith in the Zestimate can lead to sellers and buyers who won't negotiate because they won't go lower or higher, respectively, than what that magical number says.
Another reason to only take the Zestimate with a grain of salt: Zillow itself used the Zestimates as the guide to buying up homes to flip as an iBuyer. And that didn't end well. Be flexible and realize that the Zestimate is, as one analyst called it, "a toy."(Opens in a new window)
Tips for Renters
Zillow is no apartments.com(Opens in a new window), but it competes via listings for rentals(Opens in a new window). You can set a search for rental properties and set the parameters to get specifics, like laundry services, included parking, or allowing for pets. Narrow the search under the More button to include "Accepts Zillow Applications" (it's under "other amenities")—this allows you to apply to a landlord directly via Zillow without even visiting first. (Landlords can set this up in their listings using the Zillow Rental Manager(Opens in a new window).)
Don't forget, there are plenty of other real estate sites out there to try like Trulia (which is actually also owned by Zillow Group), Redfin, Realtor.com, Homesnap, and of course the sites for regional realtors. Some are far more limited than others geographically. But when you're searching for a new home, it can't hurt to try them all.
Top Zillow Tips for Buying and Selling a House
Like What You're Reading?
Sign up for Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.
Thanks for signing up!
Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!
Sign up for other newsletters