Zillow Search Setup
Updated: 3 days ago
In this article I wanted to dive into the question of whether or not you should use Zillow (or other public websites) instead of a Multiple Listing Service (MLS) search with an agent & how to go about that with Zillow if you wanted to start there. Getting a targeted search is important to saving you time in searching, and time saved is critical since it's much easier to be burned out in a search that's not expertly put together. Burn out can lead to not being on top of things when the right property becomes available, which can mean another person seeing it, making an offer, and getting under contract before you (sometimes <12 hrs after it hits the market).
Image here & many others courtesy Zillow
Where Public Websites Fall Short:
Keep in mind that Zillow, like Realtor.com, Trulia, & other public websites, are more likely to have inaccurate information than MLS. Be sure to not take everything at face value.
In Zillow a property can be listed as active, but not actually active (for sale and available) as I show in my article on the subject & my video on the subject. That's a major problem for buyers searching in Hampton Roads, but not a big issue in places like Richmond and the Northern Neck due to differences in MLS policies where properties tend to go from active to pending once under contract even if there are contingencies in the latter 2 locations.
Acreage can be off, so be sure to look at the surrounding area to see if it truly looks like a high acreage property rather than taking the property listing’s word for it. You can also check the tax records for the property to be sure.
Anything that is for sale by owner has a higher likelihood of being off than a property listed by an agent.
Reduced Options for Searching
Keep in mind that not only is Zillow and other public websites less accurate than MLS, but they have less searching options. Common elements of searches I do on MLS are not possible on public websites like Zillow. There are likely more than triple the options on MLS than there are on any public website. For instance:
1. There's not a user friendly way for me to rule out fixer uppers or homes in need of a renovation loan or cash on Zillow or other public websites, but I can do some of both on REIN MLS, the primary MLS of Hampton Roads. Likewise if you're an investor and want to target those properties exclusively, I can do that on REIN MLS. Most agents with access to REIN MLS won't know about the 5 different search options I can use to help me accomplish that 1 task, while with me, it's part of my standard template for searches.
2. On MLS, I have created search templates, some of which have taken hours to create. Those templates help significantly when it comes time for a buyer to use one. Here are some examples. Most agents are unwilling to do that.
3. On MLS, there are ways to eliminate certain hazardous or problematic substances from siding options, such as EIFS & asbestos.
4. On MLS, there are easy options to narrow by stories (i.e. no 3 story homes), while with Zillow, the only option for narrowing by stories is single story only.
Reduced Details/Features on Property
With an MLS feed, you'll be getting directly what's from the listing, while on Zillow and other websites, there are pieces of information that won't populate anywhere, where you would need to go to the MLS to get that information. While it is not a typical problem, I have seen where something as important as a virtual tour wasn't populating on Zillow that was present on MLS. Seeing a virtual tour can rule out a property that you might drive a long distance to see otherwise for nothing.
A major problem in SE VA is flooding, to such a degree that I recommend that buyers click on a propertie's flood zone before scrolling through any pictures of the property. Some cities/counties have over half of the properties in areas that would require flood insurance. Flood insurance can be anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars on an annual basis. In some cases, homes that have previously flooded within the home are still sold with no disclosure of previous flooding. There is supposed to be disclosure under some circumstances of flood history, but there often isn't.
While some public websites for homes have integrated flooding features, typically they won't include a map, and seeing a map is critical to know whether or not a property is in a flood zone. Sometimes the listing agent and sellers themselves will provide inaccurate information, and sometimes when they know a property is in a flood zone, they'll say nothing. When they say something, sometimes it won't be public, but only found in agent remarks along with information like lockbox codes.
With MLS, often there will be a flood zone feature, such as in the Matrix portal that can be used with CVR MLS, WBG MLS, REIN MLS, and CBRAR MLS. Some MLS are behind the curve, like Navica in Northern Neck. For places like Northern Neck MLS, & for most public websites (even if it has a built in flood zone feature that fails to include a flood map) you'll need to go to a 3rd party website to locate flood zones.
To look at a flood zone within the portal, you just click the map section
Image courtesy https://cvrmls.mlsmatrix.com/
Then you click "Layers" or "Boundaries", select the flood zone option, & click "apply":
Here's how that looks in the satellite view:
Image courtesy https://cvrmls.mlsmatrix.com/
For more details on navigating flood zones in Matrix from an MLS search from WBG MLS, CVR MLS, CBRAR MLS, or REIN MLS, go here:
Realtor.com has a flood map, but its accuracy is problematic. For instance, you would think by looking at this map that this property is not a flood zone with no flood insurance required:
Image courtesy Realtor.com
You'd be wrong, as you can see on MLS with the whole row of homes in AE flood zones with required flood insurance:
Image courtesy Reinmls.mlsmatrix.com
While it doesn't appear to be as much of a problem now as it used to be, I've seen where it took Zillow days after a property hit the market before it appeared on Zillow. If you wait that long, the property could be already under contract.
Where Public Websites are Helpful:
For Sale by Owner Properties - #1 Reason to Have 1 or More Separate Searches from Public Websites Going to Supplement MLS Search
While many agents will tell you that with an MLS search you won't need anything else. I disagree. You can get at least 5% more properties in at least some cities if you do exhaustive searches for "For Sale by Owner" FSBO properties. If nothing else, just have a separate For Sale by Owner Zillow search going, where I found the most unique properties the easiest in my research.
Most for sale by owner properties won't be on MLS, so if MLS is the only place you look, there will be a small percentage of properties that you won't see. In a sample I did in Newport News, I was able to see 5% of the total unique listings between MLS (95%) & exhaustive searches across 6 other websites (the remaining 5% unique listings, though many duplicates in certain locations like Craigslist to weed through).
FSBO properties provide a unique set of challenges not found with typical listings, & some buyers may want to rule them out entirely. While not always the case, be prepared to have some situations where the seller will be unwilling to pay your buyer's agent's commission. Your buyer's agents should ask the commission question before you ever see the property so that you can know in advance about if you would need to pay your agent if you were to get under contract with the seller. In addition, keep in mind that the seller likely won't respond as reasonably in negotiations before you get under contract or after as those represented by a listing agent. Lawsuits are more commonly needed in FSBO situations because the seller typically doesn't have the training of a licensed agent such as on disclosure requirements or other legal requirements. Out of the FSBO dealings I have had, which are few, the one that closed ended up with the buyer discovering something covered up that was discovered long after the purchase where I advised them to speak to an attorney as the seller could have easily known about it and likely knew about it (mold). A mold inspection was performed at the property, which cost the buyer a few hundred extra, but that didn't reveal the mold that was being covered up by new flooring. On another occasion with a FSBO seller, the FSBO seller called me after the fact, upset about something which isn't unusual among agents and where if he had a listing agent, the listing agent could have told him so & calmed him down. The fact that he called & the manner of which he spoke was informed to my buyer, who naturally didn't feel at ease with an offer afterwards.
MLS Search Issues: Acreage
Most buyers looking for homes aren't looking for something by acres in urban and suburban areas of SE VA (maximum or minimum), but for buyers where that's important, REIN MLS, the main MLS of Hampton Roads, has a big problem with that, & it's not the only MLS with that problem.
Some MLS searches are better than others. In REIN MLS, which is the worst of 5 MLS I have access to in SE VA regarding acreage accuracy, if you try to do a search based on acreage, you'll find it pretty ineffective. That's because acreage isn't a required field in data input sheets that agents/assistants fill out. Because so many agents don't really care that much about how important little details like that can be, you'll find that a high percentage of properties will get ruled out of your search automatically because at the moment, REIN's search doesn't default to the tax records if the agent was too lazy to input acreage.
At the moment, if I do an acreage smaller than any home will actually be on, I get less than half of the available homes for sale!
Here's an active search with no acreage requirement:
And here it is once I've added that requirement:
If looking for property exactly 0 acres, only 1 is listed:
Images courtesy Reinmls.mlsmatrix.com