When Marilyn Wilson’s mother moved to California not too long ago, Wilson was tasked with selling her mom’s house in Buffalo, New York. She dutifully listed the house and waited for buyers to come calling.
A few days later, Wilson, a real estate consultant and managing partner of the WAV Group, went to Zillow.com to check on her listing. What she found was disconcerting.
She saw four agents mentioned as the listing agent, with her name at the bottom of the list. She called the other three, but none knew anything about the house. “All of them were from the other side of town,” she recalls. “One was 45 miles away.”
Welcome to what some call the “pay-to-play” world of Zillow, which charges agents a premium to be named on listings that are not their own. Zillow calls it the “premier broker” program, by which agents pay a fee to secure leads from people inquiring about houses in certain ZIP codes.
According to the company website, when a shopper makes an inquiry through Zillow (or the Zillow-owned site Trulia), the company confirms that the prospect is ready to speak with an agent. If so, it hands the would-be client off to the “premier” agent -- as opposed to the listing agent, who, ostensibly, anyway, knows more about the property than anyone else, save for its owner.
If the premier agent can’t arrange a showing for the home, or if the buyer doesn’t like it, the agent can take them to other houses on the market -- probably his or her own listings first. Now, the listing agent has lost a potential sale, as well as a potential new client.
On its site, Zillow claims premier agents close twice as many sales. And Matt Hendricks, director of broker relations, says it has been not only “an incredible lead generator” for the “tens of thousands” of agents who participate, but also a top revenue producer for the company.
Hendricks maintains that listing agents always pop up in the top spot, no matter how many premier agents are also listed. But the premier agents tend to have a more robust online resume than listing agents, he admits, which is likely to make them more attractive.
House shoppers are free to contact any agents associated with the listing, but consultant Wilson doesn’t like the concept. And neither do most agents who work hard to secure listings and jealously guard them.
“It can be a crapshoot,” said agent Myrl Jeffcoat of GreatWest Realty in Sacramento, California. “More than once, I have heard from buyers who thought they were contacting the listing agent ... but (actually) called someone else.”
“When buyers click on a listing, they have no idea they are not going to get the listing agent,” agreed Kat Palmiotti of Grand Lux Realty in Monroe, New York. “Sometimes they get contacted by 10 different agents. It can be frustrating to a buyer.”
Wilson called Zillow’s program “very annoying.”
Premier agents are “fishing for new clients,” she said. “They’re trying to buy leads, and they’re using someone else’s listings as bait. There’s no way they can represent the best interests of the seller, or the buyer, for that matter.
“They call back quickly, I’ll give them that. But they do not represent the house. Some have never been inside. Some are not even in that market.”
Wilson and some other angry agents have implored Zillow to remove non-listing agents’ names from listings, but she says the Seattle-based company refused. Zillow’s Hendricks says listing agents used to be able to pay to be the only agent whose name is on the “home details” page, but that feature was dropped a few years ago.
Even sellers have been unable to stop the practice. Hendricks says that since sellers want the most exposure possible, most don’t want their agents to be the only ones listed.
So three years ago, a coalition of 65 of the largest full-service realty firms and multiple listing services in the country came together to wrest control of their bread-and-butter listings from Zillow and other third-party business disruptors -- sometimes known as aggregators -- by creating a public portal as an alternative.
You may never have heard of Homesnap, but it is now the No. 1-rated agent mobile app and desktop site, with traffic up 40 percent in the last year. “The industry-controlled portal has become our industry’s greatest ‘overnight’ success story,” says Wilson, who now advises the portal, but whose experience in Buffalo occurred long before she signed on.
Among other things, Homesnap’s technology allows you to take a photo with your mobile device of any house and instantly be shown all its pertinent details: size, number of bedrooms and baths, property taxes, school district, asking price (if it’s for sale) and even its estimated value (if it’s not).
The idea is to give buyers and sellers a better online search experience than the one provided by companies such as Zillow, where agents spend beaucoup bucks promoting their listings.
Better yet, participants adhere to a set of Fair Display Guidelines, which call for search results to be sorted and ranked by the consumer’s search parameters, as opposed to any type of “featured” listing or paid placement. Only the names and contact information of the actual listing broker and agent can be displayed on the “property details” page. No inquiries by potential buyers will be diverted elsewhere.