What's Your Data Source?

Your business demands that you know what information resources are available—and how to assess their reliability.

March 15, 2013

You hear a lot of talk in the industry about “empowered consumers”—those who enter into a contract with you armed with a boatload of information about homes for sale and local market conditions.

Consumers can access a host of real estate resources anytime, anywhere, from their desktops or their smartphones, whether it’s information about a specific house or inventory level in their community.

But more—and more varied—sources of information can cause confusion as consumers come across data that’s incomplete, contradictory, outdated, or flat-out wrong. That may lead buyers and sellers to erroneous conclusions about a home’s value, the prevalence of distressed sales, or the costs involved in a transaction, to name a few things.

That’s where you, the knowledgeable real estate practitioner, can show your value. When it comes to information, you can help sort fact from myth or provide context to the random data points consumers regularly come across. That was the overarching message at DATAsfaction, a gathering of major data providers in real estate, held in Nashville, Tenn., in January.

“We are stewards of data,” said Brian Copeland, broker of the Nashville-based Village Real Estate Services and organizer of the conference. “Everything we do is for the consumer.”

Fueling the problem of “bad data” is the rise of “scraping,” in which unscrupulous computer programmers write code that extracts information from Web sites. How significant is the problem? At the DATAsfaction conference, Curt Beardsley, vice president of product marketing for REALTOR.com, said his company blocks 1.5 million information “scraping” Web sites per day. And that’s just for a single real estate site, albeit a big one.

There’s a veritable online marketplace of code scrapers today, with some programmers in South Asia and Eastern Europe offering via Web forums to write real estate data-scraping code for as little as a few hundred dollars. About 900,000 new scraping IP addresses and codes debuted in December 2012, Beardsley said.

The problem with scraping goes beyond the unsanctioned taking of content. It creates mountains of online real estate info that’s obsolete and inaccurate. Even legitimate sites can end up with imprecise information.

So how can you work with overconfident consumers?  Here are a few tips from the -DATAsfaction presenters.

Paint a True Picture

Jay Thompson, director of industry outreach and social media at Zillow, acknowledged the issues caused by the site’s “Zestimates,” which may give consumers unrealistic ideas of property values. As he pointed out, a piece of software cannot consistently determine the exact worth of properties in all situations and settings. But rather than complaining about the accuracy of such sites, use them to demonstrate your own industry knowledge, Thompson said. Show prospects relevant, up-to-date comps and other research  and data that will both make your point convincingly and position you as an expert.

Be Consistent in Your Data Input

Large real estate listing sites rely on data that ultimately comes from real estate agents (though sometimes by way of an MLS or syndicator). “Listing accuracy is a community effort,” said Todd Carpenter, who until recently was senior manager of industry engagement for Trulia. “We want to figure out how to improve data quality for the benefit of everyone.”

One way to increase accuracy is to make sure the information you put online is consistent. For example, Thompson said if you’re uploading listing information into your MLS and a syndicator, don’t put “123 Main Street” into one and “123 Main St.” into the other. And when you make updates, do them everywhere at the same time so you don’t risk 
having consumers come across varying prices and property information on a single listing online.

Use Objective Facts to Answer Questions

When consumers come to you with a question about a listing or the local market, if you don’t have the answer at hand, tell them you’ll get it—and follow up in a timely manner. You don’t want them to look elsewhere and potentially obtain the wrong information. If people are looking for an assurance of value in the future, take caution. No one can predict the future. But you can round out your knowledge about an area by using resources such as the Realtors Property Resource® to look at home values by ZIP code over the past few years. And there’s no shortage of industry news online to access third-party research and forecasts on housing values, interest rates, and consumer confidence.

Brian Summerfield is the former manager of business development and outreach for NAR Commercial and Global Services.