What is your Beacon Hill condo for sale worth, right now? When considering a sale, it’s generally worth “market value”, defined loosely as the highest price a buyer would pay, and that a seller will accept in an open, competitive market. This assumes neither buyer nor seller are under any undue stress or duress external to the transaction itself.

Many downtown Boston condo owners want to know their home value even when not considering a sale. Such as when protesting assessed property value at Suffolk County. Or maybe you are just curious, or you want to update your Net Worth spreadsheet with a current value.

If you don’t want the “market” to determine your Beacon Hill condo value, because you don’t want to sell, there now exists a plethora of “Automated Valuation Model” (AVM) tools that will tell you the supposed value of your home online based on mathematical algorithms and data. The most well know is perhaps the Zestimate on Zillow.

Let’s take a look at these AVM tools and see how accurate they are. if you own a Boston Seaport condo or about to sell one and in the process of determining the best list price see how it compares to your listing brokers valuation.

My top favorites are:

The AVM Winner Is … USAA and CoreLogic
It’s interesting that the two “winners” in this small unscientific test are not consumer facing “portals”. Both are analytical data giants largely unknown to the real estate browsing public, and neither USAA nor Corelogic would land “top of mind” if typical consumers were polled on “a good place to get an automatic value estimate for your home”. Would you have thought of either?

CoreLogic’s ePropertyWatch, which I doubt anyone has ever even heard of. It gathers data from insurance companies, banks, as well as public records and MLS systems and many other sources (CoreLogic, which you’ve also probably never heard of, is the provider of Matrix, the most widely use MLS System by Realtor associations across the country).

The loser

The Zestimate, by Zillow, widely derided and deservingly so, is completely wrong most of the time. Yet Zillow tells us that consumers tell it that the Zestimate is, by far, the “favorite” and most loved feature of Zillow. I find that interesting. People “like” the Zestimate knowing full well it is probably lying to them.

People don’t care that the Zestimate is wrong. They know it is wrong, but remain interested in knowing what the “wrong” number is. Why is that?

Has there been a shift away from expecting accuracy of information and precision in our social mindset and movement toward acceptance of that which is known to be inaccurate?

I think so. Not just in real estate valuations, but in many areas of life, including news and entertainment, which have blurred. And real estate has blurred as well, with public portals such as Zillow and Trulia offering what I call “real estate entertainment”.

These consumer real estate portals exist to sell ads to agents, not to sell homes. You, as a consumer of its content, are tracked and manipulated, your browsing behavior closely studied to keep you engaged as long as possible and, ultimately, to get you to “click”, so you can turn into a “Lead” to be sold to an “Advertiser” (Realtor who pays to receive your lead). In fact, a Sales “Listing” is internally referred to at Zillow as an “Ad Unit”.

So a seller who says “I want my home on Zillow is unknowingly saying “I want my ‘ad unit’ on Zillow”. Zillow doesn’t cause a home to sell a dat faster or for a dollar more. Period. That’s not why it exists. But the Zestimate does serve to bring in a lot of traffic.

Consumer real estate search sites are certainly not places to go to find true, correct and accurate information about housing values, yet they dominate search traffic and site visits in the real estate space because people “like” the websites and apps and the way information is presented.

This acceptance of manipulation and untruth has bothered me for a number of years. Realtors must abide by a Code of Ethics, consumer real estate portals do not. There are no rules for consumer facing public real estate portals such as Zillow and Trulia. They can do with you as they please, manipulate the data however they want, and there is no accountability structure in place at all.

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