A couple of months ago, I posted a review of SearchChicago.com, the Sun-Times online classifieds page. I concocted a scoring method to rate rental websites on a 40 point scale based on diversity of listings, listing freshness, listing legitimacy, and ease of use. SearchChicago scored 14 out of 40 – 35% of the maximum, a dismal failure. Today we’re going to use the same criteria to rate another, more well-known site: Zillow.
Zillow is best known as way to search for homes for sale. Their claim to fame since the beginning has been the “Zestimate,” or their estimated value of a home based on sale data from the area. For conventional homes, it can be reasonably accurate. For homes that deviate even slightly from your standard cookie-cutter architecture it is frequently wildly out of whack. Zillow recently expanded into listing apartments and homes for rent, and they brought the Zestimate along with them. It’s just as unreliable for rentals as it is for homes, but what about the rest of the site? Is it something your average Chicago apartment hunter should be using to find their next place?
Zillow scored 24 out of 40 possible points. Here’s why.
On the surface, it looks like Zillow has a ton of rentals in Chicago. And they do, but it isn’t as diverse as you’d think. In the 60640 zip code (Uptown), they list 910 rentals. The MLS has 79. In the 60625 zip code (Lincoln Square/Albany Park), they list 388 rentals while the MLS has 38. However, once you start picking apart the listings you realize that the surface data is misleading. Looking closely, over half of the listings are either duplicates or similar apartments in the same large buildings.
Even so, if you cut the total listings on Zillow in half, they still handily trounce the MLS. There’s all sizes and styles, from studios to five bedrooms and from houses to high rises. Rents range from $500 to five-figures and all different types of landlords are represented.
In terms of listing diversity, Zillow gets an 8 out of 10.
Zillow does not charge landlords or agents to post rental listings. This means that everyone and their brother can post an ad, regardless of whether or not they have the right to do so. Sites that do not charge advertisers are generally rife with questionable postings, and Zillow is no different on that front. A quick search this evening uncovered a fake copy of one of my own listings, which I reported using their handy “report” button. After reporting it, the listing disappeared from my search results, but I could still bring it up by typing in its direct address in my browser. I’m pursuing other routes to have the listing taken down.
In my search through the 60640 and 60625 zip codes, at least half to 3/4 of the listings used the ominous “undisclosed address.” Many used photos with watermarks from the apartment locator services, which are known for posting bait listings to free marketing sites. Others had no photos at all.
The apartments with actual addresses are more likely to be legit, but Zillow’s checking for unique addresses needs a little work. In the case of the scammer who copied my listing, he simply left off one digit from the apartment number to fool the system into thinking he was posting a different apartment.
Zillow gets 5 out of 10 possible points for listing legitimacy.
SearchChicago got a measly 2 out of 10 when it came to ease of use. Their slow, clunky site made for a totally dismal experience. By contrast Zillow comes out smelling like a rose. The site loads quickly, the back button works properly, and the mobile version takes me from a Google search result to an actual listing with only one annoying nag window about downloading their app.
Their mapping feature is decent, with nice neighborhood sectoring and the ability to draw your own boundaries. I’d have liked to see the ability to do a radius search in a circle around a specific point as well. Unfortunately, the map cannot be turned off unless you click through to a listing, and once you zoom in beyond a certain point you cannot switch from satellite to street view. On the map view, search results are displayed to the right in a list with basic data. However, the “basic” data on many of the listings is overly simplified, which leads to a lot of excessive clicking. Of course, Zillow being advertising-driven they want to be able to demonstrate that they’re generating lots and lots of clicks. Their approach seems to be to provide as little information as possible as a reward for each click.
A listing detail page dedicates about the top 1/4 of the page to the information obtained from the landlord or agent. The next 1/2 of the page is spent on Zillow’s useless “Zestimate” and price history tracking. Finally, the last 1/3 of the page is spent on school scores inlined from Greatschools, which is of marginal use to apartment hunters in Chicago who tend to be just barely out of school themselves.
The search feature is quick and dirty, but asks some strange questions. It’s obviously copied over from the home-for-sale search feature with little regard for the specific needs of renters. It allows the user to specify date of construction, lot size and square footage – most of which are omitted from rental listings altogether – but doesn’t allow the user to narrow their search by more important criteria like minimum lease length, security deposit, non-smoking buildings, or number of units in the building.
Overall in terms of ease of use, I’d give Zillow a 7 out of 10.
Finally, we’re down to the criterion that pretty much killed SearchChicago – listing freshness. If you recall, 72% of their listings had been off the market already for at least 3 months. Now, I’d like to say that Zillow did better. The MLS average market time for an active rental listing in 60625 and 60640 is between 40 and 56 days, so if Zillow comes in anywhere near that or better they’d be doing fine on the freshness factor.
Unfortunately, I just can’t tell how fresh the listings are.
See, if you look at the map page you can sort by “days on Zillow.” If you do so, you’ll see that the oldest listings are 34 days old. This makes Zillow look really good on the surface, until you start clicking through to the listing details. That’s where it all falls apart.
This means that short of clicking the detail pages for over 1000 listings, there’s no way for me to tell the actual age of the listings on Zillow. The oldest I found in a cursory search was 92 days – that’s a two month difference between the index page and the detail page!
Speaking as an agent who syndicates listings to Zillow, I can vouch that my listings take about 3 days to get picked up from the MLS. This is a very bad delay in a fast-paced market. I had a 3 day listing a few weeks back that didn’t even appear. However, they do tend to be very good about removing inactive listings promptly once they’re notified.
In terms of listing freshness, Zillow gets a 4 out of 10.
So, Zillow just barely passes with 60% of the maximum achievable score. If you’re comfortable with using maps, you can use it to search for Chicago apartments, but proceed with caution. Make sure to background check any landlord you find on Zillow. Also bear in mind that as the new kid on the block, most agents will post to multiple other sites before they think to post to Zillow, too.