Zillow Sued By Homeowner Because Its Estimate Is Lower Than The Seller Wants To Sell The House For

from the sellersmarket.com dept

Real estate site Zillow is getting sued. Again. The company has already been sued for trade secret theft, copyright infringement, and settled multiple lawsuits related to harassment and other workplace violations. This time it’s getting sued for handing out a “Zestimate” the plaintiff feels is too low.

Barbara Andersen, an Illinois resident and real estate litigation attorney, is asking the court to force Zillow to take down its estimate of her home’s value, which she believes is incorrect.

According to Andersen, Zillow falsely stated her home sold for $685,000 last fall. Most recently, it appraised the home at $562,000, a $90,000 drop in just six months, the lawsuit states.

She says she has repeatedly reached out to Zillow, and written to its legal department seeking removal or amendment of the Zestimate, but her communications were ignored.

Andersen is attempting to make Zillow subject to Illinois real estate law, even though, as she notes in her lawsuit, Zillow doesn’t actually perform appraisals. Appraising without a license is illegal in Illinois, but this assertion seems to be undercut by Andersen’s quoting of Zillow’s extensive disclaimer. From the filing [PDF]:

In describing its “zestimate”, Zillow denies that it is an “appraisal”. A copy of their webpage description is attached hereto as Exhibit A. However, Zillow concedes that it is an estimate as to market value and is promoted as a tool for potential buyers to use in assessing market value of a given property. As such, despite their disclaimer, Zillow’s zestimate meets the definition of an appraisal under Illinois law. As such, Zillow should not be engaging in this business practice without a valid appraisal license and, further, the consent of the homeowner.

But according to the law she cites, Zillow would have to refer to its “zestimates” as appraisals and/or infer that it’s licensed in the state to perform appraisals. It doesn’t do either of those things. Buyers browsing the site may believe the estimates are actually appraisals, but Zillow doesn’t present these as anything other than estimates.

This is a somewhat novel use of state licensing laws against Zillow. Normally, it’s been real estate brokers threatening lawsuits or legal action, hoping to lock Zillow out of the local housing market. In this case, though, it’s a homeowner who can’t sell her house and is hoping to hold Zillow responsible for the lack of interested buyers. Since it’s unlikely Zillow is solely to blame for Andersen being unable to make back what she paid for the home, there are more than a few questionable assertions in her complaint.

Since the recession, Andersen has been attempting to sell her home on different occasions. However, a tremendous roadblock to same has been the fact that Zillow posts a “zestimate” of person’s homes without their permission, consent and/or any license to do so…

Andersen doesn’t explain why she feels Zillow should legally be obligated to obtain permission from homeowners before posting its estimates. Nor does she attempt to link the multiple failed sales attempts with Zillow’s zestimates, other than implying (in a very conclusory manner) that price fluctuations in Zillow’s listing are keeping buyers away — even when the “zestimate” was higher than her asking price. She also states she’s been doing this “since the recession,” which suggests she’s been in the process of selling the house for a very long time — a time where apparently Zillow’s estimates were having zero negative effect at all on potential buyers (i.e., when Zillow’s estimates aligned better with Andersen’s view of the house’s value).

Then there’s this part, which suggests her inability to sell might be completely unrelated to Zillow’s estimate.

[I]n the last months, Andersen decided to lower her asking price and terminate her broker (in order to reduce closing expenses). At approximately that point in time, the zestimate suddenly started to plummet. Now the zestimate is effectively that of the new construction homes described i.e. with no reflection of the superior locale, etc. as noted above.

Correlation isn’t causation, but the complaint asks the judge to believe that it is. Andersen’s arguments are further undermined by similarly threadbare assertions. For example, this paragraph of the suit suggests Andersen’s view of her house’s value is perhaps TOO subjective:

After the recession concluded, Glenview allowed new construction. Those homes have approximately the same square footage as Andersen. However, they are located in a less desirable (more condensed homes, busy streets, by Willow Creek Church, by a cemetery and less desirable golf course) and further removed area of the Glen Town Center. The only similarity of these homes is that they gave themselves the label of being located within the Glen.

The suit also contains allegations Zillow lowers estimates when sellers don’t use brokers, since one of Zillow’s revenue streams is partnerships with brokers. Maybe this is true, but the lawsuit contains nothing that backs up the claim other than stuff like the paragraph above.

Whatever’s really happening at Zillow, it’s unlikely the site is solely — or even chiefly — responsible for any seller’s inability to sell their property. Zillow may have a larger share of the estimate market than its competitors, but it’s hardly the only company in the business. Andersen claims Zillow will suffer no harm by delisting her property or changing the estimate to reflect her idea of what the asking price should be, but it’s hard to see how this could possibly be true. If the site is viewed as being solely reflective of sellers’ desired asking prices, it has zero value to anyone looking to purchase a house.

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Comments on “Zillow Sued By Homeowner Because Its Estimate Is Lower Than The Seller Wants To Sell The House For”

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Christopher Best (profile) says:

Zillow = bad

Having had recent experience with Zillow, they’re awful. They often have blatantly incorrect information about a property (like how many bedrooms my house had) and don’t have any interest it seems in correcting it. People seem to assume that whatever Zillow estimates a rental price should be is a number the homeowner put on the site, as well, then assume that you’re trying to do some sort of bait and switch when you tell them a different number.

Considering how awful they seem to be at estimating things, I’d rather they didn’t do it, but a lawsuit doesn’t seem to be the right way to go about it…

User 3458 says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Zillow = bad

No, zillow says they update the information after you’ve claimed your home, but, the claim process is as easy as typing in the home owners name, and providing an email address. There is no online verification, even tho that’s what they call it, and, when you do submit changes, they just jack up the estimate while ignoring valid corrections. I asked a real estate friend of mine about zillow and she said the word among real estate professionals is, it’s a total joke.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Zillow = bad

Wait, why are you not ranting and raving at Zillow if they’re bad? Why don’t you call for “someone” to do “something” about it?
How dare you have a moderate and reasonable approach to the matter at hand?

(For those who don’t see it, I’m sarcastic there. More seriously, thanks for your detailed feedback on that company.)

Do Some Research says:

Re: Re: Zillow = bad

There are laws that prevent certain rooms from being called “bedrooms” even if you use them as such. Typically, to officially a bedroom, the room must have window or door access outside–this is a fire safety issue. Some states require a room have a certain number of electrical outlets and things like that to be classified as a room.

Sellers use language like, “…three bedrooms and a den…” as an indicator that there is an additional room that the new homeowner may want to use as a bedroom.

Check to see what the classification standards are in your area.

DB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Zillow = bad

More precisely, zoning or housing regulations frequently require a ‘bedroom’ to have two means of egress. Sometimes housing regulations also require minimum dimensions and a closet for the room to be called, or used as, a bedroom.

Once it’s a ‘bedroom’ then other regulations kick in, including a fire ladder for a high window, smoke/monoxide alarm, electrical outlets and lights, AFCI breakers ($$), etc.

More declared bedrooms typically comes with a higher tax assessment, so people rarely complain to the local tax authority while they are living there. They shouldn’t be able to ‘fix’ the description when they want to sell. Certainly Zillow shouldn’t be on the hook for their tax evasion, failing to get proper building permits, and zoning violations.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Zillow = bad

If the information does’t matter, such as if your premises aren’t up for sale or rent, then why do you care about the accuracy of their real estate info? Sure, if it said that there had been a cult mass-suicide in the premises you might care because of general perception, but otherwise, why?

If you do care about the info, because your premises are up for sale or rent, then why isn’t the onus on you to correct incorrect information? I mean, they aren’t all-seeing such that they magically know the information they’ve obtained (presumably from official sources like local government building plans or taxation records) is wrong. Unless you tell them it’s wrong, how are they supposed to know?

TomStone (profile) says:

Re: Zillow = bad

Zillow uses an AVM (Automated Valuation Machine) to estimate values and in a recent subdivision with lots of transactions it’s pretty close to the mark.
In an area where the housing stock is diverse or their are few transactions it varies from piss poor to laughable. I’m a Real Estate Broker in Sonoma County with a background in Appraisal.
“Zestimates” for country properties are useless at best, for city properties they are occasionally pretty close.
I’d like to see Zillow prominently publish their error range along with the “Zestmate”…in the past Zillow often provided a “Value Range” that made it clear how rigorous their methodology is… “$751,000 to $1,395,000” is one I recall.
And yes, it can make a big difference to a seller, I looked at a place in Sierra County that Zillow priced at $186K, two local Realtors and an Appraiser put it at $295k…

Christopher Best (profile) says:

Re: Re: Zillow = bad

Yeah, across the highway from my house were dozens of abandoned bank owned properties, while a few blocks over was a neighborhood of McMansions. Just averaging out the recent sale prices (and not providing error bars) was practically worthless.

Yes the house five lots down went for 1/3 of what we were asking for, but that’s because the family got foreclosed and it sat abandoned for over a year and got trashed. Using that as a data point to determine what a well taken care of house is worth because it’s nearby and you (incorrectly) think it has the same number of bedrooms is stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

The best way to fight Zillow is to open a rival website and have a banner along the top of every page of your site that says, “We actually appraise the properties we list and give you correct information about them, unlike the lying scumbags at Zillow.”

When they sue, bring up their own statements that they do not do accurate appraisals of the properties they list.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s what’s odd to me about the lawsuit. There are already competitors to Zillow, such as Trulia and Redfin. And more seem to be coming up in search results every so often.

Redfin estimates it lower than Zillow. Trulia says she sold it in April of 2017 for more than $200k less than she bought it, so is she suing for having sold at a loss and blames Zillow (when other websites also list a lower value than she wanted)?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Problem with your comment is that Zillow already states they don’t have on site appraisals and their prices are just “estimates” based on some formula known only to themselves. People should take what Zillow “estimates” with a grain of salt. PT Barnum should be rolling on the floor laughing because people don’t. So they aren’t lying about their product, which makes it possible that the competitor website stating Zillow are lying scumbags could be (successfully) sued for libel/defamation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why does a company (and some people here) think that just because it is on the Internet, it isn’t real?

If a company is making money off their website, they should at least be factual. The woman here says Zillow has the wrong selling price (Zillow falsely stated her home sold for $685,000 last fall.)

If they are just estimates (promoted as a tool for potential buyers to use in assessing market value of a given property) that is bullshit. Either they shouldn’t list it because no one can rely on it (why would they if they are not somewhat accurate?) or they should again be factual.

DB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Zillow and its competitors appear to get the vast majority of their data from public sources e.g. the county assessors office.

They are factually reporting the information they have. They aren’t writing fiction. They aren’t intentionally creating false estimates.

Making money off of the website doesn’t come into play. You are a user, not a customer. They didn’t contract to do an assessment for you.

There are plenty of actual evil companies and websites. This isn’t one of them.

Whoever says:

First amendment?

Surely a “Zestimate” and also an appraisal are only opinions. How is this not protected by the 1st?

How can a state limit who can provide opinions on a house’s value? Surely that’s a blatant violation of the 1st?

Remember the subprime mortgage meltdown and the fact that the ratings agencies claimed that their assessment of the mortgage assets was protected by the 1st amendment? How is this any different?

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: First amendment?

There is usually a legal difference between an opinion and advice.

Depending on the country/state’s laws that is, but where I’m from:

An opinion is a non-expert giving, well, their opinion. Have a few drunks down the pub and someone says, "you know what…", or at a family dinner someone saying "I think that patio design looks good…", or "yeah, those stocks like good, you should totally buy them" is giving a non-actionable opinion.

However, if I go to an expert in a field, especially a licensed field, for example if I go to a licensed Engineer and asked them to provide a building report on the same patio design a family member reckoned was fine, what they are providing is expert advice. If the design is structurally unsound, and falls apart and hurts some people, then they could be accounted some measure of liability.

Dustin says:

Re: Complaint

That’s the beautiful thing about the first amendment and news reporting in America. As long as it’s not libel or slander nobody has to get your permission to discuss a case you bring forward in court. It’s public record.

At no point did the author of this article state that your seeking monetary relief. Did you even bother to read the article before attacking it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Complaint

The document attached to the article at the bottom clearly states VERIFIED COMPLAINT FOR INJUNCTION, and the second paragraph reads that the lawsuit "is asking the court to force Zillow to take down its estimate of her home’s value which she believes is incorrect".

I don’t see where it claims the lawsuit is seeking monetary relief, and as for nonsense speculation… you’re welcome to your opinion I guess, for whatever it’s worth.

But I mean Zillow’s focus is as a real estate aggregator that makes listings more accessible and visible. Its own website states that it can only give a rough estimate or a ballpark price in terms of houses in the area, based on publically available data, and shouldn’t be used as a final selling price since a lot of factors they can’t calculate are involved that affects the final price of a home.


Millions of consumers visit Zillow every month. Most understand that the Zestimate is exactly that, an estimate of the value of a home. Occasionally however, someone will come along that insists on setting the price they are willing to buy or sell for based solely on the Zestimate.

Education is the key. As a real estate professional one thing you are always doing is educating your clients on all things real estate. The Zestimate is no different. Armed with an understanding of how the Zestimate is calculated and the Zestimate Data Accuracy table, you can explain – and show Zillow’s own accuracy numbers and talk about why the Zestimate is a good starting point as well as a historical reference, but it should not be used for pricing a home.

John Jacob says:

Re: Complaint

I view your litigation as shortsightedness and amusing Barbara, but then if I was on the wrong end of an investment I probably would hold a different opinion too. I do, to some extent, agree that someone should be able to opt out of some things, but if I take public records and use a combination of mathematics and predictive analytics to guess at the capital value of anything that should be my right. If I publish that guess and people consume it, that’s on them. If someone does not like that they should take issue with those that use the guess.

Berenerd (profile) says:

What your house is worth is what your state assessors say its worth. At least in Zillow’s eyes. It takes public information and builds off it. Assessors have to look at your house impartially (though that is rarely the case) Just because there is a bed in a room, does not make it a bedroom. Does it have a closet? Does it have a window? 2 windows? 3? What is the square footage of the room? We had this issue with the town assessors when I was a kid. They insisted our guest bedroom was a closet because it had no window and a door to the garage.
Zillow also takes in how much similar houses in your area sell and use that for their zestimates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Also, foreclosures can skew that data up too. My old house, the assessor and the appraisal were considerable different. My house assessed for $250,000. It appraised for $160,000. I bought it for $145,000. After I bought it, I had the assessor come out and reassess the house. Overall, that really messed up Zillow’s zestimate at the time.

SpammersAreScum (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I would assume that the qualification rules for “bedroom” are set at some government level, and not the appraiser being finicky. And “must have window to the outside” would be a common one.

My realtor had a moment of panic when she learned my 3rd “bedroom” was in the basement, until I pointed out that my basement was “walk-out” — with no steps, even — in back. The bedroom had windows facing the back yard.

DB (profile) says:

The core element of this lawsuit is if Zillow is providing ‘appraisals’ under state law.

I see this as being overly clever with definitions.

An appraisal is an estimate. But an estimate isn’t necessarily an appraisal. Even if it has all of the regulatory attributes required of an appraisal, if they don’t claim it’s an appraisal, it’s not an appraisal.

You can chat with a lawyer at a party, and they can offer up a person opinion. It might be advice, and it might be on a law-related topic, but that doesn’t make it legal advice.

BJC (profile) says:

Slander of Title

I think the snark is off base. This should be a “I can’t believe the law actually allows this” angry article on Techdirt, not a “lawyer doesn’t know the law” article.

The complaint doesn’t come out and use the archaic term, but the argument fits into an old, separate tort called “slander of title,” which is just as it sounds — saying that a property is worth less than it actually is.

Furthermore, the causation argument may be tenuous, but it’s not as tenuous as Tim Cushing makes it out. Illinois accepts “substantial factor” tort causation, so the Zillow estimate need not be THE cause of any drop in price, just a “substantial” cause among many. We can argue back and forth about what evidence could support such a finding, but at the pleadings stage, one can’t disprove substantial factor causation, and if a suit gets to discovery, it’s far less ridiculous.

I don’t know how the suit will eventually shake out, but at the outset, it seems like it actually pleads a real cause of action.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

How is this different than a bad yelp review?

Focusing on a single data aggregation site, and bemoaning they don’t value the items she feels matter much more in the overall view of the property.

Of course she immediately shows up and complains that people provide coverage without speaking to her or getting her approval. Its like she skipped constitutional law.

Perhaps it isn’t Zillow ruining your chances of selling, but the simple fact you believe its worth more & can’t force them to accept YOUR own biased assessment.

You can think its worth 2 million, you can not force the world to accept that. Besides your neighbors would be offended if you sold to someone unworthy of paying an inflated price you have in your head. They might treat the property how they wanted to & bring down all of the home values. You have to protect everyone from Zillow & not show an accurate assessment in your selling package.

You picked a battle poorly.
Given all of the faults you find with everyone else, and your assessment of less desirable aspects you might want to think that you are your own worst enemy in this. You have unrealistic expectations & rather than consider its you, you have found an outside force to blame for all of the ills you’ve suffered while ignoring your own hand in them.

Sorry you can’t get as much for the house as you think you should be able to, but sometimes you need to take the loss and let it go.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Bullshit you douchbag.

People are obviously relying on the price listed by Zillow, if they didn’t, then why would Zillow even put it up there?

We have a company here that is making money by giving out information that is wrong and they won’t fix it. Their mistake (which they won’t fix) is possibly costing an individual money. Why do douchbags like yourself believe that just because it is on the Internet, that a company should be allowed to wrong someone?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

People are obviously relying on the price listed by Zillow, if they didn’t, then why would Zillow even put it up there?

It’s provided as a rough estimate of fair market value of a house, to get an idea of what homes in the area have sold for and to get a starting point when you’re narrowing down a home search geographically. As Zillow’s own website states, it’s not considered an accurate appraisal, especially if the information it has is inaccurate (and they invite people to update accordingly) and that a proper appraisal is necessary to accurately determine the value. Furthermore, the estimates Zillow provide can’t always take into account demand based on factors such as distance to schools, crime rates, etc.

If the asking price differs from the estimate then you can figure out why the asking price varies (is it because there’s remodeling that Zillow hasn’t factored in, is the area really popular for home buyers, is it simply overpriced, etc). Zillow is not an accurate individual home appraiser; it’s a data aggregator that tries to consolidate public data and provide a rough, initial estimate of fair market value with very specific guidelines in regards to how statistically accurate (or inaccurate) that estimate is, but it simply isn’t the same as an actual appraisal that looks at the house in-person and properly values the home.

This is a long-winded way of saying that just because you don’t understand how and why something is done a certain way doesn’t make it invalid or useless. It just means you don’t understand it.

DB (profile) says:

Slander of Title isn’t exactly “saying that a property is worth less than it actually is”.

It’s claiming something that reduces the value of a property, such as falsely claiming an ownership interest or falsely placing a lien on a property.

If you simplify it to “saying something that reduces the value of a property” that definition seems to fit, but over-simplification can lead to incorrect understanding.

I don’t think “substantial factor” analysis should come into play until after the constitutionalissue is decided.

BJC (profile) says:

Re: Slander of Title - Definition

I think “slander of title” can be read that broadly.

I’m operating off Restatement (Second) of Torts § 624, “Disparagement of Property—Slander of Title”:
“The rules on liability for the publication of an injurious falsehood stated in § 623A apply to the publication of a false statement disparaging another’s property rights in land, chattels or intangible things, that the publisher should recognize as likely to result in pecuniary harm to the other through the conduct of third persons in respect to the other’s interests in the property.”

This folds in both the traditional “fake lien” tort and all sorts of commercial disparagement, such as Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union, 466 U.S. 485 (1984), where but for the NY Times v. Sullivan malice test saying something false about the way a speaker sounded was actionable.

I think “our special appraisal system considers the property to be X,” where X is lower than the value of the property, is sufficiently disparaging to the interest in property to match.

I can tell you because I searched that there is no case on point in Illinois, but they do accept the Restatement.

As for substantial factor, yes, whether or not the statement is protected opinion would be first analyzed, but there was a separate question raised in the article that, even if it was defamatory, damages couldn’t be proved. I think they might be.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Slander of Title - Definition

I think the key phrase there is "disparaging another’s property rights" – i.e., treating the idea that the other person owns this thing with scorn. Not disparaging the thing owned, but disparaging the rights in the thing owned – or in other words, making it appear questionable whether or not the person actually owns the property.

Claiming falsely that you have an ownership interest in (part of) the property places the other person’s ownership of that property in question.

Claiming falsely that you hold a lien on (part of) the property places the other person’s ownership of that property in question.

Et cetera.

What Zillow says about such properties does not seem to in any way raise questions about whether the seller actually owns the property being sold. As such, if I’m reading this right, the law you cite would not seem to apply.

BJC (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Slander of Title - Definition

I’m a little frustrated with your response, because to me, the argument went like:

DB: I think “slander of title” is limited to the elements of the writ at common law.

Me: According to modern interpretations as set forth by the Restatement, slander of title also includes what might also be called “trade libel,” which I think does include this case. From brief research which I won’t bore you with, I know Illinois does allow for both kinds of actions, and this kind of action has never been specifically allowed or prohibited.

You: From my literal reading of the text of the Restatement, without reference to its interpretation over 40 years in Illinois case law, and not taking into account that the American Tort Reform Association considers Cook County, Illinois, sixth among its “judicial hellholes” where judges bend over backwards to give plaintiffs the benefit of the law, I’m going to say that your reading is obviously incorrect.

* * *

To simplify, given my experience in tort law (I used to sue people for money damages) and about 20 minutes with a legal database service using the skills I developed over 3 years of law school and 12 years of legal practice, I think this is a case a plaintiff could get away with, because I think a judge will reasonably find that “bad estimates” injures a person’s ability to sell, which is a tort in Illinois. I think it’s even more likely in Cook County, which is plaintiff-friendly.

As a matter of “good policy” or “common sense,” you may be right. But don’t assume that the law is on your side.

Mary-Ann Lane, Esq. says:

Zestimate and Zillow

I signed an agreement with a realtor to sell my house on 6/15/17. My home was listed for 194K.

On 6/28/17, Zillow published its “Zestimate” of the home’s value, of 187.7K.

On 7/5/17, I fired the realtor and retained a new realtor to sell my home.

On 7/14/17, one day before an open house was to take place, arranged by the new realtor, Zillow published a “Zestimate” for my home of 110K.

Please note: In the intervening 15 days, the public records did not change, my home did not fall into a sink hole, was not destroyed by a tornado, the solar panels continued ro work, etc., so the house and information available to Zillow remained unchanged, however, the Zestimate dropped by over 70K……….and only 2 families showed for the open house.

Erin, at Zillow, offered my present realtor no explanation for the drastic and apparently arbitrary and capricious (and highly damaging) 70K+ Zestimate value drop……in 15 days.

Consequently, I must conclude that Zillow’s Zestimates are utter and complete hogwash, or whoever inputted the figures for the second Zestimate was using controlled substances, hit some bad keys, or Zillow’s algorithm crashed.

If Zillow does not correct this and tender a published apology, I will file suit and also notify the AG of the Commonwealth to obtain redress.

Stephen Gunn says:

Re: Zestimate and Zillow

Zillow is atrocious and your experience is case in point. And one has to wonder if your going with a different realtor somehow was a factor.

In my own instance two mirror units in a four condo setup. The neighbor’s unit is our mirror layout but we have complete upgrades on everything compared to base on that unit. That unit is rented out so taxes are different. That unit is appraised at 179k and my unit at 162k. We are looking to rent or sell due to relocation. They’ve never lived there. We’ve lived here for 8 years. Their unit has been abused by renters. Our has been lovingly been taken care of. In every respect ours is a better unit than theirs. So go and explain the zestimate. Remember exact mirror layout plan. But complete upgrades in our compared to that unit. Can’t explain the zestimate. And no adjustments in information makes a difference with the zestimate. And no way to reach out and talk to someone from Zillow. They are a scam.

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