Zillow and SNL: Why We Do What We Do

I imagine that many of you chuckled when you saw the recent Saturday Night Live’s fake commercial for Zillow. Friends and family all over social media were talking about the commercial and admitting that it was completely spot on. More people than I thought like to look at property listings on the popular website to see dream houses and imagine getaways. What was even more surprising was that people had preferences for looking at houses – some preferred Redfin. I mentioned that Zillow was our professionally preferred website for real estate and a friend asked me why.

I know that real estate is always a tricky point when talking with fundraisers, development officers and other researchers. Some have expressed wariness over real estate as an indicator of wealth. Understandably so, we know that prices can be inaccurate or inflated, but the problem is that it is often the only asset that we find on many prospects. Other assets, notably securities, are only publicly reported if the prospect is an officer, director, or a 10 percent owner, which is a much smaller subsection of people in the United States.

So why do we use Zillow out of all the other resources out there like Redfin or Trulia? I never had thought about it before. It was just the preferred website at my prospect research jobs. DonorSearch even has links to Zillow in its real estate records, which is another mark in Zillow’s favor. But I had never thought to ask why until this Saturday Night Live (SNL) fake ad came along.

Asking Jen Filla, my boss at Aspire Research Group, why we prefer Zillow at Aspire over other websites, she said, “I used Zillow through the Great Recession when there was a lot of price volatility and I got to know where and why it failed. I’ve never looked at Redfin. Zillow includes lots of additional data like sale history that has clued me in numerous times that I should double-check current ownership.”

Zillow has a lot of useful information – such as square footage, number of bedrooms, and photos. Delicious photos. (Cue the SNL commercial here). It has cooperative and apartment information, which is super helpful especially since some sites don’t have that kind of breakdown.

But like any website that collects a lot of information, it’s not always the best information. I’ve found property that Zillow reports as an apartment when it’s really a cooperative, which is a big difference. No website that collects the amount of data like Zillow is going to be perfect all the time.

Zillow also is not a one stop shop for real estate. It’s great for residential and has some vacant land. But if you have a prospect that has lots of commercial properties, agricultural properties, or even property with mineral rights, it’s not the best place to go. I like to use iWave since it has these other types of properties.

I asked other researchers about their preferences on real estate websites. Tamar Pearson, Prospect Research Analyst at Foundations of Nuvance Health uses a few websites including Zillow for different purposes: “I tend to use Zillow because either ResearchPoint sends me or because it comes up first when I search an address in Google. That being said, I tend to use the lower number in their valuation range. For NYC co-ops and such, I use Street Easy to see sales, rentals, etc. and use those to make my valuation. Sometimes I use Redfin, which I find more useful for the West Coast, though most of our prospects are East Coast.” Wealth Engine has also added a link to directly take people to Zillow.

Pippa Comfort, Senior Prospect Researcher at Smith College, also uses Zillow since it is easy to navigate and has sales/purchase information.

Lydia Ross goes to the source data: “After checking WealthEngine and AlumniFinder I go to the property assessor for the city or county to verify the accuracy of the information. Also, I have often checked local papers for real estate transactions that might be more current than assessor records.”

So does Kathryne K. Janeiro, Prospect Development Specialist, UCF Advancement: “I use Florida Property Appraisers and Christina Pulawski Consulting. I can get the latest and actual county assessed/market values plus sales information.”

From this very informal and tiny survey, Zillow seems to be a favorite resource among some researchers and fundraising data companies, but not the only resource used.

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