Opinion

Curse you, Zillow!

If you've looked up your home value over the last year or so, you know the experience is not unlike weighing yourself after eating a large meal. The number is simply wrongThe number is simply wrong.

Just as the scale surely doesn't know what's a reflection of actual fat and what's the result of recently consumed steak and beer (not to mention the weight of makeup, hair product and swallowed air), the housing appraisal sites don't tell the whole story.

Yes, the market has plummeted at roughly the speed of a large melon dropped from a tall building. But an Internet appraisal can only compare a house's worth to that of other houses. It doesn't see inner beauty. It knows nothing of kitchen renovations or landscape improvements. It is an inherently limited measurement, as shallow and as damaging to homeowners' egos as teen fashion magazines are to body-conscious adolescent girls.

Still, when I learned this week that the median Southern California home price in February was just $250,000, I did something that turned out to be a very bad idea from an emotional health perspective. I looked up my house on Zillow.

It seems it's now worth $50,000 less than what I paid for it in 2004. (Worse, I think the spiky graph indicated that in 2005, the house was worth $3 million more than I paid -- but I had to avert my eyes, so who knows.) Because I've put about $50,000 of improvements into the house, I guess I've technically lost $100,000.

I realize that, in the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively small loss. But in the manner of a teenager inveighing against a mother who has vetoed a full-body tattoo, I found myself yelling, "You just don't understand me, Zillow!"

A bit dramatic, but true nonetheless. If the cruel algorithm of online appraisals could make even the slightest accommodation to my house's less quantifiable qualities -- the orange trees in the yard, the nice neighbors, the really awesome wall sconces I found on EBay -- surely I wouldn't be taking such a hit on my "investment." If those math whizzes from Zillow came over and felt the life-affirming sensation of the afternoon breeze coming through the kitchen windows, they'd increase the value by $50,000.

How am I so sure of this? It's simple. Like many people, I've begun to rationalize the depreciation of my house with the same mind games that allow weight gain to be blamed on swallowed air.

For instance, you know how Google Earth has photos of just about every place in the world, right down to individual houses? It so happens that the photo of my house was taken the same day I had an old mattress sitting in the frontyard waiting for collection by the sanitation department. The result is that entering my address on Google Earth turns up a property that conjures "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Clearly, this image alone could have reduced the perceived value of my house by at least $70,000. Other contributors include the fact that the neighborhood dogs have designated my grass as their chief relief station. I'm also pretty sure the value plummets whenever I swallow air and then cannot button my jeans.

These may be shallow criteria, but are they really all that different from the ones we used when the market was hot? In 2005, I remember hearing that the reason a certain matchbox-sized house in a marginal neighborhood had a list price of $700,000 was that there was good art on the walls. In 2004, right after I closed on my house, a friend picked up an ugly doormat from the stoop, tossed it in the trash and said, "There, you've just upped your value by $5,000!" The sick part is he was probably right.

Of course, these superficial details -- furniture arrangement, window treatments, even pleasant cooking smells -- have generally been associated with making a house easier to sell, not (despite the frenzy just before the bubble burst) with literally increasing its value. In an economy that's constantly reminding us how worthless, or at least "worth less," our houses are, maybe clinging to these token symbols is a valid coping mechanism, even a sign of emotional stability.

After all, just as a healthy long-term romantic commitment involves learning to focus on your partners' intrinsic, substantive qualities as his or her youth and beauty fades, shouldn't your relationship to your home transcend the cold calculations of the market? In other words, in the wake of mass depreciation, a little individual appreciation goes a long way. So bye-bye, Zillow! I don't need your stinking thinking in these troubled times.

But if the economy of 2005 ever comes back, I'll be weighing myself on your scale at least once an hour.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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