Real estate website Zillow.com became an instant hit by telling homeowners -- and their nosy neighbors -- how much their houses might be worth.
Now, the Seattle-based company will help owners get the word out about how much they want in a sale.
Starting today, Zillow Inc. joins a growing list of websites that allows homeowners and real estate agents to post virtual "For Sale" signs for free. The feature also plugs a hole on the site, which touts a database of more than 60 million U.S. residences but no information on what most viewers want to know: Is this home for sale?
The addition could pose yet another threat to the traditional system for buying and selling homes, analysts said.
"It's just one more chink in the armor of the established brokerage industry," said Steve Murray, an industry consultant based in Littleton, Colo. "It provides consumers with more choices."
But too much choice could work against Zillow, one of hundreds of real estate websites. Property listings are among the chief reasons consumers and advertisers seek out real estate sites, and those with the biggest inventories of homes for sale are capturing the most viewers. The No. 1 real estate site is Realtor.com, which is sponsored by the Realtor trade group and offers one of the largest collections of for-sale listings.
Adding a listings service was necessary for Zillow to bring in new viewers and bring back old ones, said Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence, a San Francisco-based research firm.
But Zillow needs to build inventory quickly to give viewers a full picture of the for-sale market, analysts said. Unlike some sites that aggregate listings from the industry's multiple-listing service, Zillow is depending on sellers to voluntarily post information.
"It's all contingent on people actually showing up and doing these things," Sterling said.
Co-founded by Richard Barton, the creator of consumer-travel website Expedia.com, Zillow was launched in February amid much hype about its potential to reshape the real estate transaction process into something more transparent and less costly.
Barton had already helped upend one industry and many figure that by applying the same formula -- providing consumers access to information previously controlled by agents -- Zillow will eventually lead to industrywide changes.
"The availability of this information online is starting to change expectations," Sterling said. "It doesn't mean an agent won't be involved in the transaction. But maybe there will be downward pressure on fees, or at least agents will be asked to justify their commissions."
David Andreone said he would probably use Zillow to help sell his Beverly Hills home, currently on the market for $1.6 million. Andreone is marketing the property himself on Forsalebyowner.com and not using a broker. He sold his previous home three years ago the same way and found the process easy and less expensive than using a traditional agent.
"I would definitely be interested if Zillow is doing this," said Andreone, who has used Zillow to check the values on his and his parents' homes.
Even without its new feature, Zillow had rocketed into the top 10 most-visited real estate sites. For the week that ended Saturday, Zillow was No. 7, with 2.1% of visits, among 1,766 real estate websites, according to research firm Hitwise.
By giving away free market data, including instant valuations and sale histories on individual homes, the website tapped into a potent consumer "snoop" factor that has made it Topic A at many cocktail parties and backyard barbecues. But some of the discussions weren't flattering; many of its valuations have been off the mark.
On Zillow, sellers working with or without brokers will be able to set a price, post photos and descriptions of their properties, link to other websites and communicate with potential buyers via e-mail. When a listing is posted, a flag will pinpoint its location on a community map.
Zillow executives said it already had lined up Realtors who were prepared to post their listings on the site.
Vince Malta, a former president of the California Assn. of Realtors and a San Francisco-based real estate agent, said he would probably use the site for his clients' listings.
Malta already checks out home values on Zillow, so he is prepared to answer questions from clients who have done the same. He also posts listings on Craigslist.com, which accepts them for free, and on the official multiple-listing service, which is accessible only to other agents.
The Zillow feature "sounds like another tool at the agents' and clients' disposal," he said.
Zillow is also launching a feature called Make Me Move, which lets less-motivated homeowners post a price tag -- however far-fetched -- alongside other data about their home.
"What number would it take for you to call the movers and hand over your keys?" said Lloyd Frink, Zillow's co-founder and president.
It's another gimmick that Zillow's leaders hope will keep viewers returning to the site. The company, which has yet to turn a profit, makes its money by selling advertising. The more traffic it receives, the more it can charge for ad space. "We're like a hit TV show," Frink said. "Can we continue to produce the hit shows?"
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Precious real estate in cyberspace
Most visited real estate websites and their share of visitors in that category, for week that ended Saturday
5. Yahoo Real Estate---realestate.yahoo.com---2.31
6 .Re/Max Real Estate---www.remax.com---2.26
8. Apartment Guide---www.apartmentguide.com---2.02
10. Zip Realty---www.ziprealty.com---1.47