Unwanted Advances:With Hot Real Estate Market Comes High-Pressure Offers Online, in Person

When Jacqueline Clark was perusing the Internet to help a friend find an affordable apartment in Everett, she came upon something quite shocking.

Her house listed – or what appeared to be listed – online with a price estimate.

But her house wasn’t for sale, even though it appeared to be on the screen.

Looking down a little more, she found that many of her neighbors on the quiet Woodlawn Avenue enclave also had their homes catalogued on the site – a popular online home value tool called Zillow, which lists home value estimates and home details even if homes are not on the market.

That listing came along with hundreds of unwanted letters in the mail, visits to the door, people offering immediate cash for a quick sale and even “agents” creeping into backyards to take pictures.

“I was looking through the apartment listings on Zillow and that’s when I came upon my house,” she said. “I saw my house and eight or 10 houses on the street all clustered together. I called the contact to complain and speak with them about what looked like a listing of my home. I got no response. I know it says on the listing ‘Not for Sale,’ but why even put it on your site and make it look like it is for sale? It’s dangerous and an infraction on everyone’s property. If I want to sell my house, that’s different. But to put it on there and say, ‘Hey, look at this house’ is dangerous.”

And, according to Clark and others around Everett, inviting people in is just what has happened as speculation in real estate runs rampant in the run-up to the opening of the Wynn Boston Harbor casino.

Since the listing, she said the neighborhood has been swamped with real estate professionals, as well as people looking to offer cash for her home and her neighbors’ homes. She said she gets two or three unsolicited letters per week, sometimes even disguised as Christmas cards.

The Zillow listing, she said, has unlocked a monster that the quiet neighborhood didn’t invite for dinner.

“The reason it’s dangerous is that one of the first things that began to happen is it opened up the neighborhood to people potentially coming onto our property to check out the home,” she said. “They came and started making offers, coming to the door and making an offer on the spot – complete strangers. That worries me. I get cards all the time in the mail. I don’t even open them. The last one I opened was disguised as a Christmas card. I got another one that looked like an invitation to a party.”

Zillow is a national company that has grown exponentially since 2006, when it began putting up public information about homes across the country and offering a “Z-estimate” of the home’s value based on a complex computer algorithm. Those listings came on homes that were for sale and those not for sale.

Zillow Spokeswoman Emily Heffter, who is based in Seattle, said Zillow began with fewer than 100,000 homes listed online, and now boasts more than 110 million in their database.

She said that Zillow is a tool for homeowners to use that evens the playing field when selling their home, buying a home or thinking about either.

“The main source of our data is public record,” she said. “The difference is before Zillow, you had to go to the courthouse, know where the information was and how to get that data. Zillow has made that all available for 110 million homes at one’s fingertips…So, if this tool gives considerably more access to information for homeowners, it gives everyone else considerably more access. We do put a disclaimer that these houses are not on the market…While I can understand the concerns of people having this information, the flip side is they can go online and use these tools to refine this tool, set a dream price, and use it to their advantage. There is value on both sides.”

She also said that while the Zillow estimate is a very highly regarded and accurate (with 4.5 percent margin of error) estimate, it doesn’t consider floor plan, décor or other amenities. She said anyone looking to buy or sell should not only consult Zillow, but also consult a local real estate professional.

The problem of unwanted sales advances is one that is burdening many happy homeowners throughout the city, and highlights a problem rarely talked about in the public forum. While some have found it useful to have real estate professionals contacting them proactively – selling for a handsome price – others who are happy in their place aren’t so thrilled.

Clarke said she is speaking up not only for herself, but also for the elderly and those who may not understand that a fast, cash deal might not be in their best interests. Clarke said she moved to Everett 10 years ago from Cambridge after heavily researching the neighborhood, making sure it was stable and had good neighbors. Now, she said, that seems threatened.

“The thing that gets me is if your house is worth $200,000 and they give you another $50,000, you think it’s enough, but it really isn’t,” she said. “After you pay everybody – the realtors, lawyers and appraisers – you don’t have much left. Then where do you go? People aren’t really thinking. You don’t want a neighborhood of transients. That’s not good for anyone and it’s not a community for sure.”

Century 21 Realtor David Tassinari, who is based in Medford, but has worked extensively on Woodlawn Avenue, said Zillow has changed everything for reputable realtors and for the market in general.

He said when a community becomes hot real estate, everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie.

Many residents of Woodlawn Avenue have gotten letters from him recently, and he said that’s because he just started the practice after many years of not doing so. Mostly, he said, it’s because of the pressure on the market and the fact that it works. Those on Woodlawn got letters because he listed a home there, and he uses a service that sends out about 300 letters to homeowners around any listed property.

“You have Zillow now and that makes it harder; everyone wants a piece of the pie,” he said. “That makes it harder for the regular realtors who are here. I never sent out letters for years, but we started last year. We started it because it works. However, I’m not the one that’s coming by wanting to buy your home for cash. That’s not us. Those people are vultures. They want the house for a deal. They want to fix it up and flip it and get out. They don’t care about the neighborhood. It makes it harder for all of us.”

For Clarke, she said she has gone to City Hall and the Attorney General’s office and has gotten good responses. It’s the curse of success, in many cases, but it’s one that she said with information, people can combat it.

That is, if they know.

“I’m not just talking about this for myself, but for everyone who doesn’t know,” she said. “Everyone is in a bubble with this. I want attention brought to it at least so people know what is happening with their homes.”

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