Search Tools: A Comparison of Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin

February 5, 2010 by  

If you’ve entered the online real estate space at all, you’ve likely heard of the hot threesome of real estate search engines: Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin.

These startups are relatively new–all were launched around 2005–and they have made it much easier for homebuyers to search real estate listings. Before these sites created user-friendly interfaces, homebuyers were mostly dependent on realtors to show them listings. That’s because only realtors have access to MLS (Multiple Service Listings) information. Think of the MLS as the motherlode of real estate listings–realtors always enter their listings into MLS. Realtors also usually enter their listings into the below consumer sites, but not necessarily always. This irregular info feed is also why Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin may be stronger in some cities than in others.

These sites are really fun to browse and to find homes for sale, but keep in mind that your realtor will be able to get you up-to-the-minute listings and sales history that these sites don’t have. I encourage you to browse on your own and be empowered; don’t be nervous about asking your realtor to show you a place you found on Redfin. At the same time, have respect for their resources and their ability to find listings that you haven’t seen.

The three sites below are the most popular homebuyer search sites. They share some similarities:

  1. Search – all three are fed home listing info from realtors and sellers, and all offer a relatively slick interface where users can filter search results and view them on a map
  2. Mobile device apps – you can search and bookmark favorite listings on the go
  3. Advice/Forums - all three offer an area where homebuyers can ask questions, which are typically answered by realtors and mortgage brokers hoping to drum up business. I tend to find these sections disorganized and difficult to navigate. While the responses are sometimes insightful, they are usually perfunctory and read like a dressed up ad.

With that preamble, here is a little more about what sets each site apart, as well as my assessment:

How they make money: Online ads

How they’re different: Creates “Zestimates,” an approximation of a given home’s value based on Zillow’s proprietary algorithm

Bottom line: Don’t get taken in by the Zestimates; the algorithm isn’t flawless and results can be misleading. The search interface is only OK, and the advice section is particularly poorly organized.

How they make money: Online ads

How they’re different: Provides local area data like school ratings and popular neighborhoods

Bottom line: The search interface isn’t as good as Redfin’s, but Trulia does the best job at providing local area data and statistics. Their Advice section is the least poorly organized of the three sites.

How they make money: “Live agent” real estate broker services for homebuyers at a discount over traditional real estate brokers

How they’re different: Offers brokerage services

Bottom line: Useful site even if you don’t use their brokers; I find Redfin’s interface to be highly intuitive, with the relevant information easy to locate. The map loads easily, for people who like to search based on location. When you click a link, it opens automatically in a new window. These small touches make it a faster tool, which is why Redfin is my favorite of the three sites for searching.

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