Not Using Redfin to Search? Why Not?

Posted by Dave Fratello on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at 3:42am.

A longtime reader wrote recently to ask whether a particular property had sold recently.

A smart, savvy guy who's always working to stay up-to-date on local real estate somehow did not know that his question could have been answered easily with a quick Redfin search.

So here's the part where we go back to basics, dear readers. Some of you could use it, apparently.

Let's go waaaaay back first. In the bad old days, somewhere between the death of the dinosaurs and the death of those thermal-paper fax machines, real estate information was tightly controlled.

Active listings were printed weekly in books akin to a neighborhood phone book and shipped to subscribers. Woe be to the layperson who wished to know which homes were for sale in a given market – that could not be readily determined without hiring an expert with access to the data.

Past sales information on a property? That was readily available, if only you would hike to the county assessor's office and examine the microfiche records yourself.

Now fast-forward to the internet era, and things began to improve, but only gradually.

Real estate information tried to spring free of its shackles, but there was a problem.

The folks maintaining the database considered the information to be private. They paid for access, spent their own time entering information, and didn't want to "give away" data they felt was "theirs."  (It's a reasonable position to take, though it may seem quaint now.)

There were fights everywhere, including locally, but somehow, consumers won. With a big assist from the many-tentacled monster that is the Information Superhighway.

Still, for much of MBC's first couple of years, consumer versions of MLS data were often pretty thin gruel.

There's Realtor.com, the official site of the National Association of Realtors, which dominates RE search, but isn't a perfect source of information.

Individual agents started to create more useful sites allowing free MLS searches and summarizing market activity, but they could be clunky. It seems like most were buying the same model site infrastructure, and it was often like having an old Ford in a new-BMW world.

Your blog author's first consumer-oriented favorite search site was ZipRealty.com. In early 2008, in a story called "Good Tools," MBC said Zip offered:
the best online property search tools, particularly when you know what you're looking for. The downside to Zip is that you need to register, and you might get some phone calls as a result.
What Zip did right early on was offer a sharp look & feel, easy navigation, easy tweaks to your search terms and an easy-to-sign-up-for regular email update. If you felt hassled by the occasional phone call, it seemed a small price to pay for good data.

We weren't as high on Redfin back then, but 2 years is an eternity online. Redfin has long since revolutionized online real estate search, with the friendliest, most complete display of information on any property in their database – and with no registration required for most information.

It was nice when Redfin started adding past-sale data to active listings pages. Your blog author used to search databases for past-sale info on properties that were new to the market. Now, Redfin's 'bots do that for us.

Recently, Redfin began to clarify its data sources – sales data might come from the MLS or public records, so Redfin is clear in each case, sometimes highlighting differences between the 2 sources in its "property history" section. (Differences in reported sale prices?!? Don't act surprised.)

Redfin began to show all price changes for active listings, a giant leap ahead of what you'll see on typical MLS searches. Since MRMLS took over in the South Bay in 2008, for instance, the standard search system doesn't even show start prices if there have been reductions. To see all of the interim pricing steps on Redfin was, and is, a big advantage.

And then there was the rollout of Redfin's "neighborhood pages," much-ballyhooed and, it turns out, with good reason.

Today, MBC's most popular outbound link is to Redfin's MB Page (see "Property Search Tools" at the top), a single "front page" that's just about the 90266.

Separate tabs on the MB Page show up-to-the-minute new listings, recent price cuts and recent sales, plus other useful info. You can also find Redfin "neighborhood pages" for:
Finally, as we also needed to point out to that longtime reader we mentioned, you can search for any property in a market Redfin serves and find the history – last sale, assessed value, etc.  If the property was actively on the market within the past couple of years, you often see the complete listing description and all the photos – as if it were still for sale.

Now, here we're just talking about the tools that your blog author finds most useful, and doesn't see offered anywhere else to John Q. Public. A lot of these are big changes just from 2008 till now. There's even more on a standard Redfin property page.

This hasn't all happened magically. Redfin has pushed the boundaries aggressively everywhere they've gone, trying to unleash data that was previously under virtual wraps. There's a fascinating story behind it all, with which we're only vaguely familiar. But it would make for a good e-book.

Redfin apparently does all of this so they can pick up a few transactions per year in a given neighborhood. Economies on the internet are such that once you build your search engine and pipe in the content (MLS data in this case), you don't need to help buy or sell much real estate to make a profit.

You do know Redfin's a discounter, right? They list for cheap and rebate a chunk of commissions to buyers. That makes profit all the tougher.

We don't see that Redfin has swept MB by fire, or any other market, for that matter, in terms of sales. They do their small share of business and appear to be satisfied. Their search is like Google for local real estate, but their profits are more like the Girl Scouts. (Redfin is not paying for this endorsement, or anything at MBC, by the way, though we'd take a box of Thin Mints.)

There's an important question we've barely touched on: Why does real estate information seem to keep spreading, resisting all efforts to contain it?

This is not some good-versus-evil battle between the forces of light and darkness, after all. It's property information.

Our theory is that more information benefits the principals of real estate transactions. This is the reality that pushes against barriers.

Wider access to listings helps sellers get in front of more buyers. Buyers are clearly more likely to consider new neighborhoods when they can begin down the road of investigating a new home online in idle time, before enlisting an agent.

This wider access comes at the intangible cost of allowing virtually anyone to see inside their home, to find out how much the seller paid, to know whether they got their price right to begin or not, to determine how long they've been on market, and so forth.

Broader information also clearly helps buyers. In a seller's perfect world, buyers would know as little as possible about anything related to the seller's negotiating position. Much has changed. But this also means buyers are more likely to make their move once their feel informed and empowered. Once the deal is done, we also imagine there could be less buyer's remorse for new homeowners who truly feel they made the best possible deal at the time.

All of this information flow, and the threat of disintermediation, was supposed to lay waste to traditional models of real estate sales.

But look who's doing most of the deals now – it's the traditional agents, not the discounters. Fees are down, and local brokerage models are very much in flux, but that's probably more due to the slump than to the growing democracy of real estate information.


Bottom line: Whether or not you care about the backstory or the big picture, for now, no one can beat Redfin for search – even very local search.

And they claim to be pretty good at sales, too, if that's your sort of thing.
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