In the old days, if you were looking for a new place to live, you picked up the newspaper, looked at the real estate classifieds, put on comfortable shoes or gassed up the car and began a house-to-house search.
The Internet has made the job easier, at least on your feet. In short order, you can look at all kinds of sales and rental listings just about anywhere — around the block or across the country.
A colleague posed the question after seeing that his Abington, Pa., house was listed online by its ZIP code, which is shared by portions of neighboring towns and included the wrong school district.
Trulia spokesman Ken Shuman said his website obtained information on 95 million houses from county assessors' offices nationwide and Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions, a data provider.
Various sources provide details about Zillow's 100 million-plus homes, both for rent and for sale, said chief economist Stan Humphries: "Information comes in from public record data, real estate brokerages, users of our information (consumers) and real estate agents directly."
School sources provide that information, Humphries said, adding that "we do take pains to say the closest school to the property will not necessarily be the one children will be attending."
"It would be great if we knew but very difficult to know exactly," he said.
Real estate agents take issue with these website flaws, as well as with the values the sites place on houses, for sale or not. (They also offer price information about homes already sold, for example.)
When asked whether he recommended these sites to consumers, Kit Anstey of Prudential Fox & Roach in Chester County, Pa., said, "Absolutely not. Very misleading."
But Mark Wade of Prudential Fox & Roach in Philadelphia said the real estate websites did have some value.
"I think they play a very helpful part in house and condo hunting," he said. "A lot of information is available at a potential buyer's fingertips. (Trulia and Zillow) consolidate the information and are both fairly easy to navigate."
Yet Wade added that he thought estimates of value offered on some websites, such as Zillow's "Zestimates," were unreliable, saying that using the formula that determines them "is akin to throwing arrows at a dartboard. You rarely know where it is going to land."
Trulia's Shuman, acknowledging that there is sometimes a 90-day delay in obtaining data, said the three-month "rolling average" his site offers is based on properties within municipalities rather than within metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). "When people buy houses, they are looking for specific places — a city, town, or neighborhood," he said. "MSAs can skew numbers. There are often dramatic differences from neighborhood to neighborhood."
HomeGain has an "instant home-prices tool" that allows an owner to recalculate a price range that might be better if actual amenities and square footage of living space were addressed. It doesn't affect the information from official sources.
Regarding the accuracy of location and school information, Trulia, Zillow, and HomeGain all said owners could update details posted about their homes.
Zillow requires people trying to update descriptions to prove that they are the homeowners, Humphries said.
It's tough to pinpoint all but obvious misrepresentations, he said, but "we do filter for owners giving erroneous information about home or area, and eliminate the data from the models."
The issue, for some, seems to be not so much the information the websites offer but what consumers might take away from it.
Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick said the websites "can be the downfall for everyone involved" because they offer no sense of the condition of properties. "When you want to get an idea of what your home is worth for a refinance, those sites can tell you the wrong value," Glick said. "If the appraisal comes in lower, it may mean a higher interest rate than you were expecting."