Beyond Zillow and Redfin

Real estate search portals give buyers and sellers good data, but agents bring subjective knowledge that can alter a deal.


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Negar Souza and Michelle Senitzer are armed with information.

Photo by Ramona d'Viola

In the “old days” of real estate sales, the agents had all the power— the power of information that is. With the advent of today’s game-changing (and oddly named) real estate search portals—namely Zillow and Redfin—the closely guarded data once reserved for the keepers of the lock box, is now readily available to anyone with Internet access.

Anyone entering the market scours Zillow and Redfin, which provide relevant information about any home on the market and the property’s listing agents, perhaps one of the most important aspects of buying or selling a home.

So who needs a real estate agent with all this information at our fingertips? As the saying goes, caveat emptor—and its Latin equivalent for sellers too. Tech-savvy buyers and sellers are increasingly turning to these specialized portals to do their research, forcing agents to seriously rethink their game to remain relevant in the Bay Area’s white-hot market.

What Zillow or Redfin can’t bring to the table is the subjective knowledge that comes from good old-fashioned shoe leather and an intimate familiarity that comes from years of doing business in the region.

“Today’s real estate consumers are coming to the table with an enormous amount of knowledge,” says Red Oak Realty’s Negar Souza. “As agents, we need to know everything the client knows—and then some. Our value comes into play in providing accurate and relevant market analysis, up-to-date information, and a deep understanding of all the neighborhoods where our clients are looking.”

For someone unacquainted with East Bay real estate, the difference between a “good” neighborhood, and one that’s less desirable is sometimes a matter of streets. An agent’s depth of knowledge and nuanced understanding of specific locations, down to the difference between two similar addresses, comes to bear when helping clients assess a property’s value, or advising them on the optimal time to sell or make an offer.

Armed with arcane, industry-specific knowledge, sliced into increasingly granular data points, technology-driven firms like Red Oak take the “science” of real estate sales to wonky new heights. Employing esoteric statistical information—like how the current drought is affecting housing sales trends—can give their agents the upper hand, especially when augmented with readily available data from online search portals.

“Redfin has a fantastic search function, and ‘Zestimates’ are what put Zillow on the real estate radar,” says Souza’s colleague Michelle Senitzer. “But, even with all the data available on these sites, I’ve seen widely varying comps; specs that don’t match the home; grossly outdated information; or properties listed in the wrong neighborhood. They’re not foolproof.

“A real estate agent’s job is part personal shopper, part therapist with a dash of lawyer and, of course, salesperson,” says Senitzer. “Today’s consumers are well-informed, but where we add value is providing factual, data-driven information to help negotiate the best price for the transaction. Every client is unique. That’s what makes our jobs interesting.”

There are still those agents who continue to do things the old fashioned way: cold calls, sandwich boards, and referrals, but increasingly, these methods are being reimagined, or augmented, by game-changing technologies.

“The big difference for agents is now we have to do our due diligence,” says Senitzer. “We no longer hold all the power in the MLS book.”

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