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Early bird sales for eager homebuyers now on Zillow

By Kimberly Miller - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer



Realtor John Huempfner fielded five phone calls and lined up three showings on a $975,000 waterfront home in Jupiter before he could even officially list it for sale.

The clamor for the five-bedroom estate on Riverside Drive was generated in less than 24 hours by a description Huempfner posted on a new “coming soon” website launched last month by the Seattle-based housing research firm Zillow.

Eager homebuyers looking for the freshest listings can go to the site to scroll through homes not yet ready for the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, but that will be on the market soon. The idea is to give homebuyers a head start in lining up financing and preparing an offer, while the seller benefits from drummed up interest that may result in higher-priced offers more quickly.

“When something’s not for sale yet, but coming up for sale, it’s more enticing,” said Huempfner, broker of Riverside Realty. “It’s like an auction, people get caught up in the moment.”

But some Realtors are concerned the tool will limit the advertising reach of the house. Instead of higher sales prices, a seller could take a lower offer just because it’s made first. While MLS is a worldwide service with immediate updates to listings, Realtors Association of the Palm Beaches President Barb Kozlow said she isn’t sure Zillow has the same audience or most recent information.

“The MLS is meant for maximum exposure,” Kozlow said.

The group Consumer Advocates in American Real Estate is strongly opposing Zillow’s new service, calling it “pseudo-illegal” and saying it is meant to increase Realtor wealth by giving them both the seller and buyer commission.

“Zillow is perpetuating a harmful practice that thrives on breaching trust, deceiving clients and intentionally putting them in a situation of duress and then profiting from it,” the Minneapolis-based group said in a statement on its website.

Only Zillow premier agents and brokerages may list homes on the coming soon site. As of Friday, there were about 35 homes listed in Florida. Just five were in Palm Beach County, including a $349,000, three-bedroom house in North Palm Beach and a five-bedroom home in unincorporated West Palm Beach listed at $525,000.

Still, the new service was called “revolutionary” at a National Association of Real Estate Editors conference in Houston last month, and an end run around pocket listings — homes that are only marketed to specific buyers and kept off the MLS.

Pocket listings are touted as a way to avoid numerous and unknown buyers from tromping through a house, but critics argue it cheats home sellers by giving them only limited exposure.

“We wanted to change the notion of a pocket listing,” said Errol Samuelson, Zillow’s chief industry development officer, who spoke at the Houston conference. “It’s no longer going to some cloistered special group. It’s there for everyone to see.”

Samuelson said the coming soon website is also a way for agents to test market prices, gauging better what kind of deal they should push for.

“I think this has dramatic implications for the industry,” said Bob Hale, president of the Houston Association of Realtors. “It’s pretty revolutionary.”

Realtor Valentin Tudose, who has a Dania home listed on the coming soon site for $189,000, said he likes the program because he’s the only Realtor shown when someone clicks to view the home online. On searches for homes listed on the MLS, Tudose said random Realtors will be featured and could steal potential clients.

At the rate of calls Huempfner is getting, his Riverside Drive listing may never make it to the official MLS. The home, a former foreclosure, still needs to be prettied up with paint and a good cleaning, but there’s no rule against selling it off market.

“I plan on putting it on the MLS, but I’m getting calls from Realtors and prospects who seem really interested,” Huempfner said. “If I find a buyer, it may go.”

It didn’t. Huempfner listed it on the MLS late last month.

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