5 Factors to Investigate BEFORE You Buy That Property You Found on Zillow

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You want an investment property. You’re certain you’ve learned what you need to in order to buy a successfully profitable property. So you go shopping.

Hello, Zillow. (Or Trulia if you’re super hip to the game.)

Party time! Ooooh, so many properties to choose from. Wherever do you start? Bets would say that you jump on Zillow and check out what is there. Or Trulia, or whatever. You do, don’t you?

I’ve had several people present me with Zillow properties, asking my opinion on whether I think they’re a good deal or not. When this happens, a plethora of questions and/or thoughts go through my head in an attempt to ascertain whether or not the property might be a viable investment opportunity. I thought it would be good to just spill out the questions I often ask and the thoughts that go through my head when I’m looking at a Zillow property, so if you are in the boat of searching these sites for potential investment properties, you too can ask and look for the same things.

Consider this a verbal vomit of thoughts. I’m listing these out in no particular order — no one thing is necessarily more important than another (unless I note that it is).

5 Factors to Investigate BEFORE You Buy That Property You Found on Zillow

MLS Listings

Properties listed on these big national aggregate sites are most often properties from the MLS. I am of the understanding that at least Zillow may be sourcing properties from non-MLS sources so they may not all be from the MLS, but I’d bet most are. The reason this matters, to me, is this — depending on the market, at the point a property is listed on the MLS, it’s very possible it’s not a good deal. The reason being that experienced investors know how to find properties before they even hit the MLS, so at the point a property does make it to the MLS, it’s possible that infers it’s been passed up by several experienced investors already.

Again, this is market dependent. If you are looking in a hot buyer/investor market, I’d nearly guarantee anything on the MLS means it has been passed up by experienced investors already. Sometimes those sneaky good deals will make it to the MLS, but in these investor markets, they will likely be grabbed up in less than 24 hours of the listing.

Related: Forget the MLS… Here Are 7 Clever Ways to Find Great Real Estate Deals!

In less popular markets, there is still hope that an MLS property is an ok deal. But at least consider the possibility of it not being one, especially in looking at how long the listing has been active. Remember too that these aggregate sites have a fairly significant delay in advertising properties from when they actually become available on the MLS. So that doesn’t help much in terms of timeliness being oftentimes critical for the best investment properties.

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Location

This one is relevant whether you are looking at properties local to your area or non-locally. If you are local to the property, you may not have to find the answers to this now because you might know them already. But you need to know the market fundamentals — always. Is the area you are shopping in growing or declining? How will the tenant pool be? (Tenants can cost a property owner a fortune.) All of these things can dramatically impact the return on a property you buy.

Now, here’s the trickster that even I have run into. I have looked at properties from Zillow, and even just from the MLS directly, in areas of cities I was very familiar with so I thought I had a good grasp on the viability of the area the property was in. But then, I’d go check out the property. I mean, it is literally down to the street that a property’s location matters! Everywhere around where these properties were was pretty decent, but then out of nowhere, there was this little pocket of absolute disaster — back to back streets of vacant properties, totally sketchy area, and no potential for good properties whatsoever. And that was in a market I thought I knew very well!

So the problem with individual properties listed on Zillow and those guys is that you have absolutely no security as to where the properties are actually located. When I buy turnkey rental properties, I don’t necessarily feel like I have to go visit the property directly, but most certainly if I’m considering an MLS or Zillow property, I would never buy it without actually going to it. You just never know. Location is so key.

Condition of the Property

Also key — and something that is rarely guaranteed no matter how nice the pictures look — is the condition of the property in question. It’s amazing how nice pictures can dress up a property and make it look drop-dead fantastic. A property could be in shambles, and you would never know it just based on the Zillow listing. On the most basic level, just looking at a property in person, can tell you a lot.

On the more advanced level — and this is for any property, not just Zillow properties — don’t ever buy anything without getting a professional home inspection done. You just never know, and having major repairs pop up unexpectedly can cost you your investment. It’s amazing how many people put lipstick on a pig and then use an MLS or Zillow listing to try to snow you! Maybe they aren’t doing it intentionally, but it doesn’t matter — this is your investment.

Never, ever, ever trust your perception of a property’s condition based on the listing. This is true to the MLS, but especially with Zillow or Trulia — they really are now putting properties on there from non-MLS sources. Man, does that open the door for some pigs to be listed. Be smart!

Numbers

This one is interesting. Maybe it’s because Zillow so nicely provides you with so many numbers in their listings. I also love seeing when a listing tells you what the cap rate or return on your investment will be if you buy that property. Please, whatever you do, don’t trust that number. Do your own calculations. Even with property taxes and insurance and all that — please don’t go off estimates.

Find out what the actual numbers will be. The only numbers you can’t get actuals for are repairs and vacancies, so for everything else, please, don’t talk to me until you can tell me the actuals. I’m not going to make a judgment when the only numbers you give me are estimates. Then, the underlying message here with numbers too is that you need to make sure you know how to calculate them in the first place. If you haven’t a clue on how to do that, check out “Rental Property Numbers So Easy You Can Calculate them on a Napkin.”

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Reality

In my opinion, Zillow and those guys give you so little information that can give you a legitimate perception of a property, it’s unreal. Now, if you present a property and then you go check it out and everything starts panning out as advertised, well then, that’s one thing. But until you go to the property in person, whatever you do, resist the temptation to take the listing as reality. In my experience, a listing has rarely ever portrayed reality.

In thinking of reality in a different context — the reality too is that the best investment properties truly never hit the MLS in the first place. This is true for residential property and commercial property. I know a commercial broker in LA, and in knowing about his operations — no wonder no one can find a killer, amazing deal in LA. The brokers take them all! He gets deals unimaginable to the rest of us. We can’t imagine them because we never see them. Again, the degree to which this is true is greatly dependent on the market you are operating in, but I always have it in the back of my head any time I am looking at a listed property.

Related: Should You Stop Searching For Real Estate On Trulia and Zillow!?

Now, here’s how I handle this list of “things.” If you present me a property on Zillow or I find one on my own, my absolutely first move is to become a complete pessimist in regard to each of the above items. No question, automatically, I go into full pessimist mode. Then, while in pessimist mode, I start looking into each item. If each item proves itself to me, then fine, maybe it’s a good deal. But I never, ever start into a Zillow property with the assumption that the property passes any of these tests. Why? Because the likelihood of the property passing any of these tests is much slimmer than I would like to believe.

My assumption is that no property listed on Zillow is a good investment deal. I go into it thinking that because that forces me to prove otherwise. If you present me with a Zillow property, I’m immediately going to assume it’s a bad deal. I’ll support you through your investigation time of looking into it, but until you tell me it passes all the items/tests I mention above, I’m not sold. (Good pun, huh?)

How about you? Where do you find your investment properties? Has anyone been duped by a Zillow listing before?

Be sure to comment below!

(Note: I have absolutely no hatred towards Zillow or any of those sites. I actually really value them because they help out with a lot of big picture types of items for me with my own properties. I always take the numbers they provide at face value, but sometimes if you aren’t too far into investigating a property, they can be extremely helpful for a top-level analysis. And for seeing things like trends or ballpark numbers, expectations, etc., the sites can be great.)

About Author

Ali Boone

Ali Boone(G+) left her corporate job as an Aeronautical Engineer to work full-time in Real Estate Investing. She began as an investor in 2011 and managed to buy 5 properties in her first 18 months using only creative financing methods. Her focus is on rental properties, specifically turnkey rental properties, and has also invested out of the country in Nicaragua.

5 Comments

  1. Brock Adams

    All great points Ali…I guess the best place for me to find deals is prospecting with friends like your broker friend in LA. Most of the time they keep these deals and secrets within their circles of influences. Have not been duped by Zillow but agree with all your points. The algorithms will get better but I agree you still need boots on the property.

  2. I understand your pessimism in one regard..you’re an engineer and until the math speaks and the conditions of location, property condition align then the pessimist must be our guide.

    However, you fail to mention that Zillow is a tool. Nothing more than a single tool in the house prospecting business that aggregates allot of good information in a single location and as such should be respected for that and that alone.

    Must newbie re investors don’t even realize most us municipalities have property records that can be accessed online…let alone do a simple Google search for that access Zillow and trulia and a few others have those links and for that they are worthy to utilize.

    Their aggregated neighborhood foreclosure /sales historic numbers are worth reviewing as well for targeting an area or zone within certain neighborhoods for crime, amenities and schools without ever having to drive to the location.

    I have used these sites as tool for these exact reason…have I bought off of zillow or trulia no…but I won’t discount them as a tool in my aresenal for looking at a new investment region.

  3. Jerry Martinez

    Great article. well done Ali! This will be helpful in educating prospective investor & regular end buyers. About these marketing platforms. Most importantly all real estate is local. Averages, etc don’t measure many specific variables and that is where one can find out whether a deal or not.

    From Sarasota Gulf coast Paradise

    Jerry

  4. Kimberly Costello

    I am not an investor, but an individual who is trying desperately to get a home that we can afford. My hubby is fully disabled, wheelchair dependent hemiplegic. It is understood that no matter which home we acquire, we will have to rehab for a wheelchair. it is not cheap. We have been saving the last 5 years of our 9 year marriage, and have finally found a foreclosure. It is 1800 square feet.. The home has been stripped of all appliances, water heater and the HVAC unit inside and out. Slab foundation feels solid, roof unknown. History I have found says this home, built in 1974, has been auctioned/foreclosed Sept 2009 AND Aug 2010, and again this January. I have been pre-qualified for a 203-K and am awaiting to hear back from the bank/owner if they accept my offer, which is $25k under asking. Homes this square footage are selling, historically, averaging $124psf, turnkey. I asked $5k toward closing, 10 day inspection, EM $1500.
    Question: Concerned about the 3rd time history of being an auction/foreclosure property. Do I need to be concerned? What can cause such a tainted history?
    Question: When should I expect confirm/denied answer? Put in offer last Friday with my agent.
    From your experience, how much hope does my scenario hold? I can put 20% down, but in so doing, 90% of my entire savings is locked up. It is very tight; so many unknowns.
    Question: Did I stretch myself too far?
    I guess I need some confidence and encouragement!! Many thanks for your thoughts!!

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