Let's Go Orbital

So there I was, surfing the Real Estate section of Yahoo.com, and I spotted this new feature. They have a menu entry near the top of the web page labeled "What's My Home Worth?" Well, we all know that the real estate market was burning hot for five years or so (which I took great advantage of, thank you very much) but now it's basically tanking ... er ... correcting itself.

Two thoughts immediately crossed my mind. First, since I just bought my home slightly less than two years ago, it seemed like it would be interesting to find out how much Yahoo thought my house was worth. And second, it better still be worth more than I paid for it...

It seems scary to me that so much information about what is probably the largest investment that most people have is freely available to anybody with a web browser. I clicked on the menu entry and a new web page came up that asked me to put in my address. It turned out that the web page was powered by Zillow.com, which bills itself as "Your Edge in Real Estate". Nice. OK, I'll keep going. I put in my address and clicked the Search button.

The next page showed me a map of my neighborhood, with a green icon of a house where my house would be on the map. A table at the bottom of the page showed an estimate for my house, which the web page referred to as a "ZestimateTM." Cool. And they wonder why Americans can't spell.

Actually, I was pretty impressed at this point. The map also showed orange icons for other homes in the area that were either for sale or had been sold recently, and it showed me prices for those homes as well. And, based on my experience with the market, the prices were fairly reasonable. So far, Yahoo seemed to have a pretty nice feature, compliments of some sort of agreement with Zillow.com.

Next, I clicked on the green icon, and a roll-over window appeared, showing the address and price of my house, along with a link that said more details were available at Zillow.com.

Traversing this new link brought me to Zillow.com...and I just about fell off my chair. Zillow.com provided a satellite picture of my house, as shown in Figure 1. It also provided information from public records, like the size of my lot, the square footage of the house, sales information and property tax records. They even determined that the house had a pool, and recorded that in the detailed profile of my house.

Figure 1: Satellite view, from the North

The satellite view was what really floored me. I was already familiar with Google Maps, so I knew companies were beginning to make use of satellite photos for public web sites.

But this was my house. With pictures. From four different angles, no less.

Available to anyone.

Easily.

Could it get any more detailed than this? Uh, yes. I spotted a "+" button underneath the satellite picture, clicked it and got a close-up of my house.

Figure 2: Close-Up Satellite view, from the North

In the close-up, I could see my Nissan Pathfinder parked in the driveway. In one view, I spotted the mailbox next to the road. Oh, and the photo must have been taken in July because I still had a pile of mulch in the driveway from my landscaping efforts. And to top it off, the map was draggable, so I could tool around and view my whole neighborhood.

Amazing. Maybe even scary.

Zillow.com is an amazing resource if you're looking at buying or selling a house. At the same time, it seems scary to me that so much information about what is probably the largest investment that most people have is freely available to anybody with a web browser. I know the information is public record, but using Zillow.com, you can find out what any of your friends, neighbors or co-workers paid for their house, as well as all sorts of detailed information.



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