Zillow Shows More of Its Cards

Well-funded startup Zillow is evolving beyond providing real estate trivia to reconstituting the definition of what makes a home for sale. The company’s challenge is to disrupt the high-strung real estate industry without making so many enemies it gets driven out of business. With $57 million in the bank, lately it’s been a guessing game of just how Zillow would go about thinking big.

Tonight, the company is announcing it will provide real estate agents and individuals tools to advertise a home for sale within the excellent Zillow map and home price estimator web interface. And, in a twist, home owners will also be able to attach a “Make Me Move” price to their homes as a casual way to explore putting their houses on the market. Everything continues to be free to users and supported by ads.

Zillow’s move will combine ads for-sale-by-owner properties and properties represented by agents, something competitors like Trulia are not doing in order to abide by the requirements of multiple listings services. Zillow, on the other hand, is electing to enlist individual agents and home sellers on a house-by-house basis. The company is not providing tools for structured uploading, said Zillow CEO Rich Barton in an interview this week.

Zillow currently has 3.5 million visitors per month, about 250,000 of them realtors. Since introducing a “claim your house” tool about two months ago, 250,000 people have registered with the site, according to Barton. The company, which is less than a year old, employs 130 people.

Zillow is now trying to expand its audience to include more casual users. Currently, half of Zillow users say they plan to buy a house in the next two years. Of the properties, “what’s on the web now is a small subset, only what’s for sale now,” said Barton. “That’s two to three million homes out of 85 million in the United States.

“Whether or not a home is for sale is not binary,” he continued — saying of Make Me Move, “it’s not like it’s a commitment; it’s kind of a flirtation.”

Barton continually has to defend himself against fears that he will replace real estate agents the same way he replaced travel agents with his last big startup, Expedia. His reply: since the web ad model has now become viable, Zillow doesn’t have to get in the middle of any transactions. Rather, it is getting into the content business, offering trivia, listings, as well as a new real estate wiki project (also launching today) combining expert and visitor knowledge about all things real estate.

“Zillow is making conversations with real estate agents better,” contended Barton, comparing it to online diagnosis providers like WebMD. “People are sitting down with printouts of Zestimates [Zillow’s term for home price estimates] and comparables. It’s more like an expert consultation.”