Zillow in Legal Battle for Cheap Local Housing Data

September 23, 2021
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American real estate giant Zillow is backing proposed legislation in Michigan which would significantly reduce the cost of procuring property data from local government.

House Bills 4729-4732 are a set of proposed reforms to local legislation backed by Zillow and other real estate stakeholders that would see the abolition of the fees currently required for copies and images of data from Michigan property records.

Although the debate, in this case, is local, there could well be national repercussions for tech companies' access to local property data across the states. There will be plenty of proptech executives paying attention when the bills are voted on in the house and the senate later this year.

The Seattle based company has seemingly become part of a war of words around access to these records that enhance both its portal listings and the AVM-generated 'zestimates' behind its iBuying program.

In July, Zillow's Senior Director of Broker Operations, Matt Hendricks co-authored an opinion piece in the local press to put forward the case for modernizing the way data is accessed at a local government level and stop what the piece called "treat[ing] the data as an ATM".

The debate is centred around Genesee County Michigan where Zillow is apparently being asked to pay around $531,000 per year for the public’s real estate transaction documents. Hendricks claims that in L.A County (with 23x the population) the portal firm is charged just $9,000.

Local administrators are not happy about the proposed legislation. Genesee clerk and register of deeds, John Gleason used another opinion piece to claim that the price Zillow and others pay for property records is more than justified and to pour scorn on what he sees as corporate profiteering:

"Zillow’s lobbyists will tell you they are turning around and giving this information to their customers “free of charge.” If Zillow has their way, we should hand out birth certificates, death certificates, fishing licenses, FOIA requests and other government documents for nothing."

As Zillow and others increasingly look to use data to standardise and remove friction from property transactions the battles around access to the data will become increasingly pertinent.

While a quick inspection of listings in L.A County show that they include tax data from 2019 and 2020 and show lot size in square feet. Listings in Genesee county do not have complete tax records for the last two years and show lot size in acres (most likely estimated by the agent).

The reason for Zillow publicly getting behind the proposed legislation in Michigan may well be because it is keen to open iBuying operations in some cities in the state. Zillow currently buys houses in 25 city markets across the States but none of these are in Michigan.

This time the opponent is John Gleason, Genesee County and the Michigan Association of Registers of Deeds (who are similarly unhappy). The next battle for local data could be anywhere.

September 23, 2021
Edmund got to know the world of portals and marketplaces working at Mitula Group (which became Lifull Connect after the buyout in 2018). He worked directly with hundreds of portals across the world in his role in the content department for three and a half years before transferring to the SEO department to understand the inner workings of listings sites. He joined Online Marketplaces as Head of Content in March 2020.

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