BROOKS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Pete and Pat Hall were on vacation when their realtor called to tell them she had gotten a bite on their home.
But the potential buyers had a concern: The house on Emerald Lake, north of Newagyo, had been flagged as a foreclosure on the popular website Zillow.
“We didn’t know what in the world to think,” Pete Hall recalled. “We emailed (Zillow) and told them it was totally erroneous, there was no foreclosure, and we demanded that it be removed.”
The Halls say they’ve never missed a payment on the house.
After Target 8 contacted Zillow, the company acknowledged its mistake. Zillow removed the inaccurate foreclosure reference, but by that time, the potential buyer had moved on and word had spread.
"It was the embarrassment of it,” Hall said, remembering how upset he and his wife were about the inaccurate listing. “When we came back from vacation, I would (tell people that) we were having problems with Zillow, that it showed our house in foreclosure, and they would say, 'Oh, yes, we saw that. We wondered about that.’”
Several months later, in June, the Halls' property showed up on Zillow as foreclosed again.
“My blood pressure probably went sky-high,” Hall said. "I mean, it did go sky-high.”
That's when they turned to Target 8 for help, and we soon discovered the Halls weren't the only West Michigan homeowners blindsided by inaccurate information on Zillow.
TARGET 8 FINDS DOZENS OF MISMARKED PROPERTIES
The wildly popular Seattle-based website, launched in 2006, calls itself the "leading real estate and rental marketplace," with more than 110 million U.S. homes in its "living database."
"This really costs our constituents a lot of time in trying to combat this in trying to erase this black mark,” register of deeds in Newaygo County Register of Deeds Stewart Sanders told Target 8.
Sanders said he gets a couple calls a week from residents whose homes are erroneously flagged on Zillow.
Among the callers was a man whose property wasn't even eligible for foreclosure.
"The man had a land contract that was paid off," Sanders said. "He never held a mortgage on the property and it was reported as being foreclosed."
Target 8 randomly selected dozens of properties Zillow marked as foreclosed and bank-owned in Newaygo, Kent and Ottawa counties. After checking online tax records, it was clear that out of nearly 100 properties, only two were owned by a bank.
A Zillow spokesperson told Target 8 that when a property is flagged as being in foreclosure, it remains that way on the site until Zillow learns it has been sold. But that information appears to be very slow getting to the website.
For example, one property on Pinebrook Avenue SE in Kentwood was foreclosed on in May 2009. It has been listed as "foreclosed" on Zillow for 2,968 straight days, even though it was sold just one month after the foreclosure.
The spokesperson said Zillow will take another look at how long it leaves properties up on its website as a foreclosure or preforeclosure.
The current method was created when the housing market was seeing a lot of foreclosures and it took longer for homes to work their way through the system.
"Zillow takes data accuracy very seriously," Emily Heffter of Zillow said. "We encourage consumer to flag incorrect foreclosure information for us and we will take it down immediately. Zillow's mission is to offer free tools and data to help consumers make informed decisions about their homes."
If you find inaccurate information on Zillow regarding your property, contact Zillow immediately through its online help center.
"The (Halls) contacted Zillow twice to have their home unlisted as a foreclosure. Both times we were able to remove the home's foreclosure label within a day or two," said Emily Heffter of Zillow.
HOMEOWNERS REPORT WILD VARIATIONS IN 'ZESTIMATES'
Zillow's faulty foreclosure information isn't the only point of frustration. Homeowners take issue too with the online realty giant's home price estimates.
Pete and Pat Hall report that "Zestimates" on their home have varied widely, from around $280,000 to $316,000 to $350,000.
"So there was a spread of more than $60,000 on exactly the same property, same data, same time frame," explained Pete Hall.
Zillow's spokesperson told Target 8 that the variation likely happened because Zillow believed -- erroneously -- that the home was in foreclosure.
"The Zestimate likely had a wild swing because it takes into account whether a home is a foreclosure," explained Emily Heffter of Zillow. "That is one of the inputs to the (Zestimate) algorithm."
HALLS' ISSUE BLAMED ON TECHNICAL PROBLEM
As for the Halls' case, Zillow went back over the couple's account after Target 8's call.
The company says it initially got bad information regarding the property and a data update in June mistakenly reflagged the property as being in foreclosure.
"This was a technical issue: when we updated our data feed, we didn't turn off the old one, and it resulted in this happening," Zillow's Emily Heffter explained in an email to Target 8.
She said the problem has been fully remedied and the Halls' home won't be listed as foreclosed again.
REALTOR ADVISES DIFFERENT SITES
Like the homeowners, Stewart Sanders, the register of deeds, is frustrated with the inaccuracies and is now advising people to report the problem to the Michigan Attorney General's Office.
"It's the potential of having a job impeded, or a loan on a home or selling the home," Sanders said of the possible impact of an erroneous foreclosure listing.
Julie Rietberg, CEO of Grand Rapids Association of Realtors, is also concerned.
"My fear is that for every one (erroneous) listing they removed, how many remain? We don't know," she said. "I don't know where Zillow gets their information."
Zillow will say only that it gathers its data from public records.
Rietberg urged people to use websites that pull their data directly from their local Multiple Listing Service, or MLS — a database of properties on the market generated by real estate agents themselves. Those websites include grar.com, realtor.com, and michric.com.
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