Everyone's a Critic

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006

The real estate ad calls the condo a "charming 1-bedroom in the heart of Dupont." The online review, however, says it "Smells Like Cats." A D.C. rowhouse is being advertised as "newly renovated" and "spacious," but a critic labels it "possibly the most overpriced unit I have seen in Washington."

On the Internet, where people can vote on whether others are "hot or not," they can now offer their opinions on houses for sale, too. And just as with Web sites that score people on the basis of physical appeal, the new feature shows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Not surprisingly, all that feedback is creating an uproar in some Washington area real estate offices.

This innovation comes from two real estate search engines, ZipRealty and Reply.com, which began offering house-rating features in August. ZipRealty, a real estate brokerage firm, calls it a "client rating," while Reply.com, an online marketplace, calls it a "consumer review." Both publish home-sale information available through multiple listing services, and then provide additional links for more information.

Users can add their observations by clicking on a box, and people are doing so. A single-family house in Joppa, Md., is touted by the agent for its cathedral ceilings and oversize windows, but a reviewer notes it is located next to a water tower. Its agent calls an Alexandria home "pristine," but an anonymous critic said he thought it could cost $40,000 to repair the foundation wall where it is pushing into the living room.

Although the comment areas at ZipRealty and Reply.com have been open for only a few months, thousands of Internet surfers have already weighed in with reviews of for-sale houses.

"I think it's very useful," said David Jackson, 26, a systems analyst in Montgomery County, who recently posted a comment on the ZipRealty site about the heavy traffic near one house for sale. "It allows potential buyers to compare notes with each other," he said, and also "helps to level the playing field," so that buyers can share information that the people in the industry may already know.

Consumer reviews are common on Web sites selling commodities, such as eBay, where people can critique the vendors who sold them goods, and Amazon.com, which invites consumers to review books they have read. Some housing-related sites also have comment features. Renters vent about their landlords and building amenities on Apartmentratings.com. Zillow.com permits owners to comment on their own properties, to mention the new deck, granite countertops or other items that can increase the property's estimated value on the Web site.

But some real estate agents say they worry about how malicious, anonymous comments on sites such as ZipRealty and Reply.com could hurt sellers and sales.

"I don't like people slinging mud at other people's listings," said Barbara Gwaltney, an agent with Re/Max Xecutex in Oakton. "I've been in the business 30 years, and I have never seen anything like this."

Maynard Gottlieb of Mr. Lister Realty in Baltimore County said he is worried about the potential for mischief-making. Agents could use it to steal clients from each other or to trash a house competing with their own listing.

"I find it a little troubling," Gottlieb said. "Somebody could have a grudge against somebody. I don't think it's a good idea at all."

Others are flinching but taking it in stride. Ruth Dickie, manager of Long & Foster's Bethesda Gateway office, said that an agent in her office felt slimed by a comment that the condominium she was marketing felt "pretty cramped," among other things, but that Long & Foster executives believe it isn't possible to restrict Internet communications.

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