The Luxury of…Privacy

A Desire for Privacy

by Roberta Murphy

Years ago, when we put our first home on the market, I insisted that the Realtor put NO SIGN in our yard.

I did not want neighbors to know that we were selling or cause any disruption in our neighborhood. Our agent tried to explain the importance of a sign, but I was the incalcitrant client–and we ended up selling the home with NO SIGN. This of course, was before the internet and, Zillow, Trulia and all the other listing aggregators. And in those days, the wish for privacy was something that was understood by almost all.

At that time, I mostly wanted to protect our privacy–and didn’t want to have to answer questions or be the subject of neighborhood gossip.

Fast forward to 2012 and grocery shoppers have not only to contend with the revelations of rags in the checkout lines, they can also hop onto to the Trulia or Zillow sites and see which of their neighbors have fallen behind on house payments and could be facing foreclosure. Or, equally likely (and rarely assumed by the real estate novice), they may simply be trying to negotiate a loan modification with their lender WHO MAY HAVE ADVISED THEM THEY NEED TO BE DELINQUENT IN THEIR MORTGAGE PAYMENTS before they will be considered for a modification in the terms of their loan. Equally possible, the family may simply have fallen on hard times and are suffering enough embarrassment and pain without Zillow and Trulia posting up their delinquent mortgage status for all to see. Moreover, their home may already be listed as a short sale with their Realtor.

It seems these national aggregator sites who list homes for sale, provide market advice and offer slick mapping services feel this information might bring more eyeballs to their sites. Real estate agents already pay hefty sums to be the advertised “representative” of local zip codes. In further monetizing their sites, will these same agents be enticed to be the “local expert” for pending foreclosures in their purchased zip codes?

It’s not the business model that bothers me; rather, it is the brazen publication and monetization of personal pain. If parents discuss their neighbor’s published and pending foreclosure at the dinner table, is there not a chance that this juicy tidbit becomes an embarrassing morsel of school gossip the next day?

These commercial listing aggregators might try to convince real estate agents that they are offering a real opportunity to agents: They will now know who might be interesting in listing their home, and the more passive agents can $ign on to passively be the face to call when times get tough.

What’s next?

Let’s see, who else might be interested in listing their home when:

1. A loved one dies
2. Divorce proceedings are filed.
3. Someone is arrested (might need to sell to pay attorneys and bail?)
4. Birth announcement (need a home–or a bigger one?)

These are just a few examples of times when privacy might be appreciated and strongly desired. And of course, it is all public knowledge if one searches hard enough–and that is one of the arguments proffered by those who commercialize this information. And from this Realtor’s point of view, it’s pretty convenient information to have–if I’m inclined to pester people in their times of pain–or deep personal pride.

I guess one of the things I liked so long ago when I refused a lawn sign was the sense of control I had over my privacy. These days, a listed home wouldn’t stand a chance of being so obscured from looky loos and prying eyes. The listing would appear not only on hundreds or thousands of Realtor websites, but would also likely appear on, Zillow, Trulia, Movoto, Redfin and innumerable other listing aggregators and national sites.

At a minimum, these sites should allow the homeowner the opportunity to opt out of publication–especially when the information published could cause personal pain and harm.

In exchange for this, as a San Diego Realtor, I would be gladly willing to forego any gain I might achieve from this information–and optimistically believe other real estate professionals would feel the same.

There was a time in our society when privacy was an assumed and granted given. These days, it appears to be a luxury afforded a privileged few.

This article has 11 Comments

  1. Roberta,

    I totally agree. When RealtyTrac first came out you had to pay for that information so at least it was agents and investors scouring for information, just like buying a database to send postcards for just listed promotions.

    Pulling this data onto Zillow and Trulia is just horrendous. First it is incredibly confusing for consumers that think these homes are for sale and two it really just allows the depersonalization of the people in our community. Bad things happen to good people and to have those bad things cast openly on the internet lacks compassion on the part of syndicators. I get that they are public records, but most people aren’t going to go down to the county clerk’s office to see if their neighbor is in foreclosure, but sitting late at night with a hot cocoa at the computer makes it so easy.

    I’m all for ease of use and transparency, but at some point the human race has to decide to have compassion and empathy and place that over the need to make money.

    I know Jay will see Zillow come up on his alerts and Ginger will see this come up for Trulia, and I really wish that both companies would take a more compassionate approach.

    1. Melina, Thanks for your commentary. We who have our boots on the ground have witnessed the pain and fear of those who are in danger of losing their homes–as well as those who already have. I’m sure Zillow and Trulia have already heard an earful from those of us who oppose their disclosures–but not enough for them to cease publication of this data. More voices are needed–and thanks for yours.

  2. Roberta,

    Well done! This is crossing way over the line and will bring into people’s lives a great deal of vultures. Life can be hard enough. Zillow and Trulia – you need to reverse this. It is wrong.

  3. Common decency is missing by advertising the plight of homeowners. We have all sat across the table with sellers who are losing their homes and humiliated…Zillow and Trulia are once again trying to make money (or will be at some point) on the backs of homeowners.

    Even though this is public information, it has not been widely advertised to the general public and I’m ashamed that the almighty dollar means so much to these two companies that they would intrude on someone else’s pain.

    At some point, there needs to be a stop to this madness. It’s in poor taste and not in the least bit necessary. I guess you have to consider the source, unfortunately!

  4. Thank you for bringing up this important point. As a CTO for a luxury real estate portal, I can attest that listing aggregators such as Trulia depend on 3rd party data providers for most listing information. The rules should be tightened at the data provider level to ensure that some listings are protected and cannot be dealt to listings sites. We are planning our US launch soon and will take this into consideration when selecting data providers.

    1. Robert, I am thinking it is a question we should ask each client and that it should be a distinct “opt-in” as to whether listings should be shown. As for ones not listed, the owner should have the opportunity to opt out immediately. This is a serious issue–at least from my perspective.

  5. Great blog Roberta.

    There is no such thing as privacy anymore. At least not for the majority of us. Honestly I feel privileged to be one of the last generations raised before the internet took over and cell phones were a constant. At least I know how peaceful life can be.

    This blog reminded me of a rather “aggressive” client years ago. He was a nice person but he simply would not listen about some things. He couldn’t understand why people who had homes listed did not want to show them. I tried explaining time and time again. Finally one time, he insisted on seeing a short sale home with a tenant where it was obvious they did not want to show the home. At the appointment, he barged right behind me with his air of authority sizing up their home. The children burst out into tears and screamed that they did not want to move. He was not prepared for that — but I saw it coming. He was not a heartless man so it affected him deeply. After that, he got it.

    What do people think they are going to do with this information? Fine now you have it — now go try to profit off another person’s misery. Trust me you are late to the party — they already have scores of outfits targeting people in foreclosure. And if you are an average person with normal sensibilities what are you going to do with this info?

    It may be useful to know if every home in a neighborhood is in foreclosure — but beyond that this just increases misinformation for buyers and frustration for homeowners in foreclosure, especially given that we have had an inventory shortage of homes for years in many areas.

    “Why can’t I see that home?”

    “Can you knock on the door and see if they want to sell?”

    Most of all is the info going to be accurate and updated? That has been Zillow and Trulia’s biggest issue. I spend so much time correcting their info.

    I suppose it i inevitable … and it means more client education.

    Here we go…..

    1. Tni, Thanks for your input and perspective–with which I totally agree. Your client learned a valuable lesson. Regardless of one’s financial standing, all should have desire for privacy respected.

  6. Hi Roberta. When I saw your title I thought yeah the occasional seller just doesn’t want to have people walking through their home…we all have those sellers. But like Tni mentioned with all the ways to communicate coupled with the VERY unusual position we’re in with real estate today (foreclosures, short sales, modifications) privacy becomes a much desired thing, especially being almost impossible. I sold foreclosures for many lenders (chase, WaMu, Deutsche Bank, Wells) at the beginning of the mortgage crisis and was the person that had to let the homeowner know “the bank has foreclosed on your home”. I hated it every time but almost every time it was expected and they were ready. They all knew that anyone that wanted to know about their situation knew. One silverlining of no privacy is that for anyone in trouble with their home they also know that half their neighbors have been or are in trouble as well. It softens the blow that they are not “the only ones”. Oh the days when our level of privacy was something we could choose. That has been taken away with instant online background checks, Zillow, foeclosureradar and all the rest. Even homeowners that aren’t in trouble have their information out there whether they like it or not. I guess in most cases the luxury of privacy is not even possible now days.

    1. Steve, the simple words, “You are not alone,” have helped more than one of our distressed homeowners cope with foreclosures, short sales–and with the shared stresses of loan modifications.Still, there is deep shame for so many who have to go through these ordeals.

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