Not the link Zillow was looking for

In For sale by owner I talked about the online tools that helped us sell our house. I gave Zillow high marks. Even though our buyers didn’t find us on Zillow — in the end, it was a good old-fashioned drive-by — the service was useful for the reasons I mentioned. But now I’m going to have to subtract some points.

A few days ago I received this email, misleadingly titled Zillow inquiry:

Hi Jon,

I work for Zillow, the online real estate network. When looking for groups that have cited our brand, I came across your great blog post discussing your marketing strategy when selling you (sic) home and noticed you mentioned Zillow.

Would you consider linking the word ‘Zillow’ in the third paragraph within the text as a resource to your users? Here’s the URL to the Zillow City Page

We really appreciate your coverage and thank you for considering the link on your page. Feel free to use me as a point of contact here if you need any data or content in the future, and if nothing else, I’m just glad to have had the chance to connect!

If this is not the correct contact would you please forward it to someone that can be of any assistance, thanks.



I’m withholding the name because the guy was just doing his job. But shame on Zillow for making that his job. It got worse. A few days later:

Hey Jon,

Just wanted to follow up to see if you can help with adding the link. Let me know, thanks!



Where to start? First, this is my blog. I choose whether to link the word ‘Zillow’ in paragraph 3, and if so, where to point that link. And now, because you had the gall to tell me how to do that, and then bug me about it, I’m going to point here.

Second, people who need a link to Zillow in order to find Zillow, if such people exist, are not your customers.

Third, consider who you’re dealing with. Zillow’s users are by definition going through a seriously stressful phase of life. We are likely to be emotionally and physically exhausted by the process of buying and/or selling a home, and by preparing to move. We wake up in the middle of the night obsessing about our checklists. You presume to add to our lists? Disrespectful. Bad form. Don’t.

3D Elastic Storage

If all goes according to plan we’ll close the sale of our house on August 27th and begin meandering across the country, visiting friends and relatives enroute to Santa Rosa. We’ve thrown all the cards up into the air. When we arrive we’ll look for an apartment in which to live for a year while we scope out the region. And we’ll look for a studio for Luann. Conventional movers aren’t set up for what we need to do: ship to storage, then retrieve from storage to several locations at different times. We got a few estimates just to see, they were astronomical, a PODS-style solution was clearly in order.

I spoke to a PODS representative who was so rude that I immediately began checking out the competition. United/Mayflower offers the kind of service we need, but they only use one container size, 8′ x 8′ x 16′. One wouldn’t be enough, two would be overkill. Also they don’t ship to Santa Rosa, so that was the end of that. I did appreciate their comparison between PODS and United/Mayflower containers. Both are nominally 8 x 8 x 16 but they’re right about those interior beams. As I learned when helping friends load a PODS container, they really get in the way.

Next I talked to U-Pack and, unless the response to this blog post reveals an alternative I haven’t considered, we’re going with them. Their elastic storage service had me at hello. Like United/Mayflower they only offer one size of container. But their “ReloCubes” are smaller: 6’3L” x 7’W x 8’4″H. I like that for a couple of reasons. It gives us more flexibility to divide the load into separate deliveries. And I think the smaller containers will be easier to pack well.

How many will we need? There’s no penalty for overestimating, but these are big boxes and we don’t want more in our driveway than necessary. So I want to measure the volume of our load as well as I can. There’s an online estimator but it’s geared toward a conventional household. In our case, more than half the load is Luann’s studio and it’s, well, take the tour and see for yourself. It’s more than an artist’s workspace, it’s really a museum of wonders. When she opens the studio to visitors people spend hours wandering around opening drawers and looking at collections of beads, rubber stamps, fabric, yarn, antique boxes, old tools, globes, maps, dolls. We can’t take everything but these collections are central to what Luann does and we need to recreate them as best we can.

The most generic feature of the U-Pack estimator is the Boxes section. You can enter a number for each of the four standard sizes: small (1.5 cubic feet), medium (3), large (4.5), and extra large (6). I picked up a few of each at Home Depot, assembled them, and begin using them as cubic measuring sticks.

A stack of printer’s type trays = 1 small

Six antique drawers = 1 medium

A lot of stuff like this will just get wrapped and taped. It doesn’t need to be in a box, we just need to know how many box-equivalents of space it’ll consume.

Three vintage suitcases = 1 medium

Luann has a whole collection of vintage suitcases. Now that I’ve accounted for their volume, we can fill ‘em up.

ProPanels = 2 extra large

These boxes hold the ProPanels that form the walls of Luann’s booth at shows.

Booth floor = 1.5 extra large

These interlock to form the floor of her booth. Now that we’ve accounted for the volume, we can use them in various configurations to fill space as we pack.

Two shipping boxes = 2 extra large

These were used when she traveled to shows in Philadelphia and Baltimore. They’re perfect for shipping her collection of, wait for it, beaver-chewed sticks.

Box of antlers = 1 extra large

Admit it, this is cool.

I like this method so much that I’m now using it to estimate the household part of the move. It’s far less complex because we’re taking very little. The stuff in the studio is unique and special. The stuff in the house, for the most part, isn’t. We like funky second-hand sofas and chairs, but it doesn’t make sense to transport bulky items like that so we’re unloading most of them and Luann can enjoy reacquiring on the other end.

The U-Pack estimator lists all kinds of household items but in a generic way. How many cubic feet does your bed or chair or small dresser really occupy? I’m measuring in terms of box equivalents. Tonight I’ll compile the data, tomorrow I’ll call up U-Pack to reserve containers, when they arrive we’ll find out how well my method worked.

For sale by owner

Barring the unforeseen we’ll close the sale of our house on August 27. When we sold our first house 14 years ago we used a realtor. This time around we used the web. Here were the three pillars of our online marketing strategy:

A website. I made it with WordPress and packed it with lots of information. In addition to photos, I included floor plans (made by an architect who considered buying the house for himself), an article about our European wood boiler, a page about the historic flag that belongs to our house, and a page about the neighborhood.

Zillow. It’s a great marketing tool, but also a great research tool. I was able to compare our listing to other listings, then tweak ours to differentiate it in the best possible ways. And when I wondered, for example, how significant a factor our barn might be, I was able to search Zillow to find out. Of 150 homes for sale in Keene, only 5 included the word “barn” in their descriptions.

Facebook. We’re moving from a big house to an apartment, so a lot of stuff has to go. Luann organized a series of in-home sales for which she staged the living room, the dining room, and an upstairs bedroom. She artfully arranged and decorated these rooms and put a price tag on everything in them. Facebook was the bast way to advertise these sales. And of course everyone who came got a tour of the house.

The in-house sales began in the spring. On June 25 we listed on Zillow. On July 26 we got an offer that we wound up accepting. There are too many variables in this equation to draw sweeping conclusions. And too few data points: we’ve only owned two homes. But for me the biggest difference between a realtor sale and an owner sale is that realtors don’t want you around for showings. This now seems crazy to me. We love our home, we’re proud to show it, you can’t outsource that love and pride.

The ebb and flow of curbside free stuff

We’re selling our house and unloading a ton of stuff. After many yard sales and many Craigslist postings, there’s still plenty to get rid of. In our town there’s a strong tradition of curbside giveaway. You just put stuff out on the treelawn and it vanishes. This animated GIF documents that process over a period of three days. (You can click it to enlarge the view.)

The kickboxing bag only lasted a few minutes. The kitty litter bins took a few days but eventually they went too. Fun!

Tech’s inequality paradox

Travelers leaving from the San Francisco airport on morning flights know the drill: you stay over the night before at a motel on El Camino Real in San Bruno. Last week I booked the Super 8 which turns out to be perfectly serviceable. As a bonus, it’s right next door to Don Pico’s Mexican Bistro and Cevicheria which is unlike anything else you’ll find on motel row:

The back bar in the new dining room is a 1925 mahogany Brunswick from the Cliff House in San Francisco; the large bullfight mural is an original painting by Roberto Leroy Smith; large mirrors came from Harry Denton’s; the chandeliers are of Austrian crystal, from the World Trade Center at the San Francisco Ferry Building; the trophy fish are from Bing Crosby’s private collection; the large elephant, floral, and deer paintings are from the movie Citizen Kane with Orson Welles; the sombreros are 1920s antiques from a Mexican hat collection acquired from Universal Studios; and the stylized modern art paintings are by California painter Rudy Hess. –

It was too late for dinner but I sat at the mahogany bar, had a drink and a snack, and talked with Angel, the bartender. He’s a veteran of San Francisco’s culture war. Born and raised in the Mission District, he was driven out seven years ago. At most he could afford a studio apartment and that was no place to raise a young child.

Angel didn’t express the anger that you can now see bubbling to the surface when you walk the streets of San Francisco. Just the sadness of the dispossessed. We talked about many things. At one point he answered a text on his iPhone and it suddenly hit me. That’s the same iPhone that San Francisco’s tech elite carry.

For most things you can buy, there’s almost no limit to what you can spend. A tech billionaire in San Francisco can own a home or a car that costs hundreds of times what Angel can pay for a home or a car. But while it’s possible to buy a gold-plated and diamond-encrusted iPhone, I’ve never seen one. The tech that’s at the heart of San Francisco’s crisis of inequality is a commodity, not a luxury good. It’s a great equalizer. Everybody has a smartphone, everybody has access to the services it provides. But if you’re Angel, you can’t use that phone in the neighborhood you grew up in.

Business registration as a framework for local data

In Crowdsourcing local data the right way I envisioned a different way for businesses to register with state governments. In this model, state governments invite and encourage businesses to be the authoritative sources for their own data, and to announce URLs at which that data is published in standard formats. Instead of plugging data into the state’s website, a business would transmit an URL. The state would sync the data at that URL, assign it a version number, and verify its copy (tethered to the URL) as an approved version. The state would also certify the URL as a source of additional data not required by the state but available from the business at that URL.

For businesses with calendars of public events, one kind of additional data would be those calendars. A while back I met with Steve Cook, deputy commissioner of Vermont’s department of tourism and marketing, to show him the Elm City “web of events” model. We discussed the central challenge: awakening event promoters to the possibility of using their own calendars as feeds that would flow directly into the statewide calendar. How do you light up those feeds? Steve got it. He pointed to another section of the building. “Those guys run the business registration site,” he said. “On the registration form, we already ask for the URL of a business’s home page. How hard would it be to also ask for a calendar URL if they have one?”

Exactly. And by asking for that URL, the state awakens the business to a possibility — authoritative self-publishing of data — that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to it. This hasn’t yet happened in Vermont. But if Carl Malamud ever becomes Secretary of State in California I’ll bet it will happen there!

Crowdsourcing local data the right way

In How Google Map Hackers Can Destroy a Business at Will, Wired’s Kevin Poulsen sympathizes with local businesses trying to represent themselves online.

Maps are dotted with thousands of spam business listings for nonexistent locksmiths and plumbers. Legitimate businesses sometimes see their listings hijacked by competitors or cloned into a duplicate with a different phone number or website.

These attacks happen because Google Maps is, at its heart, a massive crowdsourcing project, a shared conception of the world that skilled practitioners can bend and reshape in small ways using tools like Google’s Mapmaker or Google Places for Business.

No, these attacks happen because Google Maps isn’t based on the right kind of crowdsourcing. The Wired story continues:

Google seeds its business listings from generally reliable commercial mailing list databases, including infoUSA and Axciom.

Let’s back up a step. Where does infoUSA get its data? From sources like new business filings and company websites, and follow-up calls to verify the data.

Those calls shouldn’t be necessary. The source of truth should be an individual business owner who signs a state registration form and publishes a website. Instead, intermediaries govern what the web knows about that business. If that data were crowdsourced in the right way, it would flow directly from the business owner.

Here’s how that could happen. A state’s process for business registration asks for a URL. If data available at that URL conforms to an agreed-upon format, it populates the registration form. If the registration is approved, the state endorses that URL as the source of truth for basic facts about the business.

Of course the business might provide more information than the state can verify. That’s OK. The state’s website might only record and assure the name and address of the business, plus the URL at which additional facts — not verifiable by the state — are provided by the business owner. Those facts would include the hours of operation. The business owner is the source of truth for those facts. Changes made at the source ripple through the system.

The problem isn’t that information about local businesses is crowdsourced. We’re just doing it wrong.