Zillow Starts Charging For Leads. Will Lenders Retaliate?

Zillow, a popular real-estate listings site, recently tweaked the pricing model in its marketplace for mortgages, angering many of the lenders who pay Zillow for customer leads. A few weeks ago, the site announced that it will be introducing a new pricing model for these leads to lenders.

Zillow’s mortgage marketplace, which launched in 2008, lets borrowers submit loan requests for mortgages and then review quotes provided by lenders. Basically, lenders will be able to submit any number of loan quotes for free, but will be required to pay Zillow a “market-priced fee” when any borrowers contact them regarding their quotes. When a contact is made, the lender will be charged a market-priced fee.

Zillow insists that “the market” will determine the price for each contact and it will not be setting the price itself, but rather it seems to be based on how much each lender is willing to pay for a lead. The company did warn lenders that Zillow contacts are more valuable than Google clicks for mortgage keywords, which typically range from $7-$25. Each Zillow lead is can be anywhere from $1 to $100, with lenders able to set a maximum price to pay per contact. Lenders will also be required to pre-fund their Zillow accounts with a minimum of $250 so Zillow can automatically deduct the price of the lead from the lender’s account.

On the site’s forums, it’s apparent that lenders are not happy with the new system. First, lenders are angered because they are now not allowed to list contact phone numbers or link to any of their contact systems, because Zillow needs a way to monitor whether the lender does in fact get a lead. Zillow will post a 1-800 phone number for each lender, which is actually forwarded to the lender’s actual phone number. Zillow records any calls made from a borrower to a lender to make sure leads are accurate (which works in the lender’s favor but is a little sketchy, as some lenders point out). The first phase of the new system rolled out a few days ago and already lenders are complaining of disconnected calls.

And of course lenders are frustrated by the fact that Zillow is even implementing a fee in the first place, when the site has long been known as a free and open marketplace for both lenders and buyers. Apparently realtors on the site, who often get leads from advice forums, aren’t being charged for their customer contacts (yet).

The change in policy is interesting considering the fact that a few months ago, Zillow’s CEO and co-founder Richard Barton told CNET that Zillow is growing, despite the credit crunch and implosion of the real-estate industry, because the site “doesn’t try to over-monetize.” But in its message to lenders, Zillow said the free marketplace that was launched in April 2008 was an “experiment” to determine if the site could connect borrowers with lenders. The project worked and Zillow is currently seeing borrowers filing an average of 50,000 loan requests per month, with thousands of lenders helping to fund and close these loans.

Nothing stays free forever.