SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. property comparison Web site Zillow.com is giving home owners, prospective buyers and real estate agents a new way to discuss property valuations via a question-and-answer format, the company said on Tuesday.
The site has struck a chord with U.S. home owners since it was introduced early last year by giving property valuations on 70 million residences, equipping home owners and realtors with new tools to respond to potential buyers.
"The release of Zillow Home Q&A enables anyone to ask any question about any house," Chief Executive Rich Barton said.
"We are trying to take all those conversations that take place offline in coffee shops or schools or cocktail parties, and shine some light on them," he said in an interview. "The same thing happening offline can happen online now."
Privately held Zillow was ranked as the seventh most visited U.S. real estate site at the end of March, according to online audience measurement firm Hitwise Inc. Realtor.com, run by Move Inc., was ranked as the most popular.
Thirty-one million different homes have been viewed by visitors to Zillow.com, according to company data.
Use of Zillow by property shoppers in certain cities is especially heavy, it said. In Seattle, 86 percent of homes have been viewed at least once. The rates are 79 percent in San Francisco, 76 percent in Los Angeles and 72 percent in Boston.
Zillow Home Q&A aims to attract the most knowledgeable commentators about particular homes -- the home's owners, local real estate agents and neighbours. "Critical to this conversation are realtors. They are often the best informed," Barton said.
Such focus is in sharp contrast to general-purpose question-and-answer sites like Yahoo Answers and Microsoft Live QnA, which are collections of random knowledge, often from know-it-all contributors who seek status.
"For buying a house or re-roofing a home, consumers will look to an expert not to a set of user reviews from anonymous consumers," said Matthew Booth, an analyst who tracks online local media for the Kelsey Group.
"If Zillow's tools can attract enough experts, this will draw in a lot of consumers looking for professional advice."
The start-up is looking to assure realtors that it acts as an ally rather than a competitor. "Zillow Q&A should help make it clear in terms of the (real estate) industry's perception of us," Barton said. "We are not going to be an agent and it should be clear after this release," he said.
More than half a million users have contributed to Zillow. The site attracted 4 million visitors during February. It estimates nearly 90 percent of Zillow visitors own a home, and half (54 percent) hope to buy or sell in the next two years.
The company is also introducing Zillow EZ Ads, a self-service, locally targeted way for agents and owners seeking to sell their houses or other community businesses to buy advertisements on Zillow map pages when users type in zip codes.
Zillow has raised $57 million in funding in two rounds.