Aug. 30, 2011 -- How much did your home cost? Your neighbors know and millions of strangers can find out.
The source: Online real estate marketplaces.
"As soon as a house comes on the market in my neighborhood, or surrounding streets, I check the price," said Sandy DeMaioNewton, a homeowner who has placed her 4-bedroom colonial home in Northborough, Mass., on the market.
But, "I am concerned about online searching, not so much because of neighbors, but because of creepy people who would want to see all of our stuff and then maybe come and rob us," she continued.
Since placing her home on the market, DeMaioNewton says, "I do get a sense that the neighbors are judging the price [of our home], but I can't get a handle on whether they think it's too low, because the market has been so bad people just think we're plain crazy to try and sell right now."
Real-estate voyeurism, or online snooping, is growing increasingly popular as more homeowners and real estate gawkers utilize websites to discover how much a neighbor, co-worker, or stranger shelled out for a home.
In July, Zillow.com, a real estate database of more than 100 million U.S. homes, had more than 23 million unique users.
The days of searching town or county records have been replaced with Web searches that exchange privacy for free information.
It's a capability that one homeowner is not a fan of.
"You can type an address or name online and the results disclose how much you paid for the house, which is not cool. I don't like how all your home buying information shows up," says Terrence Hollingsworth, a homeowner in affluent Loudoun County, Va.
The ability to access home prices on the Web can cause "people to think you have money when you don't," says Hollingsworth.
How worrisome should all this easily-accessible information be?
"I understand why people are nervous about the process but it's information that is public record. Now that we have internet access it's easy to find," said Leslie Doyle, a real estate blogger and an agent at Hallmark's Sotheby International.
"I think it's totally fine if people want to know the value of a house, or go to an open house to see what the house sells for, but it crosses the line if they start looking into the personal information of the seller," said Doyle.
Reasons to Know
Nosy neighbors and real estate gawkers aren't the only individuals poking around the web looking at the value of your home. The curious homeowner or potential seller may also keep tabs on the neighborhood.
"I'm using [online searches] for a serious purpose," one New Jersey homeowner told ABCNews. "I need to find out what the homes in the neighborhood are selling for. I have to keep a watch on that."
"If my situation goes downhill and I have to sell, I need to know exactly what's going on in the market. I'm out of work and I'm worried about having to sell."
Tools to Research Your Property Value Online:
Mike Massay, a corporate communications consultant and Westchester County condominium owner, does an occasional online search on home prices to gauge the price of the units in the building. But, nothing unusual for the typical homeowner.
When dealing with a condo unit, Massay says, it's important to keep tabs on the amount of units up for sale.
"If I see there are three properties in my building that are for sale, I know at that some point it's going to be hard to sell mine because I know the building itself is the selling point," says Massay. "If somebody falls in love with the neighborhood, and they see they have four properties that are similar in size to choose from, then you're looking at what is in the unit versus price when making a buying decision."
A declining housing market makes peeping at home price valuations even more tempting for curious neighbors.
Home prices in the U.S. fell 5.9 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, the biggest decline since 2009, according to Bloomberg.
The information is out there; there's nothing you can do about it.
"I don't see a problem with having it out there because I don't think people have bad intentions," says Hugh Leonard, an engineer based in Mapleton, Ga. "I'm not sure anything negative can be done with the information.
"I think it's done for research or personal knowledge. I'm sure there are people that are nosy but I don't think it can cause any harm," says Leonard.
Trusting a neighbor for information on home prices might lead to misinformation. Sellers or buyers can get inaccurate information on a sale because the "neighbor is too embarrassed to admit it was a short-sell or they lost their house," says Felicia Grady, a realtor in the Los Angeles area.
And, even though prying eyes and nosy neighbors may turn to online Websites or neighborhood gossip for details on homes prices, local experts are still recommended for the most accurate information.
"Online websites are not appraisers and they don't try to be, and they don't say that there are. An appraisal is a different model, it requires an individual collecting data, doing research and doing analysis based on experience, education and competence," says Ken Chitester, director of communications at the Appraisal Institute.
Getting it Right
When the owner of a 4,500 square feet Mediterranean-style property in Leona Valley placed his home on the market, he learned through an internet search that the value was listed at half the asking price. While the price is not the same as the asking price, after writing in to an online marketplace a correction was made on the Web site.
On Zillow, if a homeowner believes a "zestimate," Zillow's estimated market value, is wrong it's often because the data on the attributions is wrong and the public records may be outdated, says Katie Curnutt of Zillow. The website allows owners to claim their home and change home facts in an effort to keep records current.
And, online searching is a good for the market says one homeowner.
"Fifteen ago, you would have trust your realtor when purchasing a home," says Massay. "If a realtor is about to make 5 percent commission on a home and you're a buyer, can you really trust them?" he asks.
More than 70 percent of Zillow users are prospective buyers or sellers. While some nosy neighbors may be poking around, many are more interested in gauging the turbulent real estate market. The days of sleuthing are now easier and anonymous thanks to websites.
Plus, there's always an open house.
"When the for sale sign went up people came out of the woodwork just to find out what the story was," said DeMaioNewton. She found herself fielding questions from, "Why are you moving?" to "Are the kids okay with it?"
"These are people who could not care less if we got hit by a car, but they have to know the story of the move," she continued.