By Brittany Crocker

Big data has changed the way we look at housing. We no longer have to view a house through the lens of a real estate agent.

Zillow has a database of 110 million homes that includes data for buyers and sellers, renters, homeowners, real estate agents, property managers, mortgage providers…and reporters.

Skylar Olsen, a senior economist at Zillow, showed CAR Conference attendees how to navigate the site and how different datasets and statistics can be used to develop stories.

Olsen said Zillow data is a good way to look at inequality and livelihood. Housing reporters can show where home values are rising the fastest. A business reporter could examine how those home values change in relation to a company moving to or leaving a town. A school reporter could see if test scores vary in relation to home values.

The Wall Street Journal used Zillow data to highlight how different demographics are recovering from the housing bust.

Features reporters can offer consumers tips on buying or renting and point out neat patterns, like the most popular street names in each state.

Reporting with housing data can be tricky though, because different websites use different methodologies and data sources. So, the metrics we choose can tell completely different stories.

The most obvious example would be median rental values from Zillow compared with standard median listed rent indexes.

A median listed rent index generally lists median rent for what is available, or listed. Zillow’s median rental value index adjusts for the type of housing and controls for availability variables by using estimates for both listed and unlisted housing.

Zillow does this to capture what is happening to rental values over time, instead of a single point.

Olsen said they’ve found a lot of other interesting patterns over time using similar methodological approaches.

For instance, Olsen said they’ve found home appreciation values vary widely across the country. By looking into aggressively appreciating metros, reporters can avoid over-leveraging housing bubble and bust cycles.

Zillow has also found that different levels of rent burden that fall under 30 percent still show the same savings rate. But for people with high rent burdens, the savings rate is more erratic. Zillow data can be combined with census or American Community Survey data to tell a more in-depth story.

Olsen said Zillow data indicates that the affordability crisis is an urban one, and that the first thing to go for a person (or family) living in a rent crisis is dental care.

That’s a story right there, but Zillow data isn’t limited to in-depth enterprise stories. The company also provides research briefs and data analysis as well as local market overviews to supplement a shorter or breaking news story.

They also have a media room where you can subscribe to get research highlights twice a week. A press team also offers custom analysis for more specific stories and answers general inquiries. And, it’s free.

So whether you’re just getting your feet wet in data reporting or you’re a veteran data sleuth, Zillow’s housing database is one to put in the toolbox.

Brittany Crocker is a graduate student in investigative and computer assisted reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism.