Katherine Boehret

Home-Design Help — At What Cost?

Zillow, the real-estate website and app that got its start by uncovering hidden details about homes for sale, is taking a stylish turn.

In its seven-year existence, Zillow has expanded into home financing and rental properties. And now it is dipping a toe into home decorating and design, forcing itself to swim in waters it doesn’t know well. Meet Zillow Digs.

For the past week, I tested Digs, the company’s free iPad app and website (Zillow.com/Digs) which is available starting Tuesday.

Digs continues Zillow’s exposé philosophy. Just as Zillow originally revealed home prices and other real-estate information, Digs is showing photos of beautiful rooms and providing Digs Estimates of kitchens and bathrooms that tell people how much it might cost them to do the same remodel in their homes.

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Digs Estimates give the cost of a remodeled kitchen or bath.

The idea is a good one, as most people are curious about the cost of renovations. Each Digs Estimate includes specific breakdowns of labor costs (such as demolition, backsplash and cabinet installation) and materials (such as countertops and appliances). These estimates are made by economists and data analysts at Zillow using an algorithm with real-world data from contractors, such as finish levels and material rates. They don’t include structural or utility work, permits or taxes, but they do factor in a regional adjustment according to where you live and how much that might add to the overall price.

Zillow Digs will improve as it goes, but this first version pales in comparison with Houzz, the website and app leader in this space.

Houzz has well over a million images of rooms and spaces compared with the 20,000 images on Digs. Certain items in Houzz images are labeled with tags that show how much an item costs, though Houzz doesn’t offer a feature like Digs Estimates. Along with its images, Houzz offers design and redecorating advice from nearly 170,000 professionals, including architects, interior designers, landscape architects, general contractors and home stagers.

People can also browse Houzz’s Professionals section to see sample work and sort these pros by location and service to find someone they may want to hire. Digs seems to be adding professionals as an afterthought on its app, tagging some (but not all) photos with names of pros. The Digs website does better with a Find a Pro tab at the top of its website, but Digs currently has fewer than 19,000 professionals associated with it.

Not surprisingly, Zillow tries to lure users back to its real bread and butter: Selling homes. Many of the images that didn’t include Digs Estimates did offer Home Info, a tab that displayed the house’s address, estimated valuation, number of beds and baths and additional images. If the house was for sale, I clicked on an “Open in Zillow” link to see the listing page for the home, which included the usual Zillow details such as a map of the house’s location, estimated mortgage and square footage.

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Zillow Digs allows users to sort images by space, style and cost.

The thing is, I don’t search for homes by starting with room designs. Like most people, I search for houses that have the right number of beds and baths and fall within my ideal location and budget.

I saved favorite Digs images to virtual Boards by tapping a heart on each photo, adding comments to some. Boards can be named, edited and shared with friends via email, Facebook or Twitter.

But the boards and the comments you make on any image can’t be made private, which is frustrating. Houzz enables privacy for both comments and its version of Boards, called Ideabooks. A spokeswoman for Zillow said private Boards will be available in spring or summer.

Since I tested Zillow Digs in its pre-release edition, it was hard to gauge community involvement. When I saw a design I liked and found a person’s name associated with that photo, I could tap the name to find out more about the person — in some cases it was a design professional — and “follow” him or her on Zillow Digs. Digs can also be linked to your Facebook account, to find friends who use it, though I couldn’t test this aspect because Digs wasn’t yet released.

The Houzz community is involved, vocal and smart about design. A popular Discussions section lets people add polls or ask questions, and in most cases, the community helps out with these inquiries.

Zillow Digs has a helpful feature called Similar Images, which saved me from scouring the app or website for rooms in similar styles. (Houzz has a similar offering.) Another useful feature was a filter that narrows photos by space, style and cost. You can also search specific terms, such as “marble.”

If you’re used to Houzz, you’ll know that Zillow Digs doesn’t come close to its quality and detail. But for people who are curious about the costs associated with remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, Zillow Digs can be eye-opening. If the community embraces it like it has Houzz, the experience will only improve.

Email Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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