Deep thoughts & a shameless plug

Happy 2008 everybody

For most of the past 6 months, I’ve been working too hard writing e-commerce software at my day job. So, in case you’re curious why I’ve had a lower profile than usual, it’s because I’ve been spending too much time living in e-commerce land, instead of real estate land. On plus side though, our big project is nearing completion and my software engineering skills are approaching Ninja Warrior levels, so I feel good about the year that just passed. Fortunately, I’ve still been reading blogs actively, despite the fact I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. Frankly, my brain is kind of tired from trying to co-develop an Amazon clone for the past year.

As 2007 has come to a close, I’ve had to a chance to reflect upon what the past year has given us and where the future may take us. Despite the bearish real estate industry outlook nationwide, I’m an optimistic that 2008 will be a very interesting year. Here are my thoughts on the year ahead

Inman missed somebody

Although, Inman’s list of 10 people to watch is insightful, I personally would add Michael Wurzer of FlexMLS to that list. His recent passionate and tireless efforts to be an advocate for RETS, and his current efforts to bring many of the players of the industry together is very encouraging. I’d almost be willing to say 2008 will be the year of RETS, like 2005 was the year of the blog, 2006 was the year of AJAX maps & 2007 was the year of the feed. I’m starting to feel like RETS will be like NBA basketball in Seattle (just because it’s not here, don’t mean it’s not the real deal elsewhere), which is a marked improvement to how I felt a year ago. Perhaps, I need to write an Open Letter to NWMLS brokers, agents and vendors, similar to what Michael & David Harris have done to toward the industry?

Will data visualization be the next big thing?

I also think that Real Estate data visualization or analytics is bound to become a real big deal in the near future. The efforts of Altos Reasearch and Zillow are making it easy to convert market information into pretty pie & bar charts, and the heat maps from Cyberhomes and HotPads are very insightful. Granted, Wall Street has been doing some of this for quite some time, but I think the real estate industry is ready to take the next step. In order to create cool charts, you need the raw data, and RETS will make that possible (or at least much easier). Once Joe Broker can get at the raw data, the cool charts can come courtesy of Microsoft Office, Google’s new charting API, or something a bit more powerful. I get giddy just thinking about the possibilities.

I think it’s going to take more time, but I think heat maps are going to get much bigger / better too. With Microsoft finally adding first class geospatial support to SQL Server this year (finally joining the party that Postgress, IBM DB2, and Oracle were already at), and Microsoft’s & Google’s ongoing battle for control of digital earth becoming a fertile playground for other map/data vendors, I think the MLSes / big brokers will probably start embracing data visualization on their web sites, since the technology is becoming more affordable, easier to use, and because most brokers / agents want pretty charts & maps with their name & brand on it, instead somebody else’s.

The glass is still half full

Having lived through the great tech wreck (or bubble if you prefer) I think it’s helpful to remember that someday the mortgage meltdown and real estate slump will come to end. If you believe in the future of real estate in your community (and most of you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t), now is a great time to invest in your business or yourself while your competitors exit the business in bad times. If that means adding great people to your staff, encouraging the less effective agents to get out or get better or finding better opportunities elsewhere, learning more about technology, or just plain blogging more often, just do something, to make yourself better. When the market turns around, you’ll hopefully be more successful than ever with fewer competitors.

Also, despite the fact I often complain about the state of MLS data in the industry, the real estate industry aren’t the tech laggards they portray themselves to be. After the tech industry, real estate is probably a very close second in terms of blogging and consumer transparency. You’re probably among the leaders in using mobile technologies, you’re your helping push the limits mapping technology and helping vendors define the direction. For example, a typical e-commerce store finder is way inferior to the AJAX maps so many real estate web sites now have.

Warning: Shameless plug ahead

My star client (Gordon Stephenson of Real Property Associates) finally set up his Real Estate from the Trenches blog at I especially enjoyed his predictions for the new year post. I also had next nothing to do with it (I only helped w/ domain black magic and added links to their blog from their main web site), he did all the heavy lifting himself (see anybody can set up a blog). I also want to thank him for his business this past year, and introducing me to Rod Mar’s (Seattle Times Sports Photographer) – Best Seat in the House blog. I have a new appreciation for photography & the Seahawks thanks to his entertaining blog. Anyway, add them both to your favorite feed reader.

Interview with Michael Simonsen of Altos Research

I first met Michael in person back at the Real Estate Connect conference in SF last summer and was immediately impressed.

[photopress:mike.jpg,thumb,alignright]The Altos Research blog has been rolling full-steam ahead with really solid analytical posts about changes in neighborhood value up and down the West Coast. At the same time, I could tell that his business running Altos Research must have been taking off because his widgets that track market value by neighborhoods were showing up all over the real estate blogosphere.

Needless to say, Michael’s posts just keep getting better and I’m extremely excited he agreed to this interview…

What inspired you to start blogging?

In mid-2005, the Altos Research platform was really kicking in for the first time. My co-founder, Jason, and I loved seeing the output of the analysis – geeking out on the data. The blog seemed like the best channel to start letting people know what we had. So in October 2005 we started. The process of blogging, it turns out, is crucial for me to actually figure out what we had and how people like to consume it.

[photopress:altos_logo.jpg,full,alignright]Are there any special topics or issues that you enjoy covering?

Altos Research is all about analyzing real estate markets in real time. I think our blog is at it’s best when we identify and publish market information that no one else has.

What have you done to personalize your blog?

Despite the fact that our blog is first and foremost a marketing channel to interact with our customers, the content is intensely personal.

There’s a fascinating disconnect between traditional corporate marketing and sales processes. Corporate marketing (or real estate marketing for that matter) is planned, structured, and homogeneous (read: stiff and impersonal). But everyone knows the adage that people buy from people they like. Sales is about personality. The blog is really the first time a marketing channel leverages personality. Many of my customers know me before they ever speak with me.

Do you have any favorite posts?

A couple months ago I did a quick post on our stats tracking flipped properties in a market (quick remodel and back on the market for more money.) I cited San Jose. The post got picked up in and some other heavy-traffic investment sites. We had huge (huge for us) traffic spikes.

What are some of your favorite blogs (real estate or otherwise)?

I read Paul Kedrosky’s Infectious Greed every day. I’m an unabashed Silicon Valley-phile. I love the ethos and dynamics of the technology startup/venture capital culture and Paul is like mainlining for that addiction.

What tools/websites do you find most helpful in putting together your blog?

I’m a huge fan of HitTail. More than any other analytics tools I’ve found, HitTail provides a clean, clear presentation of how people find you and guides thinking about what people want you to write about.

How does blogging fit into the overall marketing of your business?

Blogging, believe it or not, is nearly 100% of our marketing to date. Our sales come either from our passionate clients recommending our services to their friends or from people who read the blog. We’ll augment our marketing with other techniques as we grow, but it’s hard to imagine any single approach more effective.

What plans do you have to improve your blog over this next year?

The biggest key for me is to post more. I tend to be a long-form poster: I try to find a topic, formulate a thesis for a post, construct the argument, get supporting images and links, edit, edit, edit. That process takes me several hours, when I’m thorough. I need to sleep less or something.

What is the one tool or feature that you wish your site had?

I wish the damn system of trackbacks or Technorati or something worked reliably. The effectiveness of these types of features is just plain random.

What do you think real estate blogging will look like 3 years from now?

We’re still really, really early in real estate blogging. Real estate is a relationship business. You know how to build relationships off line. But the Internet is where 70% of people start the home search. The blog is the premier mechanism for building relationships over the Internet.

The good news is that the real estate blogosphere will never be overcrowded. It is self regulating. Many Realtors will never start because the evidence of lousy performance sticks around for ever. If you are a lousy networker off line, that’s ephemeral, no one ever knows. The fear of failure will keep this space open to those who are dedicated and enthusiastic. Rock on.

Thanks again to Michael for your insight!

Want more interviews? Try one of these on for size:

More Bed Hopping with the Competition

  1. Matt Goyer, of Urbnlivn fame, just accepted a position at Redfin. I wonder if he’ll keep up urbnlivn, or quit in favor of the Redfin blog like Rob. Just reading that article about Rob reminds me how much things have changed in the past six months…
  2. Anthony Allan put together a nice post on five steps to Realtor nirvana.
  3. Tim shows the Seattle Bubble is more popular than Rain City Guide! And wants a front-page link from RCG in the same post! I like Merv’s approach to giving site stats better (i.e. keep me out of it!) 🙂
  4. Meanwhile, the classic over-achiever (who happens to be a damn good writer) follows Tim’s lead today and shows me up by taking my idea (list of 10) and doing it better
  5. Niki let me know about the massive updates that he just unrolled at HomeThinking. He’s got a pretty comprehensive database of sold listings and my understanding is that he is attempting to get people to review agents for as many transactions as possible. It might sound unintuitive for agents to support a site that allows users to comment on them, but Nike (and Mike of Altos Research) seem convinced. Niki also mentioned a bunch of interesting features including a GeoRSS feed of his data so that it can be syndicated far and wide.
  6. I also noticed that HomeThinking is syndicating Real Time Pricing Trends from Altos Research in selected markets. Here’s their chart for Seattle:
  7. Prices for SEATTLE

  8. Osman writes about an interesting “green” development in Aurora, CO that would “encompass nearly 3,000 housing units, 1.7 million SQFT of retail, and 2.8 million SQFT of office space” if fully built out!
  9. Remembering Katrina.
  10. Google now allows you to download and print out old books that they’ve scanned from some of the nations largest libraries. Very cool. Not only that, but they recently introduced a news archive search that has scanned 200 years worth of news. Wow!
  11. Not only is Noah is off enjoying a trip in Europe at this moment, but he should be officially mawwied by now. Congratulations!