Is the mobile web the next big thing?

I was recently inspired by Joel Burslem’s, House Hunting On the Go blog posting. A lot of folks have voiced their desire for having MLS search tools designed for their mobile devices. Since I had some spare time last weekend, I went ahead and designed a mobile version of Real Property Associates’ web site. If you’re curious to see the final results, I encourage you to visit http://mobile.rpare.com and let me know what you think.

Ironically, as I was reading the post’s comments, I personally agreed most with Greg Tracy’s assertion (of Blue Roof fame), that his clients didn’t really care. The experience on a 3 GHz computer, with fast & reliable network connections and a 21″ LCD monitor is far more compelling, than the experience on a 200 Mhz Phone, with slow & intermittent network connections and 2″ LCD screen. I suspect a typical real estate consumer probably doesn’t care about mobile home search capabilities because they typically only look for homes for a few weeks every 5 or so years.

[photopress:mobile_zearch.jpg,full,alignright]Despite my reservations, I realize that real estate professionals are often very mobile and generally look for houses every week of the year. Since my customers are real estate professionals first and real estate consumers second, I suspect that my semi-pessimistic outlook is due to the fact that I’m not a mobile professional myself. That and the mobile web’s predecessor, WML, leaves a bad taste in my mouth like the New Coke did.

Mobile devices are a challenge to design for because the CPUs are slow, the browsers aren’t usually as powerful as their desktop equivalents (although Opera for Windows PocketPC currently smokes Internet Explorer Mobile), the screens are small, the network speeds can be glacial, and the user input mechanisms are slow and cumbersome. That said, having the whole MLS (w/ photos, static maps & Zillow Zestimates) and the office employee directory (w/ email addresses & photos) in your coat pocket is pretty dang slick, despite all the limitations.

Disclaimer: I designed this site for devices that support HTML and have screens that are 240 pixels wide. Since newer smart phones (Samsung Blackjack, Motorola Q, etc) and PocketPC’s have “big” screens and high speed networking, I decided that was the smallest device I wanted to support and still have the features I wanted. If you use a device with a smaller screen, you may be scrolling around more than you’d like.

So, what features would you like to see in your mobile real estate apps? Do you prefer text messaging apps (like Zillow Mobile) over real mobile web apps? What kinds of mobile devices do you plan on using to access mobile web apps? Is the future bigger, PDA like phones (like Windows Mobile devices, Blackberry, and the upcoming Apple iPhone) or smaller, more limited devices like the ubiquitous Motorola RAZR V3? Do think this trend will take consumers by storm or be restricted to professional use only? Would you pay extra for this technology if your MLS or IDX vendor offered it? Have you bought your .mobi domain names yet?

"I am Tiger Woods"

tiger-woodsWhen I was at Inman, I believe it was Dottie Herman (although I realize that Altos Research attributes the quote to Burke Smith) who said “Technology won’t replace agents, agents with technology will replace agents“. Regardless of the source, it’s a great quote! That remark struck a chord with me. Except there’s one small problem… There’s not enough “real” technology vendors out there! Let me explain further…

OK, at one end of the Real Estate 2.0 spectrum, you have Zillow, Move, & Trulia. They use cool technology to sell advertising in the Real Estate market. Nothing wrong with that. Being a ‘softie alumni perhaps I’m a bit too set in my ways to fully appreciated the size of the opportunity these fine companies are going after. After all, MS only has a 10% share of the $500 billion/year enterprise IT market. But Google, probably only has a 1% share of the $3 TRILLION/year advertising market. Maybe those numbers are off, but it feels like a good Zestimate to me. Clearly there’s a lot money to made from the death of print media and these guys are at grave yard with their shovels ready. More power to them I say.

At the other end of the Real Estate 2.0 spectrum, you have HouseValues, HomeGain & others. They try to use technology to lure in and sell leads. It’s not my cup of tea, and some people don’t like them, but there’s nothing wrong with that business model either.

But where are the companies that use technology to just sell technology? When I look at the MLS search offerings of my future competitors like Birdview, Wolfnet, Superlative, Logical Dog, and literally a cast of thousands etc, I just cry and smile. The maps are non-existent or very Web 1.0-ish. RSS or KML? What’s that? Foreign langauge support? Is English considered a foreign language yet? Data Visualization? You gotta be joking. Page speed? Maybe if you measure performance with a calendar. And I haven’t even talked about half of the things I want to see or invent in a world class MLS search tool.

Granted, my game still needs a lot more work as well. Zearch is English only still, there’s more to data visualization than pretty Zillow charts, I really have no idea of how bad I scale yet (better than reply.com I hope, otherwise I know I’ll never hear the end of it), and I only support the NWMLS right now, but on the whole I’m feeling pretty optimistic about my chances on the pro tour.

Picture this scenario, here I am, John Q Homebuyer, getting my Zillow fix, Moving around the web, and being Trulia impressed with all this Real Estate 2.0 stuff, and then I click on your ad. I goto your web site, I wanna search for homes (because frankly that’s why people visit your site, unless you’re a famous blogger) and do you know what happens next? It’s reminds me of the guy going for a test drive in the new Volkswagen radio ads.

“This broker’s web site has 3 speeds, and this one is disappoinment. Web site, honk if you suck *honk* Take me to a RealTech or Caffeinated web site”

FYI – I’m leaving out RedFin because there are an exception to this generalization. They are a broker that has developed great technology in house and they are keeping it all to themselves (punks ;)). So most other brokers can’t really compete with them technologically speaking unless they partner with a technology vendor (like RealTech or myself).

I mean, we have all these “consumer portal” companies doing interesting work, empowering consumers, and then when I visit the broker’s or agent’s web site for the full story, it’s a total and complete let down. There’s over 1 million agents in the this country, and probably only a 1000 agents that have web sites worth visiting (I suspect half of which are regular Rain City Guide readers), and hardly anyone with compelling MLS search tools. It feels like all the good software engineers involved with this industry want to sell it an ad or a lead, instead of a killer web site. Maybe the industry needed a few well funded and very talented start-ups to smack it around to finally wake up and smell the software? (sniff, aaaahh, Firefox fresh scent, yummy)

Clearly there’s a big opportunity for developing a good MLS search tool for this industry. Maybe not Zillow, Microsoft or Google sized, but it’s big enough to make me interested in going for it. I’m pretty excited at the thought of all the possibilities, personally.

This is why I cry and smile. I cry because I feel my clients pain. They just want a cool web site to capture leads so they can get off the advertising & lead buying treadmill, and finding a good one is just about impossible. I cry because I feel the home buyers pain. This stuff should be so much better than it is. Many brokers have the money and are willing to do something about it, but it just looks like the current set of vendors serving them are developing products like it’s web circa 1999. I smile, because I’m in a position to do something about this. I feel like a Tiger. Here’s how I break things down on the links…

Jack Nicklaus is still winning most of the major tournaments these days, but he’s the one whose records I wish to break. RealTech has done some real nice work w/ John L Scott, CB Bain (did you guys do CatalistHomes? It looks like your work, but I don’t see your brand anywhere?). He has a few years of a head start over me, and is probably in process of making his other clients very happy. I hope that Zearch will eventually be as well regarded as the work you’ve done.

But after Jack, I can’t see anybody else out on the course improving their game. Maybe they are all down at the club house sipping some buds? Maybe they think the mine field of MLS downloading rules and methods will keep their market shares safe from technology disruptors (and to be honest, they are partly right – I wouldn’t be crazy enough to take this on if I wasn’t so convinced that I could build a much better set of web tools than most of the vendors I’ve discovered). Maybe they’ve never read Andy Grove’s “Only the Paranoid Survive“? But if this industry embraces RETS (or better yet, screw the SOAP and let me get dirty w/ the MLS’s SQL Servers), I suspect a few names on the MLS/IDX web site industry leaderboard will change.

But how can any vendor support all 900+ MLSes in this country! This is a monster challenge, even for a Tiger. We’re talking a 600 yard, Par 3 sized challenge here folks. Sorry, but even Tiger’s Nike golf equipment can’t par that hole. I’ll suspect I’ll just refine my game on the local links until I get really good. (If Dustin would only give me the connection string to Realtor.com’s SQL cluster it would all be so much easier. ;)) Oh well, if I gotta play the game one hole at a time, that’s the way I gotta play. Just keep making pars, make a birdie here or there, no bogeys, and watch the other players fall apart like a Sunday afternoon during a major. I dunno, but it’s starting to feel like the 2nd round of the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach to me.

I’m working out, I’m going to a swing coach, I’m sinking my putts, I’m killing balls on the driving range, and more imortantly, I’m feeling a little faster, stronger, & smarter with each passing week. So all you other players, better step up your game. Tiger’s turning pro soon. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but soon. And when he does, the game of real estate will not be the same.

Except for Jack, I wouldn’t worry about him too much. We’ve all seen the green jackets in his closet. ūüôā

I know Ubertor’s got game, but I consider them more of a Michael Jordon type player. Great stuff, but he plays a different sport than we do. So Mr. Agent & Ms. Broker, are there any good MLS/IDX vendors out there whose game impresses you? (Other than Jack’s & Tiger’s of course?)

RPA Zearch – Now with Turbo Zillow!

OK, I admit it. I got¬†early access to the¬†Zillow API. ūüôā And¬†it’s pretty interesting stuff, it provides Zestimate values, comparable properties, Zestimates charts, and Zindex charts. Anyway, everybody knows I’ve done Zestimates before, but the charts are a new wrinkle I¬†haven’t had the opprotunity to explore yet.

As some¬†of you know, I’ve been working with Gordon & Jay of Real Property Associates¬†(old site)¬†to develop their new site (beta). Although the site is about a month away from going live, I¬†thought I’d let the world know¬†so they beta test¬†my¬†favorite new Zearch feature which I call “Turbo Zillow”.

So if you run a search for Eastside communities, below the map (sorry about the lack of pushpins folks – the server is having a bad geo-coding day), you’ll notice the new Zillow control. The control will populate with every city & zip code that was in your search results. (PS – Will¬†the agent who entered¬†a 00000 zip code into the MLS for MLS# 25147354, please fix it, don’t get me started).¬†It will then let you plot a Zindex chart based off location, dollar/percent appreciation, and 1/5/10 year durations. So the control, looks like something like this…

 [photopress:TurboZillow.gif,full,centered]

This is really cool, because getting a new chart, is as simple and changing the drop downs to what your interested in, and the watching the chart change. Comparing city & zip codes median price histories has never been this easy on Zillow. The details page of a listing will also have a¬†Zillow control that will show the chart of the listing, the zip, the city, the state, and the USA in the same way. Currently. the details version of the control appears to have a bug with getting the USA chart if Zillow can’t find the Zestimate. So if you see something that is way off. it could be my bug, or it could be Zillow’s bad Zestimate. Either way, I think charts & data visualization are the next big thing for MLS searches after everybody gets the AJAX maps¬†out of their system.

On the¬†Zillow site, to get this information, I have to click here for Bellevue, click back, click here for Redmond, and then back, and then click here for Kirkland.¬†Why do they make getting Zindex charts so hard?¬†I have to scroll to the bottom page, for everything and then click? Why can’t you do some Web 2.0 map magic instead of a sea of links (or just¬†put the links it at the top of the page)?

OK, enough mini-flaming, I¬†have to give credit were credit is due and I thank the crew at Zillow for having the guts to release an API to¬†the public¬†and¬†having the courage to let me put it through it’s paces.¬†Perhaps my experiments will inspire them to greater things, more APIs¬†and a better UI for the Zindex pages? Until then, I’m using “Turbo Zillow” for my ZIndex fix.

Visit http://www.rpare.com/search.aspx, do your thing, have fun the fast lane my friends!

RCG’s Zearch is Released!

Robbie has just released what may be the most addictive home search tool I have every used!

Search Tool Codename: Zearch!

Some obvious highlights include:

  • Dynamic map of color-coed listings
  • Geocoded Rain City Posts

I know the search is addictive because earlier today I showed this to a friend who is in the market to buy a home in Seattle and we couldn’t pull ourselves away from bouncing around the map. To get an idea of what I mean, follow this link to the detail page of this listing in Ballard.

You should see a few things:

  • Photos of the listing
  • Lots of color dots
  • Raindrops

The color dots all represent different homes that are currently on the market in the nearby area. Light blue dots mean the house is far below the average listing price while dark red mean it is far above the average listing for that area. The addicting part is that you can click on any of these dots to bring up the home details (and photos) for that home. With my friend sitting beside me, we kept searching for light blue dots amid lots of red hoping to find a “deal”. Very interesting stuff.

You might also notice on the map that there are some raindrops. These represent Rain City Guide blog posts that have been geocoded. This is subtle, but very powerful, as it essentially represents a mapped-based archive page for Rain City Guide’s posts. The cool part about this is that as you’re searching for background on a home, you can see what RCG posts have said about the neighborhood! And as we continue to add more neighborhood content on Rain City Guide, I’ll continue to geocode the posts, which will automatically add more background data to the home search tool…

[photopress:zearch_screenshot.jpg,full,centered]

What else has Robbie done?

For starters, he didn’t mess with the stuff that works well. You can still use the site to:

Some other things to notice about the new detail page is that whenever you move around on the map, all the nearby active listings show up. More impressively, you can also toggle on the nearby schools, gas stations, grocery stores, and other points of interest associated with every day living. Again, the color coded pushpins show that homes in Medina are bright hues of red, many homes in Renton are purple, while most of the homes in this area of Tacoma are blue. So much cool stuff, so little time!

On a side note, today was my last day as a transportation engineer! For the next few weeks I’m unemployed! ūüôā

Cool Real Estate Search for Investors

I noticed that Robbie has been playing around with the back-end of the home search tool he has developed for Rain City Guide, and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to highlight one of the cool feature. The search tool allows you to sort your listings based on the price per square foot…

And why should you care? Well, here is a search of the “cheapest homes in Seattle” in terms of cost per square foot. (note I had to put in values for the low end of a home and the low end of square footage in order to eliminate all the “zero” values.) If you’re the type of buyer who is looking for a good deal this would be a great place to start. I’m not aware of any home search site in Seattle that allows you to filter things in this way so easily!

Create your own search here: Seattle Home Search.

How cool is our home search? Ice Cold!

In case you haven’t dropped by our home search tool recently, we’ve made some improvementsicecube. Changes include…

Market Analysis Tool Improvements
We thought it would be helpful, if you could get a second opinion when you get an estimate. So, we’ve made arrangements with Zillow to use their Zestimate web services on our Market Analysis page. That way, when you type in a property address, we’ll give you our estimate, get your property’s Zestimate (and the link to it’s page on Zillow), and save you some typing.

Radius Search
Want to find the all houses, within 2 miles of your house or office? Now you can here! And yes, the search results pages are Bookmark-able, RSS-able, and Google Earth-able. (I wouldn’t have it any other way).

Improved Location Search
The list boxes on the location search page are multi-selectable. Big whoop, I hear you say? Well, ours doesn’t refresh the entire page when you change the city or download a big city / community list when you first navigate to the page. Yes, you are seeing AJAX in action. It’s not something most people are going notice, until they wonder “Gee how come your page is so much faster than all the other ones”?

As always, the results from the improved location search are Bookmark-able, RSS-able, and Google Earth-able.

What’s next
Well, it’s a given that at some point I’m going have to have Virtual Earth or Google Maps integration, instead of static Yahoo Maps. If I’m going to compete with the big boys of real estate search, I gotta do maps. I’m probably going to have to create profiles, so you can save your searches, favorite properties, favorite places and other stuff that requires server side persistence.

What features would consumers and realtors like to see next? I’m more interested in hearing what realtors would like to see next because they are the ones who’ll be writing the check, when I eventually decide to release this. I have a billion ideas for what I’m going to do, but I’d get to some more feedback to find out what features I should implement next. Otherwise, I’ll continue to make it up as I go along…

Robbie

Real Estate Search is an evil hard problem

google evilOne of my pet peeves about most real estate search sites is that I can’t search on what I want. All of them, ask the same 4 or 5 questions. Where is your house located? How much can you afford? How many bedrooms? Blah, blah, blah..

Well, I’m going to attempt to change that. I want to find houses with CAT-5 wiring built in! I want to find houses with home theaters & wine cellars. I want to find a home with air conditioning (believe it or not, summer is coming). And now, I can. I proudly present our new search remarks feature.

Using the power of SQL Server‘s Full-Text Indexing features, this is now possible. Granted, our search is a long long ways away from being Google good, but it’s a start. If somebody wants to throw a lot of money at me so I can turn around and buy a copy of Endeca In Front or a Google Search Appliance, I suspect we’d get a lot better.

For example, when I looked for “cat 5” and found a house that doesn’t have a black cat. I looked for “home theater” and found a lot of homes (but not lot of homes with home theaters). Do a search for “media rooms” and you’ll find a lot rooms (but not as many media rooms). Obviously, you need to pick your words carefully to get what you want. Also, I need to start adding words like “home” & “room” to SQL’s noise word list since those words appear on nearly every listing’s remarks section. But, let’s face it, writing a search engine is hard. Eventually, I’ll tweak things so I can get Google or Microsoft to do my dirty work.

In the mean time, I hope finding your dream home got a little easier.

Robbie
Caffeinated Software

The Future of MLS search is coming to Rain City Guide

Greetings fellow Rain City Readers! I’m a software engineer that has been working with Dustin to develop a better MLS search. Before I get started into what I’m doing, I thought I’d discuss the why I’m doing it‚Ķ

My saga began when I had the opportunity to develop an NWMLS search web site for a local realtor. After spending several weeks, cutting red tape, determining what forms I needed to fill out, figuring out whom at my realtor’s broker I needed to bother, signing my life away and finally getting access to an NWMLS database, I was at the point where I could get real work done. Anyway, after I had spent over 40 hours developing standard search features (search summary with thumbnails, property detail page) and a few interesting ones (like customized HTML e-mail with property photos, customizable photo not available photos on search results), I sent her my bill.

Then things went south. Despite the fact that my client was warned ahead of time that my time isn’t free, she apparently expected that I would be price competitive with “canned” solutions such as those offered by iHouse & Superlative. On the one hand, I can’t blame her. A consultant can’t compete with a commercial product, because a commercial product has a lot more customers to help finance its development than a lone consultant does. Just because those companies sell solutions for $50/month doesn’t mean it only costs them $50 to design, develop & test the software! It still costs those organizations thousands of dollars (or more) to bring these products to market! However, if you plan on distributing software to 1,000 customers, you can charge a lot less per customer, than if you are only distributing it to one.

Anyway, after this failed business opportunity, I decided to contact Dustin and regroup. I wanted to develop a unique MLS service that would’ve given my client a competitive advantage (and she was more interested in price than value) and after reading Rain City Guide it became obvious that Dustin would see the value in what I could do. Besides, I’d rather continue to improve the code I was working on than send it to the hard drive in the sky.

Dustin & I, both share the belief that the real estate industry is in for some very interesting times as the reverberations of the internet revolution continue to change our society and business models. Dustin’s enthusiasm for the ideas I’m trying implement is contagious and we essentially worked out a deal in which I’ll continue to develop compelling MLS technology in my spare time, I’ll use him and his Rain City readers as a sounding board for ideas and beta testers (both marketing & development feedback), and in a few months time, ideally, I would have developed a really unique service that technology savvy realtors would be willing to pay for.

One of the cooler things I’ve done is turn MLS search results in to Google Earth files. Just download the Google Earth application, visit our BETA listings search page, click on the Google Earth icon, and see your search results on a 3D globe. Eventually, we’ll do similar stuff with AJAX style Mapping (although, right now I’m focusing more on things that haven’t been done yet) and other applications.

Google Earth Application

Most realtors have “me too” & “same old thing” web sites. One of the things I want to do, is give realtors the ability of exploiting the MLS data in way that is valuable and compelling to their clients and strengthens & reinforces their name/brand to their prospects. Having customized RSS feeds of MLS data, having proximity searches to points of interest (how far is this house away from a gas station?), and take advantage of all the cool location/mapping technology that the 3 giants of the internet are developing (Microsoft, Google & Yahoo), are just some of the things that could be done, but aren’t really done yet.

One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that currently only software engineers with access to MLS data can do these things. Unfortunately, we live in world in which most realtors don’t have the skills & knowledge that software engineers have and most software engineers don’t have free access to the raw MLS data that most realtors do, so things are moving slower than they otherwise might be. Obviously, waiting for the HouseValue’s of the world to develop this technology is an option. However, their business model seems to be marginalizing the value of a realtor instead of enhancing it. I’d rather take the opposite tack, since I suspect that my future customers would prefer to use technology to improve their competitive advantage against all comers rather than having it used against them and risk turning themselves into a bunch of “me-too” commodity realtors paying somebody else for random sales leads. (which is probably one of the reasons you blog!)

Right now, you can take a gander at the humble beginnings of our grand vision at http://listings.raincityguide.com/search.aspx. Granted we still have a few bugs that need to be fixed, and many, many more features need to get implemented. However, it’s my goal to turn this into something that would provide a compelling value for my future clients (realtors & their customers) and I welcome any comments that would help me, help you.

Robbie
Caffeinated Software