Interview with Noah Rosenblatt of UrbanDigs

Back in December I ran a series of interviews with the real estate bloggers who most inspired me. Seeing as how I missed a few great bloggers that round, I thought I would revisit this topic and interview a few more great real estate bloggers! As with the previous interviews, I’ll keep my own opinions out and let the bloggers speak for themselves! Keep coming back for a post each day this week featuring an interview with a great real estate blogger!

[photopress:noah.jpg,full,alignright]In less than a year of covering NY real estate, Noah Rosenblatt has turned his blog, UrbanDigs, into a must read for quality real estate content as he tends to leave out the fluff and focus on in depth analysis and advice while still providing plenty of color on his site. Even though his focus is on New York, there’s enough meat in each of his posts that even us west coasters are likely to see a jump in our IQ after a visit to UrbanDigs.

What inspired you to start blogging?

To educate New Yorkers on the most important aspects of profiting from NYC real estate. It’s really targeted to buyers/sellers of this very different market.

Are there any special topics or issues that you enjoy covering?

Yes. I love covering Interest Rate’s and some of the macro signs that the fed looks at when deciding where to go with monetary policy. It’s such an important aspect of the real estate industry, especially in this city where premium existing apartments are selling for over $1,000/ sq. ft..

What have you done to personalize your blog?

I really gave it a facelift to make it visually appeasing to my readers. I also added a Live Chat session every MON – FRI from 10:00 – 12:00PM for anyone to stop by and ask their questions; first time buyers seem to love it.

Do you have any favorite posts?

Sure do. I love my post on Maintenance Charges: The Hidden Devil.

I like the little formula that is at the end of the post that every buyer should look at and calculate the #’s for a property they may be. It allows them to see how the total monthlies should affect the asking price as they review comps and currently active listings in the same building.

I also like my posts on A Buyer Broker and How To Find Good Value In A Sellers Market.

The latter talks about what to pay for and what NOT to pay for when the inventory is tight! Good advice to use in general when looking to buy a new apartment in NYC.

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

Besides RCG? I love:

Last one is not a blog but a must in my mind.

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

I like Movable Type software and would recommend them to any future blogger. Its very easy to use and pretty advanced. I like Feedburner for feeds, and Technorati for exposure. Also submit to Yahoo Directory and all the major blog search engines; too many to name.

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

I devote about 3-4 hours a day to blogging; which includes the 2 hour chat session. Its difficult sometimes to do really in depth analysis and post on it, but overall, I expect my time devoted to UrbanDigs to compliment my residential sales business model that I am building for myself in NYC. Buyers/Sellers here love honesty and passion. UrbanDigs is an expression of me to that respect and my clients love it. I do NOT market my exclusives on UrbanDigs though.

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

I have plans to introduce a number of virtual calculators with my own formulas (I love math!) that I think will be very useful for buyers/sellers of NYC real estate. They will each have its own focused application; such as a RENT vs. BUY calculator that is far better than’s or any other one I’ve used. These tools are vital for this fast paced market and should be very helpful. A few should be live by the end of March.

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

I would say Virtual Calculators. Since we don’t have them yet, I wish I had them now! I’m not really interested in putting any sales system into the site as I don’t think that is the point of UrbanDigs.

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

I think it will be a integral part of buying a home; not so much selling a home. I think there are tons of people out there that use the internet to educate themselves about everything. Real Estate is no different. I think real estate blogging will grow, more brokers will launch sites, topics will be expanded, and that only a few will really make it to their pre-determined goals. On the flip side, the general public will be rewarded with a virtual encyclopedia on many cities real estate markets that offer street level information. Thats pretty useful.

You don't know the power of the dark side

vaderAfter playing with Zillow for the past couple of days, the first words that come to mind are “Impressive, but you are not a Jedi yet”. I have a hunch the guys at HouseValues are going to get “Netscaped” if they don’t take their game to next level.

The Good
The UI is slick. The mapping isn’t quite Virtual Earth / Google maps slick but it’s close (if you add mouse wheel zoom, arrow key navigation support and resizeable maps, I’d put it in that league). Seeing all the lot boundaries displayed on the map is something that I haven’t seen done well before and is a feature that will be expensive or difficult for Zillow’s competitors to match. I like the fact that they partnered with GlobeXplorer, since I believe that will enable them to out map RedFin.

The Ugly
I find all the trash talk about uptime and availability amusing. As any experienced software engineer will tell you, the first days for any web based service that has had the anticipation & hype of Zillow are going be rough. After all, if the mighty Microsoft had troubles with X-Box Live when Halo 2 was launched a few years ago, the fact that Zillow’s first day had some minor troubles is hardly surprising. Besides, I’m sure Rich Barton and the boys will buy a few AMD Dual Core Athlons CPUs with the new WD Raptor drives during the next few days and cure that problem.

The Bad
I suspect biggest problem with Zestimates is the current lack of high quality data. (Gee, the same issue I keep complaining about). Any realtor will point out, doing an accurate completive market analysis house is a problem that involves many, many variables. I understand it’s a hard problem, but the fact that the Zetimates are so far off for my house (which I thought should be an easy case) is disappointing. I don’t expect accurate estimates for waterfront, hilltop views, high rise condos, Bill Gate’s house or rural properties. But my house is a cookie cutter house is suburbia (with lots of similar houses for sale). I would think my house would be an easy one to get right.

Just for kicks, I implemented a quick & dirty Compeitive Market Analysis feature for the Rain City Guide home search. I found it to be more accurate than Zillow for my house, and Dustin thought my estimate was right on the money for his home (after he entered the correct square footage). Anyway, play around with it and let us know how close to the “right” price it is for your area.

BTW – My version just goes against active NWMLS listings (so forget about trying it if don’t live in Washington). It’s pretty crude and it’s not as cool as Zillow, but then again, I hardly have $32 in venture capital (much less $32 million), so cut me some slack!

I think the nay sayer would be wise to recall the words my former boss once said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” Zillow’s Zestimates may be off in Safeco Field right now, but I have no doubt they will get much better over time. And when they do get better (not if), you better be ready.

Well, I’m going to shut up now and let my code do the talking. I’m sure the engineers at Zillow are following suit.

Caffeinated Software

Garbage In = Busy Maids (Cleaning up the MLS mess)

On the soapboxAs promised in my previous post, I’d like to get on my soap box and complain about the state of NWMLS data. As an application developer, I’d rather spend my time developing new & exiting ways of visualizing data instead of developing new & exiting ways of correcting inaccurate data. Unfortunately, in order to accomplish the former, a lot of effort is spent on the later.

For example, of the 20,376 properties that were in the database when I started writing this blog entry, 32 have bogus zip codes. I’m not talking about hard to find errors like a Sammamish property with an Issaquah zip code. I’m talking about outright typos and easy to catch errors. Zip codes like 00000, WA, and other obvious errors, like zip codes smaller than 98001 (which is the smallest zip code in Washington state).

Another bone of contention, is that nearly 7% of the properties in the NWMLS database have a square footage of 0 square feet (1,389 properties). How hard is it to contact the county assessor’s office or the property owner and get the number? Can’t you just give an intelligent guess? Needless to say, this complicates compiling price per square foot statistics because computers have this thing about not wanting to divide a number by zero.

Even more annoying, nearly 18% of the properties in the NWMLS database have a 0° north latitude & 0° west longitude (3,637 properties). Can’t you just go to a map web site and enter an intelligent guess? If you can afford to be a competitive realtor, you can afford a cheap GPS receiver to put accurate data into the MLS when you list a property. I’m sorry, but you if you say your client’s property is located in middle of the Atlantic, 350 miles off the coast of Accra, Ghana in Western Africa, why should I believe anything else in your listing?

Perhaps most disappointing is that over 50% of the properties in the database don’t have elementary school, junior high, or high school information associated with the listing (10,419 properties)! How is a client supposed to make an intelligent decisions on the quality of schools, if that information isn’t available? I can only imagine how frustrated professional realtors must feel about this since their livelihood is dependent on the quality of this data!

Now, given the frequency of these errors, it astounds me that I have yet to find an instance in which a county, city or community name was misspelled. So obviously, it is possible to have high quality data in the database. But why is only some of it of consistently high quality? And why do we have so many errors of commission?

To paraphrase one of Murphy’s Law “If builders built buildings, the way the local MLS (and local realtors) compile data, the first woodpecker would’ve destroyed civilization“. Why is the data so bad? Are some realtors too lazy to bother with listing a property with complete and accurate information? Does the MLS not care about this? Are the MLS data collection tools so bad, that the fact we have any data (much less accurate data) is a feat worth celebrating? Perhaps most importantly, what can we do to improve this sad state of affairs? To quote General Beringer, from the movie WarGames “I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it’d do any good!”

Caffeinated Software

PS – Go Seahawks!

Commuting in Seattle

[photopress:wroll07.jpg,thumb,alignright]I just found a nifty tool on the Washington State Department of Transportation’s website that allows you to calculate your commute time if you live in the Seattle area. If you are interested in how long it should take you to get to/from work from your potential new home, this will give you a pretty good feel of how long it will take to drive!

This got me thinking about all kinds of commute-related issues for Seattle area residents. Here is some of the commute-related info I dug up:

Trip Planner
For comparison purposes, King County Metro’s Trip Planner allows you to estimate how long it will take to commute via transit. Not only that, but the trip planner site will also tell you what routes to take!

Commute Costs

Finally, Metro also provides a commuting cost calculator that allows you to estimate the cost of driving vs the cost of commuting via transit. Of course, the calculator is biased toward convincing you to take transit, but it is none the less interesting to see all the costs of commuting.

The Future of Commuting to Downtown Seattle

My recomendation? If you are thinking of relocating to Seattle for work (and you are going to be working Downtown) then make sure that there is a convinient transit line that will get you to downtown. The daily grind of sitting in Seattle traffic will likely wear you down. Especially as traffic conditions in Downtown Seattle are likely to get much worse before they get better.

Why do I think traffic going to get worse before it gets better?
There are a bunch of plans in the future to improve the transportation network in Seattle. Ten years out, things should be much improved. But until then:

  • a major highway running through downtown (Alaskan Viaduct) will need to be rebuilt
  • a monorail line will be built in Downtown along 2nd Avenue
  • the I-5 reconstruction project calls for rebuilding parts of I-5 through Downtown
  • the transit tunnel (that runs under downtown) will be closed to construct a light-rail line forcing hundreds of buses a day on to Downtown Streets
  • SR 520 will need to be rebuilt

(Dustin’s bias: As an employee of DKS Associates, I’ve been paid to do transportation consulting for three of these five projects)

Am I missing something?

The good news is that a lot of money was just allocated to pay for some of these improvements, so while there will be some down time in the near future, the long-term prospects look very good for Downtown Seattle!

Loan Calculators

At some point I may develop a slew of loan calculators for this site, but there are so many good ones already on the web, that it is low on my priority list of things to add… The free tools available on eTrade Loan Calculators include:

  • Monthly Payment: Find out how much your monthly mortgage payment will be for any rate or program.
  • Amortization Schedule: View your payment schedule and see the monthly breakdown of principal and interest payments.
  • Affordability: Not sure how much home you qualify for? Find out using our affordability calculator.
  • Compare Loans: Simultaneously compare up to three different loan programs.
  • Renting vs. Buying: Does buying make sense?
  • Debt Consolidation: Find out how much you can save by consolidating your high-interest debt into one low, tax-deductible monthly payment.
  • Available Equity: Quickly calculate the amount of equity you have in your home.

Other loan calculators are available all over the web, although very few of them seem as clean as eTrade. Here are some more you may find helpful:

Do you know of a different and useful calculator? Let me know and I’ll happily add it!