Content is King!

I have always said content is king, especially in the Web 2.0 world.  Without content, you are not only invisible to the ‘net, you are also meaningless.  No matter how significant of technology you possess.  This was never more apparent then the time we launched our first mapping application a couple generations ago (that is August of ’05 in Internet time).

[photopress:streetadvisorlogo.jpg,thumb,alignright]A company that will win or loose depending on their content launched Yesterday morning. Melbourne, Australia based company launched their site and lets people comment on, and find information about, streets in their neighborhood. 

What a great idea!  Since back in the day, I have always wanted to create what I feel would be the perfect real estate site.  This site would not only list hosues for sale and sold (like every other site), but would also have neighborhood information.  The perfect site would essentially be to houses what vehix is to cars.

StreetAdvisor is the easy way to find out what people REALLY think about the street they live in.  They ask many of the questions I would want answered before I moved in to a new neighborhood.

  • “If only I knew what my street was like before I bought the house!”
  • “I wish there was a way to ask my neighbors a question, but I’m just too busy to see them.”
  • “I like my house, but my street is so noisy!”
  • “My neighbor’s dog is always barking” (I added that one)

I know Shackprices has something similar to this under their Shack Neighborhoods.

The Wisdom of Crowds

At a client conference in my last job, one of the keynote speakers was writer James Surowiecki, author of the book The Wisdom of Crowds. Pulling notes from his book, he made a compelling case that large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant; better at fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, and even predicting the future.

[photopress:crowds.jpg,full,alignright] The most fascinating example (and there were many) of this wisdom is in the investigation of a submarine that had sank and disappeared. The Navy had limited information regarding its location, and all searches came up empty. One smart fellow had the idea to consult a wide range of experts – in oceanography, ballistics, physics, engineering, etc., and ask them to come up with a probable location of the submarine. All the answers were collected and analyzed, and an ‘average’ location was charted based on the data. Chillingly, the sub was found within hundreds of yards of that location.

With large sample sizes, crowds form a network, and the best solutions bubble up from the collective thought. Though it sounds very Borg-like, we witness examples of it every day. The financial markets often sniff out trends and problems before they hit the front page. There is no collusion or any critical mass of explicit cooperation here – these trends are created by the cumulative wisdom of the market’s millions and millions of participants.

Which brings me to the potential wisdom of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s housing futures index created by Karl Case and Robert Shiller. Theoretically, this market would allow individual homeowners to hedge their investment by purchasing future contracts based on their metro level housing market. Let’s say I owned an apartment in NYC that is worth $1.5mm today. I could buy contracts that would pay me if the market dropped by 20%. I would effectively lock in a certain value for my property at a future date with these contracts.

If this concept takes off, the swings in the housing market would flatten considerably. If Joe homebuyer sees the contract prices that are based on next year’s housing values reflect a substantial drop, Joe homebuyer will be less likely to overpay for a property. Also, if Joe homebuyer could basically buy insurance against a large correction, the real economic impact of such corrections would be dampened by the payout of this ‘insurance’. However, Surowiecki has doubts that such a ‘wise crowd’ can materialize in the near future. As explained in a New Yorker article on this market, culture and habit matter as much as economic rationale. He writes:

“Even today, it’s clear that otherwise rational people harbor deep-seated beliefs that make housing futures a tough sell. People generally don’t hedge individual investments, because they don’t like to limit their potential gains in advance. That’s especially true when it comes to housing, because of the ingrained assumption that, over time, real estate is guaranteed to be an excellent investment—even though Shiller, in a recent book, shows that, allowing for inflation, American home prices barely budged during the twentieth century. In that sense, the housing-futures market has what is known as a framing problem: selling a contract seems like betting on housing prices to fall, rather than simply insuring yourself in case they do.”

This market debuted only about four months ago, so there is by no means any critical mass to it. It’s thinly traded, and it only offers futures on 10 US markets (Seattle is not one of them). Interestingly, the trading activity indicates a correction in the ten covered markets over the next year (with Denver showing the least downside). I would love to have had Seattle on the list. But, if trading activity increases, I would imagine that more markets would be added – and Seattle’s got to be high on that list.

Given that real estate is extremely localized (e.g. neighborhood by neighborhood), would a market that had critical mass (millions of contracts exchanged per day) be a driving force in the direction of a metropolitan market’s value? Would the average increase or decline be pretty darn close, even if street level values varied significantly block by block? My guess is that they would be extremely influential in how money moved in and out of the housing market. Such an efficient market would provide opportunity for long term homeowners to hedge their investments, speculators to make bets on the direction of the market, and renters to protect themselves from ‘missing out’ on appreciation.

In other words, many of the financial benefits of the American dream of homeownership could be had without ever buying a home. Take things a step further, and perhaps a fully matured and stable housing futures market would advance the dream of disintermediation further than Redfin or Housevalues could ever do. With good market info, long term home buyers wouldn’t have to worry so much about overpaying on a property if the market indicates a strong future value. Therefore, a precise valuation that an agent might be able to give versus that of an automated system may not worth the extra money it would cost in agent fees.

Wikis and Maps

Wikimapia, which is basically wikipedia plus location, just added the ability to embed maps into your page. I like the neighborhood boxes and the map interface, but as far as labeling and tying together the world, it’s not quite as good as 43 Places, which lets users map their neighborhoods with more precision than a rectangle.

The amount of open, user generated spatial information on the web is skyrocketing right now.

10 Things You Should Know Before Moving to Seattle

Where do you find inspiration?

Out of all the places to find inspiration for a blog post, my current favorite is deep within the RCG stats where I can find the search terms that people use to reach this site. Today, someone came to RCG looking for: [things+you+should+know+before+moving+to+Seattle], and while we likely disappointed that particular visitor, I would like to make amends by offering up this list of ten things you should know before moving to Seattle:

rain in Seattle1) It rains.

2) No really, it rains a lot here. Despite what they say about it raining more in Atlanta, Boston, or D.C., the rain in Seattle can be like a slow trickle that never turns off. But the rain is okay… really… because one day… some day… it stops. And on those first few warm, sunny spring days, all of life is good in a way that Californians will never understand (unless they move to Seattle).

3) Seattle isn’t always comfortable being a high-tech town. Sure we design operating systems, sell stuff online, try to appraise every home in America and stream lots of music and movies, but a substantial portion of the population relates much more to the art of building airplanes.

4) Consensus Rules. Just agree with me on this one or I’ll never be able to get to #5.

5) Traffic Rules. People in Seattle talk a lot more about traffic than the weather. Depending on where you are moving from, traffic will either be horrible or a non-issue. Most blue-state people will laugh at Seattle traffic because you can normally get between any two points in the City in under a half-hour at all times of the day. Red-state people see the parking lot known as SR 520 and wonder why we haven’t build another bridge yet (see #4 for a hint at the answer).

6) Seattle is not that big. We have all the stuff associated with life in a major city: Theaters, traffic, ballets, sports teams, traffic, skyscrapers, music, etc., but you really don’t have to travel far to feel like you are in rural America.

7) Seattle is closer to Asia than Mexico. If one of the staples of your diet consists of cheap and tasty Mexican food, then you will eventually replace that staple with Pho. The sooner you accept this (and the sooner you stop saying “The Mexican food is so much better in California”), the sooner Seattleites will let you know about the good Asian restaurants. (And by the way, since we’re talking about good food, I feel obliged to mention that the Mexican food I remember growing up with in California was so much better than anything you can find in Seattle…)

8) The intersection of NE 50th St and 40th Ave NE is about a mile away from 50th Ave NE and NE 40th St. In the Seattle area, all the street names are numbered and given one of nine directions (NW, N, NE, SW, S, SE, E, W or blank). The numbers begin at 1 in downtown Seattle and radiate out wards. The directions also radiate out, but are city specific, unless, of course, they aren’t… Like at the intersection of 244th St SW, 100th Ave W, N 205th St and 8th Ave NW. There is logic to the entire street system and if you live here long enough, you will understand. Until then, you will be confused and miss appointments, meetings, birthdays, etc.. On a related real estate note, if you are new to Seattle, do not attempt to search for a home without a real estate agent. The street system was designed by a committee of real estate agents who wanted to ensure that you need their help to locate a home. 😉 Also on a related note, Redfin has proposed new street names (featuring real names) for all streets in a effort to ensure the viability of their business model, but at this point, they are still very far from getting consensus on their proposed naming convention.

9) Paul Allen.

10) Despite what you might have read in Wired, Fremont is the Center of the Universe.

Have I covered everything?