Playing With Rain City Guide's Real Estate Search Tool

Robbie Paplin of Caffeinated Software has built a great home search tool for the Seattle area and he put some very interesting posts together giving background on his effort, but I’m not sure he’s done a great job letting everyone know just how cool it is.

So, let me clarify the situation… The search tool is AWESOME!

What’s so cool about it?

  1. google earthGoogle Earth. It exports any and all of your searches to Google Earth! This means that you can get extremely clear aerial images of the home and nearby neighborhood.
  2. RSS buttonReal Simple Syndication (RSS). Every search can be exported as an RSS feed an imported into a Blog Reader.
  3. Sort by Price/SqFoot. . This is subtle improvement, but it can lead to some surprisingly relevant insights. On any search, let’s say “Seattle Homes” or even “Million Dollar Listings“, you can sort the results by the price per square foot. (This would be an even more useful feature if more homes didn’t have “0” listed as their size, but that’s better left for another post… 🙂
  4. Rain City Guide Search StatisticsSearch Statistics. With every search result, a box is presented that gives you statistics like the average list price and size for homes for that search.
  5. Complete Seattle Listings. Unlike some of the other search sites that are cropping up, we’ve got a complete list of homes that are for sale by real estate agents in Seattle. (I’d tell you that it is “MLS” data, but I don’t think I’m allowed to say that… 🙂

So who might find this search tool useful?

  • Home buyers who want to be updated on new homes as they hit the market! (it only takes a few hours (minutes?) for a home to be listed by an agent before it hits our servers and is picked up by the blog reader of your choice!
  • Home owners who are curious what homes are being listed in their neighborhood (or zip code!)
  • Real estate agents (like home buyers) who want to be notified of listings as they hit the market via their RSS reader!

And I’m sure there are others…

By the way, because of the nature of RSS feeds, I’ve been able to present the results from selected home searches as they get listed on my sidepanel. I’m sure that there are a ton of other interesting ways to use RSS feeds on real estate sites… Any recommendations?

Heard around the web:

Real estate search sites hit data control sore spot

Inman news had an interesting article today about how some of the innovative real estate search sites are causing headaches across the country. Considering all the conversations on Rain City Guide recently about the future of “data” this seems quite relevant and is a very interesting read. However, Inman will make the article subscriber-only after today, so catch it fast if you’re not a subscriber (or just read below for some of the more interesting quotes):

Out of companies that have released real estate search tools, the two most interesting (to me) are definitely Trulia and PropSmart. (The Inman article also features some background on Oodle, but they don’t seem to have the laser-like focus on real estate like the other two)

Here is Ron Hornbaker of PropSmart view of the situation:

While (Ron) said the response to Propsmart has been mostly positive from agents and brokers, he has received a bit of pushback from a few people in the multiple listing service community. “First of all, they’re using the word ‘illegal’ and … ‘copyright infringement.’ I’ve just been polite and talked to them. We don’t want to do anything people don’t want us to do.” Hornbaker said he has complied with the wishes of industry professionals who wish to remove their listings from being included at the site.

“My concern is they are speaking for way more interest than they should be. I do not believe we are a Napster-like model, and that’s what we’re being equated to,” he said, referring to Napster’s past problems in offering up a service that allowed users to illegally download music. “I would ask the people who say we’re doing illegal things to point out where the harm is — who are we damaging?”

That last quote would be sure to get a few comments from concerned agents should Ron have posted it on a blog… 🙂

The property listings displayed at Propsmart, he said, “are being used simply for display to consumers to point them to a home for sale. I would think that the opposite side of this could be argued more effectively: By restricting consumer access to the listings, that has more (potential) for being illegal.

“I believe it’s the seller who’s being forgotten in this situation. It is the seller we’re trying to stand up for and do the right thing for,” Hornbaker said, adding that sellers may not be aware — and may not approve — of efforts by brokers to block the listing from being viewed on some Web sites.

“I don’t buy the ‘copyright infringement’ for a second. They see their old model slipping away and they’re grasping at what they can,” he added. “We’re not trying to make money from the brokers. We’re not a middleman. We’re just trying to be a useful tool for consumers. I think this is going to backfire on the (opponents) in time.”

The gang at Trulia also gave some background on their view of where Trulia fits into the big picture:

Sami Inkinen, COO and co-founder at Trulia, said the site’s development team made a concerted effort to bring brokers to the table. “Most importantly, even before we launched we talked to all of the key brokers in advance to make sure the product was acceptable to what they want.” Inkinen said that Trulia is also careful not to access IDX, or Internet Data Exchange property listings information that is protected through broker agreements with MLSs.

While brokers seem to get it, Trulia CEO and co-founder Pete Flint said MLS’s are “frankly a mixed bag. Some of them have yet to understand … that this is in the best interest of their members. Some of them are not friends of innovation. Really what we’re focused on for now … (is) communicating how search is really positive to the real estate industry.”

Inkinen said, “We understand who we’re serving and we’re serving the brokers. We don’t want to own content. Our motto has always been the search-engine approach, the search-engine model — help brokers to place the digital yard sign on the Internet and then point to the actual source.”

Flint added, “We’re very aware that listings are a very delicate matter. We’re not looking to reinvent the industry in any way. We’re trying to improve things a little bit for consumers, and … a little bit for brokers.”

(Thanks to Jim of Central Virginia Real Estate News for tipping me off about this interesting article)

List of the Most innovative Search Sites

Innovative Real Estate TechnologiesThere are so many interesting real estate search sites that are pop up every day, and in the process of trying to cover all of them in a blog format, I think things have gotten a little too scattered. So I took a little time this evening and put all of the sites that I’m aware of on one page along with a few notes about them. Check it out at:

At this point, I’ve broken all of the sites into four categories:

  • National Sites: major MLS and FSBO sites
  • Regional Sites: smaller data sets that are yet to go national
  • Specialty Sites: sold data, property information, etc.
  • Vaporware: still waiting for a product…

This beauty of making this list on a webpage instead of a blog post is that it will be much more fluid. I always feel awkward about updating a blog entry after I’ve posted it, but I’ll feel no qualms about updating this list on a regular basis. Along those lines, if you know of an innovative real estate tool that I’ve missed, please let me know!

The State of Real Estate Search

real estate search enginesTom over at the Seattle Property News summed the current state of real estate search with this question: “Is there a regional bubble in online real estate sites?

From a consumer’s point-of-view, it is wonderful that home buyers (and sellers!) are starting to see so many options come on the market. I’ve really enjoyed following as more and more of these tools come on-line and I thought I would take today to review some of the posts I’ve had on real estate search. If you are looking to freshen up on the future of real estate search, there is lots of information (and links to more info) in the following articles:

As a fun little aside, when a new search site is announced I like to see the type of buzz that it is getting in the blogosphere. The chart from this post shows the relative buzz that Trulia, Redfin and Zillow have been getting.

Also, there are a few small search sites, like Propsmart, that I haven’t covered mainly because I simply don’t have anything interesting to say about them yet. However, if you are building (or have built) a real estate search site, I’m definitely interested in hearing about it!

GoogleBase Heads into Real Estate?

Google BaseThe Search Engine Roundtable brings up the possibility that Google will slip into the real estate market as part of a much large (all-inclusive) database (or GoogleBase). This has a ton of potential and should Google get serious about listing real estate, this should be a major concern to all the people who are creating real estate applications (Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, etc):

There has been some talk this morning onto what will actually be included into Google Base, there are some nice screenshots that have come live this morning. Giving us a little glimpse of how Google thinks the world’s information should be organized. Here is a shot where you can post your items to Google Base and another shot where you need enter in some information about a house.

To get an idea of where they might go, check out this screenshot of a house listing. It is shockingly simple… but then again, the simple solutions are often the best!

Update 1: I was able to get into GoogleBase today and play around a little. I even found the “housing” page that is shown in the screenshot from above. However, when I tried to save a test entry, the system kicked me out. From my early preview, it appears that they’re building a “Craigslist on Steroids!”

Update 2: The NYTimes followed up on the idea of Google getting into real estate: “Among the many projects being developed and debated inside Google is a real estate service, according to a person who has attended meetings on the proposal. The concept, the person said, would be to improve the capabilities of its satellite imaging, maps and local search and combine them with property listings.”

“The service, this person said, could make house hunting far more efficient, requiring potential buyers to visit fewer real estate agents and houses. If successful, it would be another magnet for the text ads that appear next to search results, the source of most of Google’s revenue.”

Update 3: The property grunt had an interesting take on Google Base.

The Rebirth of Redfin?

[photopress:tyler_scott_01.jpg,thumb,alignright]In response to my recent slew of posts on real estate search engines, a reader (Amy Wu) left a comment asking if I’d ever tried Redfin. I’ve definitely tried Redfin and at one point I was a huge fan of their site. As a matter of fact, way back in March (before the days of plentiful google map-hacks), I mentioned how great it is to be able to get a birds-eye view of properties using Redfin. By the way, that was only my 3rd post for Rain City Guide (RCG)!

However, around June, RCG had a falling out with Redfin when they changed their business model to directly compete with Real Estate agents. One of the more interesting outcomes of my June post is that a former employee of Redfin wrote a long comment detailing some of his negative experiences while working at Redfin. After posting the comment, he asked that I delete it after David Ecker (founder and CEO of Redfin) wrote to him threatening a lawsuit.

However, I’m always willing to give people a second chance, so based on the Amy’s prompt, I decided to revisit Redfin. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they no longer mention the service I objected to. Go Redfin! I’m not sure if my posting had anything to do with the elimination of that poorly thought-out service, but either way, I’m pleased to see that they no longer advertise that service on their site.

So, in honor of my complete re-look at Redfin, I thought I’d compare them in the same method that I’ve been comparing sites like Trulia and Home Pages?

The Great:

  • Neighborhood Focus: Their interface makes it extremely easy to focus on local neighborhoods
  • Agent Integration: Their business model includes an easy way for agents to sign up and take part in their success!

The Good:

  • Stability: Their flash maps are much more stable than Home Pages (especially on a Mac)
  • Real Estate Data: Up-to-date date of homes-for-sale and sold-home
  • Personalized Mapping: Their maps are quick and don’t rely on another company’s service!
  • They’re Local: They serve (and only serve) the Seattle area (King County to be specific)

The bad:

  • They’re Local: They serve (and only serve) the Seattle area. I know from my stats that many of my readers are from other parts of the country/world, and Redfin simply will not help you at all!
  • Porting to other areas: I’ve heard for quite a while that Redfin was thinking of expanding to other areas, but their web-backend is apparently too complex to easily add to new areas. Having worked extensively with spatial data (GIS) for many years, I’m would not be surprised to hear that they are having problems adding new cities, but it is definitely disappointing. Along those lines, a service like Home Pages that relies on more generic neighborhood data (like school district data available from the Census District) has a much easier time going national!

The Ugly:

    Arrogance: When I talk with people from Trulia and LTD, I get a sense of excitement from the developers and a real sense that they want to hear how they can better serve their target market. The people at Redfin rarely return emails, and really don’t seem interested in hearing suggestions. I get the impression that they are sure they know the best way to serve the industry…

Regardless of their business politics, Redfin offers some pretty darn good real estate mapping features. If you are looking for a home in King County (Seattle, Redmond, Bellevue, etc.), I would definitely recommend checking them out! But when looking toward the future of real estate search, I just don’t see much excitement happening at Redfin, so unless there is a major change in their direction, I doubt they will still seem like an interesting real estate search one year from now (let alone 5 years!).


The Mercury News reports that both Google and Yahoo are in talks with CoStar Group, commercial real estate’s largest firm. With Google’s reputation for building clean and fast web applications and their vast source of neighborhood data from Google Local, they definitely have the potential to build a killer application.

Along these lines, there have been some interesting discussions around the web lately with regards to developing sites around Google Maps. Greg Linden reminded me of a conversation I had a long time ago with Paul Rademacher (of HousingMaps). Back in June, Paul mentioned that he was reluctant to build a real estate search engine using MLS data because (1) all of the data was owned by other people and (2) the mash-ups are so easy to replicate.

I thought that Search Engine Watch had an interesting addition to this conversation when they point out that the real winner of the API/mashup model is often the company that is opening their service up. The mash-ups are a great breading ground for interesting ideas… but that when push comes to shove, the mash-ups are really just providing a way for companies like Google to let others figure out what mapping add-on technologies are worth pursuing:

It also demonstrates what I told a journalist recently about APIs not perhaps being as altruistic as they seem. Give the world an API to your service, and it’s a nice way to let everyone develop new ideas that you might later decide to do yourself, if they seem successful. It’s like Google’s 20 percent time on steroids, because non-Google developers still end up doing work for you.

As someone very interested in the future of real estate search, I’d definitely welcome someone like Google in the mix because I think they could add some some desperately needed innovation to the real estate industry.

Better Late than Never

Smiling SashaJohn Cook’s Venture Blog pointed out today that Zillow got a new look and is now looking for beta users… Much to Zillow’s credit, they’ve created an aura of excitement despite the fact that no one knows what their product will look like, or when it will be available.

This got me thinking that it is clearly time for some updates on real estate search. The past two weeks, I’ve been too busy at work (WAY TOO BUSY) to write any posts, so I was glad that Anna took up some slack and wrote about Home Pages. However, I’ve had this nagging need to write a little more about the site, and I’ve finally found some time. Here are some of my notes from my test-drive of Home Pages:

The great:

  • Neighborhood information: It is really great that they’ve integrated so many different layers into their map. Just like Home Values, in the very near future all home search sites will need to include information like schools, parks, etc.
  • Sold Home Info: It’s great to have this information integrated into the search site

The good:

  • Personalized UI/mapping: I really like that they’ve developed their own user interface instead of relying on one of the big three providers (Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft). That should give them lots of flexibility into the future, although it also means they’ve taken on a whole host of update issues instead of passing the buck on that one. I’ll be interested to hear from someone at Home Values about their experience with this hosting their own mapping.

The bad:

  • Small map: Why so small? Blow up the size of the map at least 2X
  • Mac Issues: Elements of the screen don’t show up on my Mac. I lose the entire map at times… (by the way, I don’t notices this problem on my PC at work)

The ugly:

  • Contact Information: I hate websites that make you give personal information in order to get the full features. As a real estate agent, Anna already gets 2 to 3 junk emails a day from House Values (the company behind Home Pages), so I’d hate to think of the consequences of a potential home buyer giving them a phone number. Be VERY weary of giving them an email unless you want lots of emails that border on spam.

Home Pages is the only real estate search site that I’ve seen that even remotely compares to Trulia… and it has one MAJOR advantage over Trulia in that it is using updated Multiple Listing Service (MLS) data instead of screen scraping real estate sites. This is a huge advantage in that I’ve been told via email, IM, comments, etc that the data on Trulia is incomplete and outdated.

In many ways, my heart is really with the Trulia team because I think they are offering a superior search. I really like the clean UI, the RSS feeds, the home statistics, etc. but if they don’t have the most up-to-date homes available on the market, then I’d be hard-pressed to recommend their site to anyone looking to buy a home. For this reason, I’d have to say that Home Pages currently leads the market at the best publicly-available home search. If you haven’t checked their site out already, then use this post as inspiration to get an idea of where the future of real estate search is heading!

The future does not belong to the collective, long-term agent

I’ve been having an interesting dialog (via email) with a real estate agent who I completely respect. He brings up some interesting issues that I thought were worth bringing to the general public (these ideas want to be free instead of locked up in Google’s email archive 🙂 )

…I can certainly appreciate their (Trulia) desire to ‘break the monopoly’ but keep in mind that the MLS is just a compilation of broker-represented listings. Brokers own those listing and ultimately decide where they go for marketing purposes. ‘Breaking the monopoly’ would mean one would either have to get consensus of a critical mass of the Brokers (90%+) or become a broker oneself and start listing lots of homes. Both are unlikely… Much better to find a way to accomplish the goal of improving search within the ground rules of existing copyright law (think old Napster, new Napster)…

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I really dislike the inefficiencies in the current MLS system, and yet, I can see how everyone benefits from the increased information sharing. If the choice was between the current MLS set-up and a situation where agents all held onto their own data, I’d definitely prefer the current MLS situation…

sunflowersBut that’s not the choice anymore. Before the advent of the internet, it was only logical that agents needed to work together and form a cooperating system so that they could share listing information. And I can totally understand that agents needed listing rules in order to ensure that one rogue agent (or homeowner) didn’t screw up the whole listing situation. I can completely appreciate this history…

But what I’ve described is the historical legacy of the the MLS, not the future. The internet has changed the situation dramatically by making the sharing of information extremely easy! Rather than protecting themselves from one rogue agent or one greedy home owner, real estate agents now need to protect themselves from an onslaught! There is no way that a company that aggregated listing data from agents (as in Trulia) could have been built 10 years ago. And yet today, it seems shocking that such a site wasn’t available a week ago.

I think the comparisons to between Trulia and the old Napster are misleading, and ultimately wrong.

But first the similarities: The old Napster was fought by the recording industry because they facilitated the sharing of valuable information (music), just as Trulia will likely be fought by the real estate industry because they are facilitating the sharing of valuable information (listings).

But the way that music and listings gain value could not be more different.
The value of music is embedded in each and every song and can be easily monetized for consumers (Recording industry: “that song will be 99 cents!”). The value of listings are embedded in the entirety of all the listings and each individual listing cannot be easily monetized for consumers (Real estate industry: “that listing will be 99 cents!”).

Flag over waterBut far more important… The ultimate client of the recording industry (musicians) benefit only if a song is sold and not if it is illegally downloaded. In contrast, the ultimate client of the real estate industry (home buyers and sellers) benefits every time a listing is seen (illegally or not!). As these aggregating services become more and more popular (options like Trulia, Craigslist, Ebay Real Estate, Google Classifieds, and Zillow), real estate agents are going to be constantly challenged to decide between their individual AND short-term interest (list the home as widely as possible) and their collective AND long-term interest (keep their monopoly on listings!).

In the battle of individual/short-term interests vs. collective/long-term interests, I’d put my money behind the former every time.