A look behind the Shack, Part 1: Speed Kills


Really, in the world of the web, slow speed kills. And most people only think about the length of time it takes a website to load when it is taking eons to show up. For static sites, meeting the magic four second page load time isn’t too hard, but for sites with lots of “dynamic content” (fancy menus and whatnot) and maps, it becomes sort of a trick.

Many (most?) fancy real estate search sites are plagued by slow load times – see the real estate 2.x person’s site reviews to see scathing analyses of how long it takes to for many sites to load. In light of this, we took great pains to make our site both feel and be speedy and, if I don’t say so, I think we’ve been pretty successful. On my old-ish computer, the Seattle real estate page typically loads in under 10 seconds (we could still do better on this!) and house detail and nearby pages typically load in under 3 seconds.

One of the tricks we employ is we don’t actually shuffle visitors from a complete page to a completely new page, which means we don’t have to reload the time-consuming Google Map or any of the stuff on the sidebar. Instead, we load little subpages within the site using AJAX (which is, I believe, a dumb acronym). When you click to see the details for a house, we only load up those details and leave the side and top of the site alone and intact. When you click back to the map tab, it’s already there waiting for you because it was just hiding behind the house information.

There are some other tricks that are much more technical: before we launched in December we did a bunch of optimization to cut down the time it takes our database (with over 30,000 western Washington properties currently for sale) to find and spit out the houses that match each search. Currently it it returns the ‘shacks’ that match your search within a second of you dragging the map around – the rest of your wait is the time it takes to actually send and display that information on your screen.

The dynamic updating introduces a can of worms of it’s own, including longer development time, but we think the tradeoffs were entirely worth it.

This is the first in a series of “Behind the Shack” themed posts. If you are especially interested in one aspect of ShackPrices.com, let me know and I’ll try to write about it!

Changing the World One Banana at a Time

It appears that Rain City Guide has gone to bananas

The following photo baffled me when I first saw it.

How to explain someone linking to Rain City Guide with this photo?


With my curiosity peeked, I noticed that Ed Kohler posted the photo from his Flickr account… Hmm… Who’s Ed Kohler?

Ed is the man behind the the WhereToLive site (which is a decent map-based home search) and the Colorado Home Stop site (which is one of the best map-based home search interfaces I’ve been fortunate to play with!).

Ed emailed me last week to let me know about his Denver-area home search tool and despite my interest, I never got around to talking about it. But on the theory it is never too late, here are some of the features I really like:

  • Lightning fast
  • Photo scroll bar (Mac-style) at the bottom of screen that is connected to the map and highlights listings on map on mouse-over
  • Micro icons get bigger with zoom
  • Like Windermere’s maps, they bring every thing on one page, and aesthetically, it is much cleaner than the Windermere maps
  • Clean Trulia-style filters
  • Pull-down neighborhood search
  • Right-click functionality for zooming
  • Ability to compare homes without leaving the map

The moral of the story is that if you really want to get my attention, simply post a photo of a banana with Rain City Guide written on it and then let me discover it! I’m assuming that Ed is one of the monkey’s behind the banana site, and if so, it looks like he may be willing to help others out with a personalized banana!

Start searching on ShackPrices.com

[photopress:ShackPrices.gif,thumb,alignright]As of midnight last night, ShackPrices.com is live. We have a post up on the ShackBlog about what you’ll find on our new site, but I’ll summarize it for our readers here:

What is ShackPrices?

[photopress:map_sample.jpg,thumb,alignleft]ShackPrices.com is a snappy Google maps-based real estate search site that makes finding a home better by augmenting each real estate listing with data about what is nearby, including the distances to nearby landmarks, nearby schools and nearby bus stops. ShackPrices also helps home buyers learn about cities and neighborhoods through reviews, statistics and photos. Home buyers can search for shacks (shabby to chic, of course) across all of Western Washington on ShackPrices.com.

What makes ShackPrices.com different?

[photopress:tabs_1_2_3_4.jpg,full,alignright]You’ll spot some obvious things that differentiate ShackPrices.com right off the bat, including information about what is nearby every listing (check out the surroundings near this Ballard listing) and Suggested Shacks, which predicts houses home buyers might be interested in if they like any of the 20,000+ houses for sale on ShackPrices.com.

ShackPrices is still in its infancy, so expect more handy features in the coming year and please let us know how we can improve your experience.

What’s hot and what’s not in Seattle?

Where to invest next in Seattle/Eastside neighborhoods? I’ve been thinking about the list Seattle Metropolitan Magazine came up in April (see below). With gas prices up, rapid transit going in, I think the next hot spots will be along those rapid transit routes like what happened in San Francisco and Portland.

Here are 2 lists, one from last month and one from 3 years ago. My clients usually make a decision where to buy based on either the commute or schools, sometimes as specific as a certain grade school. What about home age and style. It has been suggested that buyers like the homes their grandparents lived in, not the ones they grew up in, so Will the next batch of buyers want the 50’s and 60’s houses as has been suggested and if so, should we be buying in those areas? There was supposed to be a trend away from large homes, and that’s probably the case considering home prices are so high most can’t have the size home the buyers of the 90’s did.

Here is the Seattle Metropolitan Magazine list of 15 of the hottest neighborhoods in it’s April issue.

Grandes Dames: established and well rooted neighborhoods:

  1. Medina: (recognize the house above?)
  2. Madison Park
  3. Admiral

The Rock Stars: fast rising districts surging with glamour and vitality.

  1. Ballard
  2. Pike/Pine Corridor
  3. Moss Bay, Kirkland

Cinderellas: Formerly neglected areas now traipsing to the ball

  1. South Lake Union (courtesy of Paul Allen)
  2. Columbia City
  3. Georgetown
  4. Westwood

Sleeping Beauties: Location, economy and neighborliness drawing overdue attention

  1. Upper Rainier Beach
  2. North Greenwood
  3. Monroe
  4. Stadium district, Tacoma
  5. Cape George Colony, Port Townsend

This is a dramatic change from 2003, when SeattleMagazine.com had their list of hot neighborhoods

  1. Bryant
  2. Montlake
  3. Sunset Hill
  4. North Beach
  5. Blue Ridge
  6. Olympic Manor
  7. Phinney Ridge
  8. Greenwood Manor
  9. North Admiral
  10. Westwood

Almost all of these were north of the U District.

Does this mean that our citizens are fickle and don’t have favorites more than 3 years in a row? Or was it this kind of story that drove the prices up in those neighborhoods so that they are now not affordable? Is it possible in 3 years that even Georgetown will be sizzling? I’d love to tap into the collective minds of RCG bloggers and see what you think.

I think Burien is an up-and-coming area and it’s not on either list. Any other hidden gems out there?

Sold Data

Interestingly, the NWMLS is now allowing agents to list sold data on real estate websites.

Along these lines, Shelley Rossi, the Director of Public Relations for John L. Scott, emailed to let me know that John L. Scott added a comparable market analysis tool to their home search Robbie discussed last week

There are two ways to access comparable sold property information on JohnLScott.com. The first is by address, which can be refined by entering property characteristics, such as square footage, bedrooms, bathrooms, etc., and the system will identify the ten closest “sold homes

The race for 2nd place has begun

OK, I’m biased and I still believe that “Zearch” is currently King of the Hill of King County home searches. However, I’m willing to give credit where credit is due and say the distance between us and the rest of the pack got smaller today.


Today, John L Scott and their solution provider, Bellevue based Real Tech, have quietly introducted what they call “Real-Maps 2.0“. Essentially, they are now using Microsoft Virtual Earth instead of the old school ESRI based solution. Additionally, it appears they’ve AJAX-ifed their search pane on their map page, so when you change search criteria it automatically updates the map and the matching results count (which is pretty slick). It also appears that Real Tech has gone all out, and at first glance, it appears they are using the not quite released Microsoft Atlas framework (a new development tool that makes “Web 2.0” style applications easier to develop). It appears they are using JSON for the postbacks (most sites use XML, I currently send back Javascript source code). I haven’t spent much time reverse engineering it or learning Atlas yet, so it’s possible they are using a 3rd party AJAX framework. Regardless of the technical details, it does raise the bar for everybody else.

So what does this mean? Here’s my thoughts….

  • Me – Time to install and learn Atlas this weekend. If I’m going to remain competitive with the big boys, I gotta be using the same tools that the big boys are using. Besides doing complex AJAX with Asp.net 2.0 ICallbackEventHandler is bit tedious for my liking.
  • Galen – Wondering if he should rewrite ShackPrices so it uses Ruby on Rails instead of PHP?
  • ESRI – Between Google Maps & Microsoft Virtual Earth, this company won’t be serving the real estate mapping market much longer.
  • RedFin – That flash based satellite map, though very cool in it’s day, is increasingly looking like a liability. Better update it, do as Zillow did (partner with GlobeXplorer & Microsoft), or let one of the big boys handle your maps. Any map in which the Issaquah Highlands looks like polar bear eating vanilla ice cream during a snow storm, doesn’t cut it for me.
  • Zillow – Better do something cool with that MLS data you’ve been collecting. Otherwise, those eyeballs you were counting on, will be visiting the big brokers instead. Fortunately, for Zillow they could lose the local battle, but still win the national war. The NWMLS is releasing sold listing data in the near future and I’ll be shocked if the local big brokers don’t add “Zestimate” like features to their web sites in the next 6-12 months. Hell, Rain City Guide, already has one, but you already knew we’re ahead of the curve. 😉
  • Realtor.com / HomeStore / Move – Obi Won “Dustin Luther” Kenobi – Are you their only hope? Do something! Add an Rain City RSS feed, if you have to! Anything! 🙂
  • Coldwell Banker Bain – Since they are also Real Tech customers, I suspect they’ll be asking for Real-Maps real soon now.
  • Windermere – They can’t be far behind their arch-rivals, or can they?
  • Other local brokers/agents – Time to re-evaluate your MLS search/IDX vendor? Now that John L Scott’s web site has entered the 21st century, the pressure is building for you to join them.
  • John Q Home Buyer in Seattle/Eastside – The new John L Scott, is like RedFin but with better maps & aerial photos.
  • Everybody else, elsewhere – Consumer expectations are slowly being raised. I believe Seattle is ground zero of Real Estate 2.0. Those of you lucky enough to be living outside of the 206 & 425 area codes (aka the war zone), had better pay attention, because what’s happening here will happen in your neck of the woods, sooner than you think.

So what do our fair Rain City Guide readers think of this development?

What a week!

[photopress:view_of_santa_monica.jpg,thumb,alignright]My family and I spent the past week scoping out appropriate neighborhoods in Ventura County! No matter where we choose to live in Southern California, it will definitely be a major change from our way of life in Seattle…

As I spent most of the week away from the internet (I did have a BlackBerry, but that doesn’t really count!), I’ve fallen way behind so I’m going to play a quick catch up here by mentioning a few of the things that have caught my eye this evening as I returned to the web:

  • Dan Green, ofThe Mortgage Reports Blog, let me know that Rain City Guide received at least one nomination for the Most Innovative Real Estate Blog. Very cool! Thank you Dan!
  • There has been some buzz around a new real estate blog featuring a large group of real estate professionals. I look forward to following the site…
  • I received emails from people at both Zillow and Move on how to better use their systems to find appropriate neighborhoods, so I’m going to have to revisit my post on the home buying process.
  • Ardell published a great article that has been very well received by other bloggers!
  • For the first time since the inception of RCG, I’ve not read EVERY single comment that has been posted on RCG! AHH!!! I’ve got some more reading to do! And on a very related note, my inbox is over-flowing with emails that are worth a quality response, so don’t be surprised if it is taking me a while to respond!

The Mind of a Home Buyer

So, we’re moving to Southern California, and we have some obvious questions we want answered:

  • What neighborhoods should we be looking in?
  • What neighborhoods can we afford?

Here’s what we do know:

  • I’m going to work at location 30700 Russell Ranch Rd, Westlake Village, CA.
  • We can afford a home in the $500 to $600K range.
  • I’m willing to commute a fair distance (up to 40 minutes) if the home was a great deal, but I’d really rather be within bicycling distance to work.
  • The employees of Move that I talked with recommended Thousand Oaks (10 minutes), Santa Barbara (45 minutes) and Santa Monica (45 minutes).
  • If we can’t afford something in our price range that is acceptable, I’d consider renting a place, especially if it was close to the beach.

Anna and I spent some time on the internet playing around. We tried what I thought would be the most promising options: Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow. I know that none of these sites is geared toward finding appropriate neighborhoods, but I thought I might be able to “trick” them into helping us out:

  • Realtor.com. I began by doing a search of [3 bedroom homes in Westlake Village, CA]… Surprise, surprise, the only home listed under $600K are mobile homes (and yes, there is a mobile home listed for $599K). I didn’t really expect to find a home in Westlake Village, but I was hoping that I might be able to do a large-area search using this tool, so that I might be able to get an idea where a concentration of appropriate homes are located, but there was no (obvious) way to widen my search using the available tools. Next I turned to their beta map search. This was more helpful in that it gave me homes nearby Westlake village, but it was not entirely clear to me how it determined it should widen my search. And scrolling around the map doesn’t refresh it with new properties as one would hope. Because we don’t even know the cities/zip codes we want to look in, I couldn’t keep Anna interested in searching around the beta site and we moved on after a few minutes.
  • Zillow was a bit better because I could zoom in and see a price next to each City’s name. Presumably, this is the average price for the City, but I’m not 100% sure of this. However, smaller cities (and/or huge neighborhoods in the case of Los Angeles) don’t show up. Until I zoomed into each individual property, there was not an easy way to tell if I could afford the area. Overall, we gave up on Zillow after a few minutes as I couldn’t “trick” it into telling me about appropriate neighborhoods.
  • Trulia was definitely the best of the three… I could give it a very detail search entry [3+ beds, $550K to 600K, Westlake Village], and then scroll around the map to see what neighborhoods might work for us. It also had the bonus of showing us “average home prices” depending on where you center the map. (i.e. if I’m over Thousand Oaks, I see the average 1, 2, 3 and 4+ bedroom price!).

Here is what I learned from Trulia from my search:

  • There’s no chance we’re going to buy a home along the coast of Santa Monica or Malibu (I didn’t really expect that this would be an option, but now it is confirmed).
  • If we want to buy a place within biking distance, we may be able to afford something in Thousand Oaks. My brief foray into Realtor.com hinted that a place in Thousand Oaks would likely be a townhome.
  • There are a lot more options either north (Simi Valley) or west (Camerillo, Oxnard, or Ventura), but the dream of owning in Santa Barbara is definitely out of the picture.
  • It looks like there might be something available for us in “the valley”, but both Anna and I want to go in the other direction if possible.

We’re thinking of making a trip to LA relatively soon to check out neighborhoods and tour some homes. Is it enough for us to check out the Ventura and the Simi Valley/Thousand Oaks area, or should we add a few different neighborhoods/cities to our radar?

Of course, the home search process definitely makes me wonder if the LA market has topped off and if it might make a whole lot more sense for us to rent (could we be near the beach?). If I do decide to look further into renting, I’ll definitely post an review of my online search.

Interesting side note: Despite my proclaimed confidence in “context” tools like blogging, I haven’t yet turned to blog posts and/or forums for any answers about neighborhoods (nor have I felt compelled to click on any ads).