Avoid Seattle's nasty traffic jams

Google is now predicting traffic in the future to help you avoid nasty Seattle traffic on freeways, but that is nothing compared to…

Microsoft’s Clear Flow doesn’t just tell you that traffic usually sucks on Thursdays at 5:30 (because if you’ve driven on I5 twice at rush hour, you already know that). It tells you the best route to take and it includes side street speeds in it’s analysis. It doesn’t leave it to your wits to find the fastest route – it tells you the fastest route. It is one of the smartest real products the company has created in years. Now if it didn’t ask me to finesse the address when I type in a street address and a zip code, it would hands-down amazing.

What a week!

First Zillow releases a new version of their web site.

Then Microsoft releases a new Virtual Earth (VE 3D in Firefox).

Then the a new Beta of Realtor.com is released.

Galen releases new ShackPrices features.

Ardell is using her Verizon EVDO card in Vegas, probably while playing the slots and sipping drinks with umbrellas in them.

Then I discover, Redfin is merging with Move and they also just sold a home in neighborhood!

I’m feeling WAY behind the tech curve today.  I’m going curl up into a ball and read my RSS feeds in a corner now…. 😉

Death by a thousand paper cuts

[photopress:papercut.jpg,thumb,alignright]Every once in a while a realtor or broker from out of state will ask me to develop an IDX web site for them. Unfortunately, supporting a new MLS is very similar to supporting a foreign language. It is a large software engineering task that takes a lot of time, and since I don’t already have the code written and don’t already have access to their MLS’s feed, I inform them that time is money and the conversation usually ends there. Someday, that may not be the case, but I’d rather be small & profitable than large & broke.

The problem is made worse by the fact that many Realtors don’t know what format or protocol their MLS uses for data downloads or even who to contact in their MLS to get a feed for an IDX vendor. If you ever want to change IDX vendors, hire a software engineer or are crazy enough to do it yourself, you should know this. Knowing how your MLS distributes your listing data is like knowing how to change the oil in your car or how to defragment your hard drive. You don’t have to know, but it’s good to know. It may seem like I’m ranting about some MLS techie mumbo jumbo thing again, but it is preventing the industry from taking advantage of the low cost IT innovations that could be. I don’t think folks fully appreciate the challenges that an IDX vendor faces and how those challenges are retarding the industry’s growth and health.

For example, the NWMLS (Northwest Multiple Listing Service – serves mainly Seattle, WA and western Washington) uses software from Rapattoni. It provides listing data via a proprietary SOAP interface and all the photos are accessible via an FTP server. Listing data is updated constantly (a new listing usually appears in our feeds about 15-20 minutes after it’s been entered into NWMLS by a member as I understand it).

By contrast, EBRD (East Bay Regional Data – serves mainly Oakland, CA and the east bay area) uses Paragon by Fidelity MLS Systems provides it’s listing data via nightly updated CSV text files, down-loadable by FTP. The new and updated listings images are accessible via ZIPed files via FTP. The photos for active listings which haven’t been recently added or changed are not available (unless you bug the IT dept).

The only way they could make their systems more different is if the EBRD encoded their listings in EBCDIC! In order to support both, I need to develop 2 very different programs for downloading the listing data onto my server, importing the listing data in my database, dealing with differences in the listing schema (for example, the EBRD doesn’t contain a “Number of Photos” field or a “Community Name” field), dealing with differences in the photo location downloading (the NWMLS stores all photos in an uncompressed format in one of a thousand sub directories while the EBRD just stores the fresh photos in one big zip file). So I can spend my limited time improving my software for new markets (that have no customers) or improving my software for my home market (which has paying customers). Unfortunately, given the current market realities I can only afford to support my home market at this time since MLS IDX programs can be very different and there is no place like home (so far as I know anyway).

I keep waiting for RETS to save me from this madness, but until it happens in Seattle or the East Bay, I’m not holding my breath. After all, if two of the larger MLSes in the country in the two most tech savy areas of the nation don’t support it yet, I interpret it to be a vote of no confidence. I suppose, RETS could be going great guns in the rest of the country, but if it was, I’d expect the NWMLS & EBRD to be all over it, like the establishment on Redfin.

The Center for REALTOR® Technology Web Log, paints a rosy a picture regarding RETS deployment in the industry. Unfortunately, according to Clareity Consulting, an IT consulting firm that serves MLSes and other parts of the real estate eco-system, RETS is the NAR’s unfunded mandate. Although, everybody wants the benefits of RETS, nobody is willing to pay for it. Furthermore, it appears back in days before I got sucked into real estate technology, there was an effort to promote the DxM standard and that went nowhere (which is a bad omen). What’s worse is that they keep moving the goal posts. We don’t even have widespead RETS 1.0 support, and they’ve already depreciated that standard going full bore on RETS Lite and RETS 2.0. It seems the biggest problem is one of vision and scope. They keeping adding more features to cover more scenarios, when we don’t even have wide deployment of the existing standard (assuming that we had standards to begin with at all). It reminds of the recent software industry debacle that is known as “Longhorn reset“. The problem is that RETS is just too complicated, in an environment with too many legacy systems in place, too few resources to support it, and excessive aspirations. The idea of RETS is great, it’s the implementation and deployment that’s disappointing and at least Microsoft pulled Vista out if it’s death spiral…

[photopress:pappercutter.jpg,thumb,alignleft]The sad thing is that computer industry already has great tools for moving data around over the Internet in efficient and well supported (if sometimes proprietary ways). They allow you to query, slice, and dice your data in a near infinite number of ways. They’re called database servers. They are made by multiple software vendors and there are even some excellent open source ones out there. They let you set permissions on what accounts can see what tables or views (gee, sounds like something an MLS would want). The better ones, even have this level of security to the field level. Even better, most of these so called database servers have the ability of exporting data into spreadsheets, reporting tools, and even GIS systems. All of them provide a well defined and often times well implemented API that software developers can use and exploit to implement what hasn’t been invented yet!

Why doesn’t the NAR & the MLSes save us all the trouble, standardize on a few good database platforms (I’m a fan of MS SQL Server and MySQL, but I’d settle for anything that has ODBC, .net & Java support at this point), and provide everybody RDBMS accounts? It’d lower the cost for us IDX vendors (less code to write, since everything is just SQL), it’d lower the costs for MLS vendors (since data access, security, programmability, and scalability is now the RDBMS vendor’s problem), provide more choices for agents and brokers (since getting Excel talking to MS SQL Server is a cakewalk compared to RETS) and it will lower IT costs for the MLS (because the MLS vendors don’t need to invent an industry specific solution to a problem that’s been largely solved already and I’m betting that the MLS vendors already use somebody else’s RDBMS to implement their solutions anyway). Granted, a SQL Server won’t enable all the scenarios that RETS wants to enable (if RETS was ever well implemented and widely deployed enough for that happen). However, I’m of the belief that it’s not going to happen until after Trulia or Google Base becomes the de facto nationwide MLS by providing a single schema with a simple REST like web services interface.

So, what does your MLS do to support IDX vendors? Do they provide all the data all the time, or just daily updates? Have they deployed RETS yet? Are they going to? Who is their MLS software vendor or do they have a home gown solution? What do you want to do, that you can’t do today because the data is in a format that you can’t use easily? Would you be willing to pay more in membership dues for better software or better service from your MLS? Are we at the dawning of the RETS revolution, or is it too little, too late?

PS – Anybody, know anybody from an MLS / IDX dept or MLS vendor that blogs? I’d love to know what things are really like on their side of the listing data fence.

The House was Smokin'

[photopress:issaquah_highlands.jpg,thumb,alignright]Randy (husband) and I are buying a new home in Issaquah Highlands, a neighborhood I really love. Won’t we be neighbors, Robbie?  Reminds me of Queen Anne with the local community feel.  It was supposed to be the new home for Microsoft, but the company decided to stay in Redmond although Issaquah Highlands is home to many Microsofties. It didn’t seem to matter that Microsoft didn’t take up residence there as it is booming anyway.  I’m looking forward to seeing it continue developing.  I understand the shopping district will be like the U Village and that they’re just waiting for an anchor grocery store before they begin building the village. In ground internet and intranet, acres of playgrounds, in community grade school, wine restaurant, everything you need in a community.[photopress:smoking_house.JPG,thumb,alignleft]

The Highlands has several green builders and we’re buying from one of them, Specialized Homes who specializes in the Healthy Habitat approach to building. It’s educational to understand the purpose behind the eco friendly materials and systems he’s using. One of the really interesting things I’ve learned watching the home get built is the heating system.  Most heating systems lose up to 50% of the heat in leaky ducts making the 92% efficient furnaces hardly worth the extra money when the system is really only 46% efficient.  

One day, my duct work was all gunked up with a gray substance which I’d never seen before. It was applied to about 90% of the ductwork in the entire house. Bob, the builder, told us that he had conducted a ‘smoke test’ by running smoke thru the ductwork to look for leaks. The gray gunk was applied anywhere and everywhere there was smoke coming thru. They applied it until it was totally sealed and no more smoke! It improves comfort, lowers heating bills and improves air quality.  There’s also better windows, totally sealed doors, better insulation. it all adds up, but the smoke test I thought was cool and it makes sense now to spend the extra cost of the 92% efficient furnace.

These are great websites to learn about this if you’re so interested. Not only am I happy to know that the house will be healthier to live in, but I predicting a heating bill 1/2 of what I am now paying which I’ll need with the higher payments! Check out those web sites to learn more ways to improve the energy efficiency of your home.


Where's Dogbert when you need him?

Before Reba posted her article on the upcoming House Values layoffs, I recently ran across an interesting article about HouseValues on MSN Investor. It was basically a press release from Zacks Investment Research that stated HouseValues (SOLD) made their list of the top 5 stocks to sell now. Needless to say, this is not a glowing recommendation.

Also during that same surfing session, I stumbled upon an article about AutoByTel (ABTL). At first glance, it may not be that germane to the issues that face HouseValues, but AutoByTel is essentially a variation of the HouseValues business model. AutoByTel’s business model is essentially, generate lots of internet traffic and sell leads to auto brokers/dealers. HouseValue’s business model is essentially, generate lots of internet traffic and sell leads to real estate agents/brokers.

A problem with this model (as the article noted), is that traffic acquisition costs are going up. The deals that a company like this are going to strike with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or some other major internet portal that brings in a lot of traffic are increasingly low margin / high cost deals. After all Google, and it’s fellow portal competitors know what the value of their net traffic is (and it isn’t going to get any cheaper).

Furthermore, there’s the $50+ million gorilla on the horizon…. Zillow. They have a more customer centric business model,  superior technology, lower head count expenses (last I heard they were about 100 employees), and would probably fare better in a beauty contest as well. Even if HouseValues were to reverse course by attempting emulate Zillow’s business practices, I get the feeling that they’d be less successful than Microsoft’s search efforts have been against Google.

Another problem, is that nationally the housing & mortgage market is cooling down. I guess this means there are fewer agents out there who are able to buy leads from the company (either that or there are fewer agents out who willing to buy leads, which portends an even bigger problem). It’d be interesting to see if this problem corrects itself when the housing market heats back up again or if the company has hit a strategic inflection point.

[photopress:sales_dropping.jpg,full,alignleft]What’s also interesting is ABTL has 377 employees (and $116.6 million in annual revenues), while SOLD has 522 employees (and about $101.9 million in annual revenues). Even though HouseValues just laid off 60 employees, it still feels there’s more head count there than what they need. Especially since their Selling/General/Administrative expenses are over 8 times what their Research & Development expenses are! For comparison sake, AutoByTel’s ratio is closer to 2.5 times, Microsoft’s ratio is a little under 2, Google’s ratio is a little over 2. It appears that the PHB (Pointy Haired Boss) hired too many sales drones and not enough Dilberts.

Frankly, if I ran the company, I’d probably try to get InterActiveCorp (IACI) to buy me. Why? InterActiveCorp is a diversified internet commerce company with 28,000 employees and had revenues of $6.6 billion last year. They own many popular web sites (Ticketmaster, Ask, Match.com, Home Shopping Network, Evite.com, Lending Tree, RealEstate.com), and they used to own Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire, and other travel related properties prior to their spinning off.

Because HouseValues would complement IACI’s LendingTree / RealEstate.com business units nicely and since a IACI spin off (Expedia) is already located in Bellevue, I’m sure there’s a way that IACI could extract more value out of the combined company that than HouseValue’s current management could do alone. Perhaps there’s a way in which the HouseValues employees who stuck around would only have to change their Kirkland commute to Bellevue commutes?

So is this the beginning of the HouseValues death spiral, or is just a temporary hiccup on the road to better days?

History of Realtor.com?

Since I know there is more than a little bit of interest among RCG readers with regard to Realtor.com, I thought I’d point people to this video interview I just posted with Phil Dawley (Move’s Chief Technical Officer) and also one of the first employees. (direct link to video)

BTW, I’m up for more of these interviews, so please feel free to suggest people/topics/questions…

The Future of Blogging According to Matt

Matt’s up on stage with Liz Lawley of Microsoft Research talking about the future of blogging as the final session at the Blog Business Summit.

It has been a fun conversation with Liz and Matt taking different sides in terms of the importance of community vs. technology. Here are some of my favorite conversations (Some of these may only be paraphrasing).

Matt: “As technologies, we tell a Noble Lie.”

The idea is that the technologists are telling everyone the technology is going to rule the day, but in reality, the technology has been around for a while. What is new is that we have an audience to read the massive amount of content that has been created!

Matt: “When we look at the search engines like Google… and Yahoo and Microsoft… I feel bad like I have to do equal opportunity pimping when I’m on stage…”

Host: “What do you see as the future of the internet?”
Matt: “I don’t know… Don’t even want to guess at that. The reason I’m up here on stage is timing. WordPress is here because of timing.”

Host: “If you could buy any companies today, who would it be? Who is doing things right?

Buying wisely in any market

[photopress:seg.gif,thumb,alignright]I find that most people who track countywide stats, looking for bubbles and market trends, are not people who are buying and selling property. Anyone who is actually buying or selling property knows, that countywide stats tell you both everything and nothing. It is in the small subsections of any given market that you will find the information you need to make wiser choices.

For instance, can you really compare ramblers built in the 60s to newer housing choices? Can you compare “too small for anyone” condos of 400 square feet, to the saleability of 2 bedroom 2 bath condos? Lumping everything together tells you nothing. Houses on busy roads, for example, will not sell as well, and will sell worse at times like this when buyers are being more cautious. I think of houses on busy roads when I hear comments like, “The market is getting weak! I see more and more for sale signs every day while driving to work!” Well let’s assume that most people do not drive on quiet 25 mi. per hour residential streets when driving to work. So what they are seeing is the weakness of properties situated on busy roads, not the market in general.

A good example is tracking newer townhomes, in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, within 3 miles of Microsoft. This is a market segment that is driven by its own forces and outperforms the market in general. In the last six months there were only 21 townhomes sold, built since 1990 and within 3 miles of Microsoft, between $300,000 and $500,000. Of these 21, 16 sold AT or better than full price in less than 30 days. Several in less than 10 days and most in less than 20 days. At the moment there are only 3 available, all on market less than 15 days and two at less than 5 days on market and there are 3 in escrow.

So of the total six month inventory, you can expect four to sell per month and there are only 3 on market, two of which have only been on for two days and three days, respectively. Those are some pretty strong market stats. What are the odds that these will start dwindling on market for excessive periods of time or go down in price? Slim to none. Making offers on this product, based on what you are reading about the King County market in general, would make no sense whatsoever.

So Chicken Little, maybe the sky IS falling for older ramblers built on busy roads with only one bathroom. But conversely the sky is still the limit in newer townhomes for sale within close proximity to Microsoft. There’s a whole lot of varied stats in between. Make sure you are making your choices based on the product and market segment that YOU are considering buying. Buying the biggest “bargain” on market, could lead you into buying in that segment of the market that will not appreciate, and will be difficult to sell later for at or more than what you paid.