You like Turkey and Christmas more than real estate

Seriously. Real estate agents have known this forever: people aren’t very interested in buying or selling a home during the holidays. Do you really want to put in an offer and then manage it from your in-laws house in Florida?

Search volumes for Real Estate, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day. Christmas and Thanksgiving alone (without “day”) totally overwhelm the chart for real estate:

Real Estate agents work whenever you aren’t; evenings, weekends, holidays, but many take December off. Except the ones who sell homes on Christmas Day (it’s a holiday – that means a chance for the busiest of professionals to fly in and close). See you in January!

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, let me know and I’ll try to write about it!

Start searching on

[photopress:ShackPrices.gif,thumb,alignright]As of midnight last night, 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] 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

What makes different?

[photopress:tabs_1_2_3_4.jpg,full,alignright]You’ll spot some obvious things that differentiate 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 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.

Our Home is Now Listed!

And despite the fact that we may not have Ardell’s magic open house touch, we are showing it on Sunday between 12 and 3PM as described in the open house listing on Trumba.


I also created an adword campaign around our home. If you see the following ad while surfing the web, don’t click on it because it costs me money and just takes you to this blog post! 🙂

Funny side note… I decided to try out Google’s option to target ads at specific websites and noticed that Zillow was on the list for real estate related sites. However, in order to see the ad for my home on Zillow, I had to disable the one-two punch of Adblock and Filter.G on my Firefox browser. By disabling these two extensions, so many websites that I visit on a regular basis looked so much uglier! It was like traveling the web naked! It you’re not using the firefox browser with these two extensions, then you are almost definitely surfing a web that looks much more annoying than mine!

Duvall – Single Family Home – $350,000

WOW! Robbie’s new super duper Zearch site is very, very COOL! But let’s put it to the test. I checked my listing in Duvall and I didn’t have a light blue dot. Seems to me a single family home for $350,000 should have a light blue dot, no? Now I’ll do a post on it and see if the post link shows.

[photopress:1.jpg,thumb,alignright] First error is that the photo that shows in Zearch is not the photo that shows in the mls as the main photo. This is a glitch in the mls system and not in Robbie’s search tool, so I have to go into the mls and erase all of the photos and reload them to correct it. Even though when I pull up the mls, I see the photo shown here of the actual house, downloads, including Robbie’s, pick up the OLD photo number one. The only way I know to fix this is to empty the entire photo cue and start from scratch. Let’s see if that works.

[photopress:2.jpg,thumb,alignleft] One of the problems with all of the available public sites is that people who are looking for reasonably priced single family homes think they do not exist. If you are not familiar with Duvall, for example, and do not realize that it is within “target range” of Microsoft and other densely populated areas, they might never search Duvall. All search engines should allow you to put in a radius of where you WORK!

[photopress:3.jpg,thumb,alignright] Here’s a question. I took this great photo of the flowering plum tree on the front lawn before I listed the property. A couple of weeks later when I put it on the market, the flowers were gone. Early spring flowering trees sometimes only bloom for a few weeks. But I love this tree in bloom! Do I have to go take a picture of the way it looks now with all reddish leaves and no flowers?

[photopress:4.jpg,thumb,alignleft] Also, I took a lot of the photos before it became vacant and before I listed the property. Do photos need to show the way it looks today, without that table and chairs?

[photopress:7.jpg,thumb,alignright] This was my “original” photo number 1, which is the view FROM the house, not a picture OF the house. I have since changed that some time ago to photo number 7 or so. But the dowloads, including Robbie’s, show it as photo number 1 as if the mls has some kind of memory bank that doesn’t update when I change the order of the photos in the mls, and only remembers that this is photo number one when doing a download.

When agents pull up this listing they see a completely different photo (the first one above) than the public sites. Again, I think this is a Rappatoni glitch, and not a Zearch glitch. I also think I know how to fix it.

Woohoo…I feel like a techie fixing download problems! Not bad for a “Granny”!

RCG’s Zearch is Released!

Robbie has just released what may be the most addictive home search tool I have every used!

Search Tool Codename: Zearch!

Some obvious highlights include:

  • Dynamic map of color-coed listings
  • Geocoded Rain City Posts

I know the search is addictive because earlier today I showed this to a friend who is in the market to buy a home in Seattle and we couldn’t pull ourselves away from bouncing around the map. To get an idea of what I mean, follow this link to the detail page of this listing in Ballard.

You should see a few things:

  • Photos of the listing
  • Lots of color dots
  • Raindrops

The color dots all represent different homes that are currently on the market in the nearby area. Light blue dots mean the house is far below the average listing price while dark red mean it is far above the average listing for that area. The addicting part is that you can click on any of these dots to bring up the home details (and photos) for that home. With my friend sitting beside me, we kept searching for light blue dots amid lots of red hoping to find a “deal”. Very interesting stuff.

You might also notice on the map that there are some raindrops. These represent Rain City Guide blog posts that have been geocoded. This is subtle, but very powerful, as it essentially represents a mapped-based archive page for Rain City Guide’s posts. The cool part about this is that as you’re searching for background on a home, you can see what RCG posts have said about the neighborhood! And as we continue to add more neighborhood content on Rain City Guide, I’ll continue to geocode the posts, which will automatically add more background data to the home search tool…


What else has Robbie done?

For starters, he didn’t mess with the stuff that works well. You can still use the site to:

Some other things to notice about the new detail page is that whenever you move around on the map, all the nearby active listings show up. More impressively, you can also toggle on the nearby schools, gas stations, grocery stores, and other points of interest associated with every day living. Again, the color coded pushpins show that homes in Medina are bright hues of red, many homes in Renton are purple, while most of the homes in this area of Tacoma are blue. So much cool stuff, so little time!

On a side note, today was my last day as a transportation engineer! For the next few weeks I’m unemployed! 🙂

The YES, NO, MAYBE tour for relocating buyers

I invented this back when I was doing a lot of relocation work for Coldwell Banker on the East Coast.  I thought Dustin and Anna might like to try it when looking at homes in California.  It comes in very handy when you are touring a lot of homes the first day in a new area.

It’s pretty simple.  You each have three little cards (kind of like Richard Simmons’ Deal a Meal – yes, it was that long ago when I came up with this.) One card says YES, one says NO and the other says MAYBE.  You can only use ONE card in each house.  Anna has a set and Dustin has his own set. 

At each house you are not allowed to say a word to one another until you make your selection from the three cards.  If you are touring homes with an agent, you hand her one of the cards as soon as you know your answer, not how you think your spouse will feel about the house.  Since there is a MAYBE card, this should be a fairly quick procedure for most people.  If the agent gets handed two NO cards as soon as they walk in the front door, you can all get back in the car.  Unless the owner is home, in which case you do a “pity” pass through.  Easier than saying we already know we hate this house.

If you have all NO cards played at the end of the day, what you don’t like is your price range, and you may have to go back to your new employer and say, “what you offered to pay me is not enough to live here”.  If you have three YES houses where you both said YES, you may as well toss out the MAYBE houses and go back at the end of the day to the three YES houses and spend more time in them.  I usually ask people to rank their YES choices as they go.  First YES, no ranking.  Second YES, you have to label one #1 and the other #2.  This way if you have 7 yes houses at the end, you can go back to #1, #2 and #3. 

Why did I feel the need to invent this system?  Can’t people know if they like a house without a little card? 

Here’s why. 

1) Sometimes the relocated spouse feels guilty about making the family move and says “Whatever my sweetie wants will be fine with me” until it is time to sign the contract and wants to offer 80% of asking price.  That’s called saying yes and meaning no.  It’s a passive/aggressive thing some people do 🙂

2) The wife walks in first and starts saying things like, “well, we could take this wall down over here and we could add a master bathroom…”, take it from experience, that’s a NO.  Before they start arguing over how they are going to afford the time and money to do all of that stuff…get a NO card and GET OUT!  Otherwise they will be crying and fighting before you get to house number 4.

3) When they both hand me a YES card and find out that the other party agrees, they can move through the house really evaluating whether or not they should actually buy it, instead of discussing whether or not the other likes it.  And you will be amazed at how happy they both are when you tell them they both said YES.  Sometimes one spouse is afraid to say they like the house because they don’t want the other spouse to buy it just because THEY like it.  It is a great moment when they both hand over a YES card.

Of course the client that keeps handing me all three cards at every house drives me nuts 🙂  Some people just don’t like to be pinned down.

Why Google Base Matters

If you are building a real estate search site and you didn’t hear the warning shot fired by Google today, then you don’t really deserve to be in business much longer. While just about anyone building a real estate search tool should be concerned, I’m going to focus this article on my friends over at Zillow

Zillow: be worried… Be very worried.

Here’s some background… Yesterday I was playing around with some google searches when I noticed a new box that shows up when you do a real estate search… as in [Seattle+real+estate]:

This takes you to a simple (and kind of ugly) results page:

Where you can also go to a simple (and not very user-friendly) map of listings:

My impression of Google’s latest features is that the data is VERY incomplete and the interface is ugly.

So, why should the people behind Zillow be worried?

Three reasons:

  1. You are not sticky. I’m a hard-core real estate user and after satisfying my Day 1 voyeurism, I’ve never had a good reason to visit your site again. I’ve talked with your staff about this and I know that you are not geared toward a user like me, but I recommend you find a way to create stickiness if you really are planning to be an ad-based media company. Why? See reason #2…
  2. A super-sticky site only has to be half as good at proving a home valuation to decimate your business. People who start their home search on-line do not start a home search by typing in [] or even []. People start a home search (and especially people moving to a new city) by typing a query into a google search box. From now on, those people are ALL going to see Google’s offerings, and should Google decide to add a valuation tool, the tool will likely be “good enough” so that they never even both going to Zillow. Google only has to be good enough at providing a valuation in order to capture most of your market. Why? See reason #3…
  3. People are lazy. People don’t use your site to get the “exact” price of their home since you don’t even try to provide it. If you asked 10 appraisers to value a typical Seattle home, you would get 10 different answers and at least a 5% standard deviation in their answers. Even if you can improve your answers by 2% more to match the variability inherent in the emotional decisions associated with buying a home, that is still not good enough. Don’t waste much more time trying to improve your appraisal methods. You’re good enough and soon others (like Google?!?) will have a service that is good enough as well. Instead, find something sticky. You have a very talented team, so I doubt you’re suffering from lack of ideas. Nonetheless, it is clearly time to develop something that will bring me back to your site on a regular basis.

To everyone else creating real estate search tools, I’m not convinced that a vertical real estate search will ever beat Google’s offerings UNLESS they have a much better database of homes than Google. Right now, Google is seriously lacking in quality inventory. However, if the consumers go there (and they will), then you can expect brokers (and someday brokerages!) to follow with their listings.

Cool Real Estate Search for Investors

I noticed that Robbie has been playing around with the back-end of the home search tool he has developed for Rain City Guide, and it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to highlight one of the cool feature. The search tool allows you to sort your listings based on the price per square foot…

And why should you care? Well, here is a search of the “cheapest homes in Seattle” in terms of cost per square foot. (note I had to put in values for the low end of a home and the low end of square footage in order to eliminate all the “zero” values.) If you’re the type of buyer who is looking for a good deal this would be a great place to start. I’m not aware of any home search site in Seattle that allows you to filter things in this way so easily!

Create your own search here: Seattle Home Search.

ShackPrices is Filling in the Blank…

The ShackPrices’ blog (run by RCG contributor Galen) just announced some slick new features for their site:

  • Permalinks. Makes it possible to email/link to specific results
  • Address Search. Easier to zoom into a specific property
  • Condo Information. Not just homes anymore…

So what is ShackPrices? ShackPrices is a King County specific Home Price Evaluation site. Operating in true Web2.0 spirit, these guys have taken King County sold home data and mixed it with Google Maps to create a map-based home valuation tool. By focusing on the Seattle area, locals might find that ShackPrices is a more useful tool than the obvious huge white elephant in the room. It is also worth nothing that others have had online home valuation tools for a while (and we recently released our own!), so it is nice to see that Galen takes stuff in perspective:

So is this the future of real estate search? I sincerely doubt it. I believe that online real estate search is a sliver of what it could be today, let alone what it could be tomorrow. We’re in the “glorified book