Online real estate's final frontier: The neighborhood

We’ve got a few things pretty much nailed in online real estate. IDX, mapping, and data integration — they’re all reaching a point where innovation comes in small increments. I can see the path forward on mobile applications in real estate. And larger trends like the semantic Web and data portability just seem remote.

But there’s one nut no one has cracked: The neighborhood.

It seems so natural. Real estate has always been about neighborhood conversations. Did you hear about the new principal? What’d the 3 bedroom on Sheridan go for? You know a good grout guy? Shouldn’t someone, somewhere, be able to capture that with some Web 2.0 magic?

Well, no one has. Plenty have tried:

  • ConnectingNeighbors, a sort of proto-local-social application, was (and probably still is) an effective lead generator for agents, but never seemed to spark neighbor-to-neighbor discussion on a large scale
  • Fatdoor, once a neighborhood-level social play, changed its business model (and name) before it even emerged from private beta
  • PropertyQube, which launched as a local hangout for the “property obsessed,” seems, from the look of its website today, much more like Trulia, with a heavier focus on search
  • StreetAdvisor and YourStreet still feel vacant to me
  • Backfence, in its original incarnation, is gone
  • Localism is still in beta-like repose
  • VillageMaker, which launched at Inman in January, is something of a Web 2.0 take on the ConnectingNeighbors concept, but is too focused on the Realtor, in my opinion
  • Trulia Voices, perhaps the best example of online real estate conversation, is more rooted in topic than place; Zillow Q&A is tied to specific properties and I could not find a single thread in any of the “Neighborhood discussion” fora in my area.

Why is this space still ripe for innovation?

Well, part of me thinks it’s a simply a non-starter. I’ve written about this before. There’s not a lot to suggest that people are eager to meet the neighbors online.

But I also think we’ve been going about it wrong.

Neighbors do connect when there’s an event — what we called in social science an exogenous shock.” A crime. A policy change. A shift in home values.

I’ll give you an example: My neighborhood has a Yahoo! Group, basically a simple email listserv. It binds our community. A few weeks back, a police helicopter descended upon the neighborhood at 3:00 a.m. The next morning I had twenty emails from neighbors who reported in real time on what had happened. By the end of the day, darn near everyone new the deal.

Any time there’s a crime, an important city council issue, or a new building going in our little commercial strip, the listserv lights up.

People are moved most effectively by self interest. And those who have attempted to connect people at the neighborhood level haven’t really leveraged that. A “conversation” is unlikely to happen without some basic impetus.

There are some clues out there about how someone might nail this.

I’m really intrigued by Everyblock, a site that aggregates things like restaurant inspections, liquor license applications, zoning permits and news at a hyperlocal level. Imagine this information piped into a neighborhood forum. Would rats at the local coffee shop get you talking?

I also think no one has effectively leveraged local market data in a neighborhood social environment. Current market stats are great conversation fodder. And that conversation has value: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been puzzled by a sale price, and tried to interpret it relative to my own home’s value, only to have a neighbor make sense of it with something like, “The Hayward fault runs right under the house.”

As I look forward to Inman Connect next month, I’m hoping someone unleashes something cool in this space. I think there’s a business there.

Brian Boero