Real estate search has changed a lot in the past five years. Mapping, data overlays, better design and a freer hand with listings themselves have brought us some great models.
But search has nonetheless become cocooned in the soft fibers of conventional wisdom at this point: Properties should be displayed in a list, with thumbnails, next to a map mashup; "save this search’, while confusing, should always be among the user’s options; school and neighborhood data should hang off the listing detail page.
What’s next, though? That’s the interesting — and important — question. Real estate search will surely look much different two years from now. Application and platform innovations are proceeding at a faster pace now than they were in 2003, when Web 2.0 first hit real estate.
Here are three things I think give us a clue:
#1: Searchme. This company launched this week in private beta. Take the time to watch the demo video. They are introducing something they call "visual search". If you own an iPhone or use iTunes, you’ll recognize this (I imagine Apple’s IP lawyers have too). I’m not convinced this will work as a general search paradigm, but imagine those pages you see are homes. The site information that appears at the bottom of the pages are listing details — beds, baths, etc. A "listing" contains a cluster of data, but it’s still fundamentally about a home, a visual pregnant with emotional triggers. Forget the blurry thumbnails in the list of search results to which we’ve become accustomed: show the homes, front and center, as the search result. Much better.
#2: Everyscape. I came across this site a few months ago when they launched their street-level view of Aspen, CO. They have since expanded to a number of markets. It’s something like Google Street View dialed up to 11. You can walk down the street online. Do the neighbors keep up their front yards? What’s in that strip mall down the way? This is now discernible from your computer. This, I believe, will supplant the mashups and aerial views that are tied to most real estate searches today. It will also send yet another shock wave through the Realtor value proposition. The role of high-priced chauffeur was already waning. This will kill it.
#3. Urbanmapping. One problem with the community or market information that’s often integrated into real estate search displays (usually in the form of tabs or links off the property detail page) is that the level of analysis is all wrong. In most cases, the data are presented at the ZIP code level, which often renders them meaningless. My ZIP code in Oakland, for example, includes high-end enclaves and streets I would not walk after dark. What users need is neighborhood level, even block level, information. Urbanmapping maintains a database of over 20,000 neighborhoods across the country and provides contextual information for all of them.
So … pulling this all together, the real estate search experience of 2010 might go something like this:
I, the user, enter: "Three bedroom Redwood Heights Oakland" into an online search site or real estate brokerage site.
My results are are full size photos of homes I can flip through and onto which are layered key data points.
I click on a link on one of these homes that says "walk down the street". I do just that, noticing that while the homes around this listing are well-kept, the duplex at the end of the block looks like it’s inhabited, Animal House-style, by kids from a nearby college. I don’t like that.
So I click on another link, "Check out the neighborhood". It gives me demographics, market trends, comps, and amenities for the small, somewhat serpentine piece of Oakland that is this neighborhood. I get the data, but also, because the semantic Web and data portability movements have born fruit, can show me something about the people behind the data, and how they are connected. In short, I get a view into something akin to a graph of the community.
I don’t buy a house here, but I’ve made an informed decision.
Of course, there are lots of concerns and questions here. Or maybe you buy none of this and see search headed in a different direction. My point is that you can count on the search experience changing rapidly and significantly over the next two years. It will give consumers more power. It will further dissolve the traditional Realtor value proposition. And it’s going to happen whether you’re on board or not.
So get on board. Think a few steps ahead. Forget about replacing your crappy IDX solution with something slightly less crappy. Hike up to where the air is thin, take in the view, and then find someone who can help you make it real when you come down from the mountaintop.
Anyway, I’ve just show you some of the things I see on the horizon. I am interested to hear what you see.
— Brian Boero