House-Hunting Apps Reboot

November 02, 2013

House-huntingTalk to a few techies at some of the leading online real estate sites, and it becomes pretty apparent fairly quickly that there is still a lot of gee-whiz functionality planned for the smartphones so many of us wield these days.

Consumers can already use their smartphones, depending on the app, to search for homes for sale in an area and see property histories, view pictures, set up showings, find information on local schools, get directions to properties, check out the value of nearby properties and get alerts of price drops. There’s also an abundance of apps related to home affordability and the mortgage process.

Ask developers what’s left to offer the consumer, and the collective response is it will be more than just tweaks related to upgraded operating systems. The common refrain is, “We’re just getting started.”

Adding more information to a device, particularly when a buyer or seller is using it to compare multiple homes, could seem like information overload. Nonsense, developers say.

“I think it’s hard to underestimate a consumer’s desire for information on a house they’re going to buy,” said Sasha Aickin, chief technology officer of Redfin. “We’re all putting a tremendous amount of firepower in mobile. There’s still a lot to be done.”

Checking in with a few companies reveals that industry players are taking different paths in terms of their tinkering, but the common objective is to keep it simple for consumers.

Zillow’s simplification efforts have led it to develop separate apps for for-sale and rental properties, mortgages and, most recently, home design and remodeling.

It sees a bright future in making smartphones smarter about their owners, offering them personalized information.

This year, Zillow partnered with Google on its Google Now product. If Google Now sensed that a user was looking for real estate, it would push nearby real estate listings to the phone from Zillow.

“The bar in the app world is even higher than the Web world,” said Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow’s vice president of consumer marketing and mobile. “You expect them to be intuitive, and you expect the right information on the screen. The gee-whiz for me is if you can use Zillow once and tell us your search criteria, and then you go live your life and we tell you (when a relevant house becomes available). That’s the future of real estate, this personalized real estate, an assistant in your pocket.”

Sawbuck Realty Inc., which does business online as Homesnap, last year generated a lot of buzz for developing the technology that allows a consumer to take a picture of a home and get information on its characteristics, its estimated value, what it last sold for and whether it’s for sale, and school information.

Now it’s working on the communication aspects of its app.

Sawbuck wants to make it easy for a potential buyer to “talk” about listings via the app with friends, relatives and agents, as well as receive recommendations on other homes. It also wants to make it easier for real estate agents to communicate with each other through the app.

The challenge is adding something that’s appreciated and not just a distraction. One area Sawbuck plans to steer clear of is lifestyle-related real estate searches, company CEO Guy Wolcott said.

“Tell us about yourself, and we’ll tell you where to live? People usually know where they want to live,” Wolcott said.

Redfin, meanwhile, is looking to integrate more steps in the home-purchase process into its app’s functionality, piecing together the fragmented steps in the home purchase process from when a contract is signed to when the transaction closes.

“How can we make that process smoother?” Redfin’s Aickin asked. “At 2 in the morning and I wake up in night sweats and I’m not sure my dream house is on track, is there something I can pull up to reassure me that the process is on track, or warn me when it’s not?”

Is that doable? “I think so,” he said.

Permitting transparency. The Chicago Department of Buildings has tweaked its building permit document in an effort to make the permitting process more transparent to architects, builders and consumers.

Permits now show the amount of time it took the department to review the application as well as how long it took for an architect to resubmit the application when changes or corrections were requested.

This post was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 1, 2013.

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