Searching for property in a forgotten land

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If one definition of Web 2.0 is the ready integration of data across different sources, well, property searches and it seems the entire property industry have some way to go.

I’ve decided I’ve had enough of London. Actually, that’s not entirely true – I quite like my leafy North London enclave, but if I want to buy a house, I pretty much have to move out. Given that I’m a social media type person, with a particular predilection for RSS feeds, I’ve decided to employ said feeds to help in my property search.

Should be pretty simple right? Unfortunately not.

There are plenty of fairly competent property search engines out there, but not many of them offer RSS, such as Rightmove for example. If you sign in to Rightmove, you really do sign in – that is, they haven’t realised the benefits of making their data interact with anything other than their own systems. You can get email alerts but that’s about it. Meh.

Looking at RSS, for the UK, it seems like I only have two decent choices. One of them is utterly superb but doesn’t quite have what I want from its feeds, while the other is limited but has what I want.

Firstly, the great one: Nestoria. These guys really sat down and thought about how to integrate just about everything with everything else. It’s so simple to set up a search, and having done so you start to see how they’re pulling data together very nicely. Maps abound, with stats such as average house prices in the area. Your feeds come in various flavours. And they have a lot of great integration tools with Facebook, Firefox, Google, Netvibes and so on.

However, while they offer funky search features such as whether the property has a high roof, it doesn’t actually let me specify, oh I don’t know, that it’s green with white spots and is made of jam – that is, no keyword filtering.

So I decided to push the feeds into Yahoo Pipes to filter out the noise. But, on testing, I couldn’t get filters to work that, from other searches, I knew should.

And the culprit? The sparsity of information in the feed from Nestoria. The item description is usually just a sentence of 20 or so words, certainly not enough for Yahoo Pipes to get a grip of and filter out.

I sent them a quick email and they responded explaining that sparsity of information is a real problem in the industry as a whole. So it’s cool that they’re on the ball with their customer relations because I am most definitely a fan. But I would like to see them push more data out. Nestoria’s explanation is that the industry needs to put more data in to start with. Bum.

On to the other solution: ThinkProperty. They’re not nearly as forward-looking as Nestoria. The search interface is absolutely standard – price, locale, bedrooms – and you have to save a search to get a feed from it, which seems to have a nasty unique database key in the URL. It’s very clunky. What’s wrong with just generating the feed straight off, from a nice human-readable URL?

But their RSS feeds carry much more description. Why so much more than Nestoria? I dunno. Main thing is my Yahoo Pipes can search through this and start filtering me some decent properties.

So whereas with Nestoria I can just specify quite cool parameters, but not then filter with Yahoo Pipes because of the lack of decent descriptions, with ThinkProperty I get the descriptions but not the other cool stuff. For example, I cannot just say ‘Hertfordshire’: I have to specify by placename or postcode.

Meanwhile, I don’t get decent keyword filtering with either, which is why I’m using Yahoo Pipes. Aargh!

This means I’m building my own customised search system with a combination of Google Reader and Yahoo Pipes, bringing together the quick-and-easy-but-slightly-abbreviated Nestoria searches with – get this – separate postcode searches from ThinkProperty for for Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Kent. It’s taking me ages.

What I’d like to see is a site that doesn’t have these holes. One that offers good descriptions, readily available feeds, and flexibility in the way you search for properties. Sometimes it’s not enough just to specify a 2+ bedroom detached in Godalming: sometimes you need to specify more.

But that’s just features. What I really mean is that I’d have thought property search would be absolutely tailor-made for Web 2.0 as a philosophy. Maybe it’s different in the US but we’re not there yet in the UK.

By which I mean: chuck the data in, and give people the tools to pull it out, readily and easily. Integrate it with every other social app going, and spread the word. In fact, let people chuck the data in to start with too. Let them pull other data in and treat it in a nice, flexible way, the way data wants to be treated.

Then agencies can busy themselves with what they should be doing, that is, providing a meaningful local expertise service where they can answer people’s questions and actually sell something of value.

Like, for example, the estate agent I met at a property yesterday who, it turned out, went to the school at the end of the road, knew the architects who lived next door, and whose parents lived in the next town along. That’s what I’d really be prepared to pay for: good advice. The relationship. The qualitative stuff. Because computers – strike that, the web – strike that, Web 2.0 – is really, really good at the quantitative, especially now that we all get to play.

And while we’re at it, can I have a nice graphical interface that lets me draw the areas I’m interested in, and generate searches from that? Because not all counties are completely round.

4 thoughts on “Searching for property in a forgotten land

  1. Hi Brendan,

    Ed from Nestoria here. Thanks for the positive review.

    One of the big challenges we face is creating a tool that is used by many, many people who have very different requirements. As I’m sure you can imagine, a student looking for a cheap flatshare has different needs than someone looking to buy their retirement home. We can add functionality but then the interface becomes more and more complex. As a result, we try to keep it simple, but then also provide the tools to allow users to build on top of the database. Please see our full list of tools including geoRSS feeds, KML, facebook app, a full API, and a lot more here:

    good luck with your house hunt.

  2. What Ed said – plus, note to other businesses: Ed replied to my emails within minutes and has the foresight to comment on a blog. So, now I’m talking about it to people at work, who will talk about it to people… etc.

  3. But their RSS feeds carry much more description. Why so much more than Nestoria?

    Because Thinkproperty is part of Vebra, and Vebra is the enterprise software some estate agents use to upload property descriptions to their own websites as well as to other property portals, so TP has access to as much data as exists for that subset of agents. Comparing TP with Nestoria is a bit (and admittedly only a bit) like comparing the New York Times with Google News.

    Incidentally the US is an utterly horrible mess for property search. There are four (major) different categories or sources of property inventory. Classified ads posted to any given site either by realtors or private sellers; new homes; repossessions; and the MPS or multi-posting service which realtors use to cobble together all their listings. In addition to this there’s other web2.0 models like Zillow out there.

  4. Interesting. Looks like Vebra is trying to make as easy as possible for estate agents to provide the sort of information that Nestoria says doesn’t exist.

    Looking at Vebra, I’m not overwhelmed by their usability either. For example, if I specify a county, it then asks me to ‘refine’ my search. I don’t want to refine it, I want to know about properties in that county. And if I want to do this, I have to select, separately, every locality.

    Let’s just select a few and see what happens. Look mum, no feed!

    So, Vebra seems to work as a good input, with ThinkProperty a (usable) output. Meanwhile Nestoria has the best process. One of these days they’ll all get together and make this work properly. Meanwhile I’ve done it myself with a combination of Google Reader to build feeds, Yahoo Pipes to process them, and Netvibes to display them. My life.

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