By GLENN ROBERTS JR.
FindaHome.com is a site for home buyers who are seeking a low-crime, predominantly white and Republican neighborhood where Portuguese is spoken, there are a bunch of well-educated young couples who make lots of money, and there is a nearby Montessori private school, Safeway grocery store, Peet’s coffee shop and Thai restaurant.
It’s also a site for people who want to live in a bay-side neighborhood with average rainfall and plenty of golf courses, condos and health clubs, or a sunny, ethnically diverse place with a plethora of parks and playgrounds, churches and veterinarians.
You get the point. FindaHome.com mixes a monumental amount of data into its neighborhood-search platform, which is integrated with mapping tools, color-coded overlays and data charts to provide a very broad range of customized search options. Site users can also search among for-sale properties, and the site’s creators are planning to build an international network of subscribing brokers to populate the site with more property information. The site’s beta version includes a limited sampling of property listings.
Real estate-related mapping technologies on the Internet have evolved well beyond simple house-shaped "pushpin" icons and driving directions to help users visualize complex sets of data and learn more about neighborhood areas.
Scott Tatro, the co-founder of the site, is no stranger to mapping technology — he is a licensee and a sublicensor of a patented mapping technology that is the subject of a patent infringement lawsuit, and he is also named in a countersuit that charges he participated in a racketeering scheme with officials at a company that is selling licenses to the technology. He denies this charge, and both cases are ongoing.
The stakes in those lawsuits are high, as the integration of property search with mapping is now ubiquitous in the real estate industry and the National Association of Realtors has lent its financial support to the legal defense of a Pennsylvania Realtor who is charged with patent infringement in the case.
HomePages.com, PropertyShark.com and HotPads.com are among the other examples of property-search sites that offer rich neighborhood data, and the FindaHome.com search platform uses technology that was licensed from another company, NeighborhoodMatch Inc. NeighborhoodScout.com, Neighboroo.com and ZipCodeStats.com are among the other sites with detailed neighborhood information. Such sites draw heavily from publicly available U.S. Census statistics.
Tatro said the company is seeking subscriptions from one broker in each multiple listing service area across the country so that subscribing brokers can upload property information from their local MLSs to the site. The subscription fee is $199 per month, which includes a guarantee that leads generated through the site "will be sufficient to make the membership profitable within the first 90 days."
He is also marketing the FindaHome.com site as a solution for brokers to avoid possible legal penalties that could result from patent-infringement lawsuits. There is no guarantee that the patent’s licensors will prevail in the case or that all brokers will be found liable — the patent’s backers are seeking class-action status for the case though the agent’s lawyers are opposing class-action status. Mark Tornetta, the inventor of the patented technology, had filed lawsuits against Microsoft Corp and Moore USA in 1998 charging that the companies’ HomeAdvisor and cyberhomes.com infringed on his patents, though those lawsuits were later dropped.
Envirian, a real estate brokerage company, and LendingTree, which operates the RealEstate.com Web site and brokerage company, are among the companies that have paid for licensing rights to the technology.
Real Estate Alliance Ltd., a Pennsylvania company that is licensing the patented mapping technology, "will never be able to sell a license to or collect a dime in settlement form any of the brokers that are selected as part of our network," Tatro explained, as his own company has "the buying power and license rights to provide those licenses to the broker" as a sublicensor of the technology.
"The FindaHome.com team has committed to leverage its sublicensing agreement rights to indemnify its broker members so that they never have to worry about any form of infringement, past, present or future. We are also including terms in our agreement that states that if the patent holders eventually win their case and the broker/member has liability, then we will pay for their license at our cost."
The brokers who subscribe to FindaHome.com will be able to place a version of the site’s property and neighborhood search engine on their own Web sites, and to share the neighborhood mapping technology, minus the property-search capability, with other Web sites. Participating brokers can generate leads from their own Web site’s version of the search tools and from the FindaHome.com site.
Some of the search functions available at the main site will not be available on the brokers’ version, he said, such as features that display ethnicity information for a given area. It is illegal under fair-housing laws, for example, for real estate agents to steer clients to certain neighborhood areas based on ethnicity. "We are pulling out several of those more questionable criteria from the (brokers’) version," Tatro said.