Imagine strolling through your neighborhood and, with a glance at your iPhone, finding out instantly how much just about any home you walk by last sold for.
What if your iPhone could also display your location on a map that pinpoints nearby homes for sale and any that have recently changed hands?
That’s the promise of the new location-based iPhone application unveiled today by property valuation and listings giant Zillow.
Zillow’s iPhone app lets users see their location on a map as they walk or drive through a neighborhood, pulling up details not only on 3.3 million for-sale listings but about 95 percent of all U.S. homes.
The free iPhone app delivers much of the same information that draws nearly 9 million visitors a month to the company’s Web site, Zillow.com, including home value "Zestimates" on more than 88 million properties and data on recently sold homes.
That’s what separates Zillow’s iPhone app from other real estate smart-phone applications, said Spencer Rascoff, Zillow’s chief operating officer: Users can pull up details on just about any home they are interested in — not just those that are for sale.
"Basically what we’ve done is put the power of Zillow into the palm of your hand," Rascoff said. "Pushing the baby stroller around your neighborhood will never be the same."
Zillow is the latest company in the real estate space to offer applications that can be downloaded to the iPhone or other Internet-capable "smart phones" in order to deliver their services in a user-friendly way.
In February, for example, Trulia rolled out an updated version of its iPhone app, which not only provides access to about 3 million listings but can show users where and when open houses are scheduled (see below).
Realtor.com offers mobile applications for Windows Mobile and iPhone operating systems that facilitate access to the site’s listings.
As smart phones capable of surfing the Web become more popular with real estate professionals and consumers, many companies maintain parallel Web sites designed to deliver information to mobile phones’ smaller screens. Other than a browser, there’s no special software needed to surf Web sites that have been tweaked for mobile users.
But navigating Web sites adapted for mobile phones can still be somewhat clunky. Mobile phones are easily tripped up by Web site staples like Flash animation, for example, and scrolling though pages or drilling deep down into a site can be a chore.
"If you go to Zillow.com from your BlackBerry, it will have a search box, and will come back with a Zestimate for a property, but there’s no map," Zillow’s Rascoff said of the site the company has optimized for mobile users. "That’s maybe 10 percent of the Zillow experience."
Zillow has joined the ranks of companies now offering custom software applications that make it easier to access their services using a smart phone.
The iPhone edge
While the iPhone is not the only smart phone capable of running custom software applications, Apple got a jumpstart on the competition by allowing third-party developers to sell — or, in this case, give away — their programs through the iPhone App store (see story).
Rascoff said Zillow chose the iPhone as the platform for its first smart-phone application because the company believes more of the company’s target audience have iPhones than BlackBerrys. …CONTINUED
While many real estate professionals are loyal BlackBerry users, Zillow thinks there’s a broader market for its iPhone app that goes beyond those actively engaged in the process of buying and selling homes.
"It’s not just about homes for sale, it’s about every home," Rascoff said. Zillow’s iPhone app provides a mix of utility and entertainment that will appeal to "real estate enthusiasts" like homeowners and would-be homeowners keeping an eagle eye on market trends.
That doesn’t mean that commerce is not at the center of Zillow’s iPhone app. Each listing includes the contact of the listing agent, and users of Zillow’s iPhone app can call the phone number associated with the listing or send an e-mail with a single click, Rascoff said.
"Agents will be getting leads from buyers who are using this iPhone app, so they will benefit whether they have an iPhone or not," he said.
The timing of future releases of applications for other smart-phone operating systems depends in part on how quickly Zillow’s iPhone app is embraced. Zillow may even decide to update its iPhone app before developing software for another phone, Rascoff said.
While Zillow’s iPhone app can serve up much of the information found on Zillow.com, it doesn’t provide access to data on neighborhood schools and valuation indexes for neighborhoods, cities and states that are featured on the Web site.
Other tools for Zillow’s Web site users — including the ability to save a home as a favorite, or e-mail it to friends — are also absent.
Zillow says the current version of the iPhone app does not support advertising, but that future versions may have that capability. The iPhone app can’t be used to seek offers from lenders on Zillow’s Mortgage Marketplace, either.
Some smart-phone application developers say it’s important not to attempt to cram too much functionality into a program that users will be using spontaneously on the go. But Rascoff said future versions of Zillow’s iPhone app could have additional capabilities.
How it works
In some ways, Rascoff said, Zillow’s iPhone app already has a leg up on the Web site.
"To be honest, I think the iPhone app — maybe not in this first version, but out on the horizon — might be better than our Web site," Rascoff said.
The iPhone’s ability to broadcast the user’s location (via signals received from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting the Earth) makes it unnecessary to type in an address, neighborhood or city (although users can still access information that way if they want).
Instead, when users permit the application to track their location, they appear as a blue dot on a map on their iPhone screen, which moves along with them as they walk or drive through a neighborhood.
In the 95 percent of areas where Zillow has coverage, each home on the screen displays an estimated value on its rooftop. Clicking on a home calls up details from public property records, including the number of bedrooms, square feet, historical values, recent sales of the home, and recent sales of comparable homes nearby.
For-sale homes include that information plus listing price, up to 50 photos provided by the seller, and contact information for the agent or owner selling the property.
The iPhone application will also display any of about 150,000 "Make Me Move" listings — homes that aren’t on the market but whose owners say they might be persuaded to sell for the right price. …CONTINUED
In addition to optional GPS location tracking, Rascoff said users of Zillow’s iPhone app have another advantage over those navigating Zillow.com with a traditional computer and mouse. The iPhone’s touch screen allows them to slide maps around with their finger, and zoom in and out by pinching and sliding their fingers across the screen.
Building an application to take advantage of the iPhone’s "slide and pinch to pan and zoom" capabilities is "extraordinarily hard," Rascoff said — he believes Zillow is the only real estate iPhone app with that capability — but well worth the effort.
"This is the type of application that will make Realtors in particular glad that they have an iPhone," Rascoff said. "It’s a game-changing application if you’re a real estate enthusiast."
At one Zillow rival, Trulia.com, there’s little dispute that smart-phone applications are game-changers. But Trulia could also argue that the game was changed last year, when the company rolled out its first iPhone app.
Since its introduction in August, Trulia says its iPhone app has been downloaded about 170,000 times. An updated version, unveiled in February, incorporated feedback from users to refine the search process, said Rob Cross, Trulia’s director of distribution.
"When you wanted to filter search results to narrow down on criteria, it was not as easy as it could be," Cross said of Trulia’s first iPhone App. The new version makes it easier to sort results or add filters directly from the results page.
Listings search remains the core function of Trulia’s iPhone app, and the company’s experience makes accessing information on about 3 million properties "super seamless and fast," Cross said.
Trulia’s iPhone application allows users to get more information on a property or contact an agent with a click. But it doesn’t do property valuations or provide access to Trulia’s "heat maps" — graphic representations of market trends.
"We wanted to do something simple, and we wanted to do it really well," said Heather Fernandez, Trulia’s vice president of marketing. "When you look at the feedback (from users), it seems we’re doing the right thing."
A handy feature of Trulia’s iPhone app is the ability to find nearby open houses and display them on a map with the number of hours and minutes each will remain available for viewing.
The open-house search function is "very compelling … to our users, particularly when they happen to be out (looking at houses) on a Saturday or Sunday," Cross said.
While many consumers once looked to newspapers as a source of information on open houses, more agents are shunning print outlets in marketing listings.
"We see clear spikes on the weekend as open-house activity opens up," Fernandez said.
Through a third-party platform, LightPole, Trulia also offers customized applications for an Internet-connected GPS device called the Dash, as well as BlackBerry, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, LG and other phones offered by the major carriers.
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