Technology

Neighborhood ratings site plans to feed leads to real estate pros

Niche Local leverages sister websites' traffic for community reviews and ratings

Takeaways:

  • Niche Local serves up grades, statistics and reviews on neighborhoods. 
  • The site plans to augment its neighborhood-discovery platform with listing search capability and feed leads to real estate services.
  • Some observers have expressed concern that websites like Niche Local may adversely impact neighborhoods and minorities.

Many consumers use online ratings and reviews to choose what products to buy, which professionals to use and where to dine.

Niche Local, a website that serves up a wide array of community information, may represent the most promising attempt to help homebuyers take the same approach to choosing where to live.

The website also could serve as a potent source of leads for real estate agents once it augments its neighborhood-discovery platform with a listing search tool.

What’s different about Niche Local?

More than just providing local statistics and reviews, Niche Local assigns grades to communities, distinguishing it from competitors like Neighborhood Scout that only serve up data.

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That straightforward approach will likely appeal to consumers accustomed to using resources like Yelp and Consumer Reports, but it also calls to mind concerns voiced by some observers that real estate sites could inadvertently aggravate disparities between neighborhoods.

“Obviously, when you’re ranking anything, not everyone is going to agree, but the majority of feedback has been very positive and we’ve gotten a lot of great insights for future iterations to our rankings and our product,” said Mark Tressler, vice president of product at Niche.com, which operates Niche Local along with two school information websites.

Next stop: Listing search

Niche Local was launched more than a year ago by Niche.com, but will remain in beta until it adds more data and makes it possible for users to transition from poking around neighborhoods into searching property listings, he said.

The website currently only allows users to search for neighborhoods, but it’s planning to eventually either host a listing search tool, drive prospective buyers to a partner’s real estate search site or fuse the two together in some manner, he added.

Niche Local, he said, is excited to fulfill the many requests they’ve received for an API (application programming interface) and IDX (Internet data exchange) solution to power real estate agent or broker websites.

The website’s revenue model will hinge on funneling visitors to real estate services, according to Tressler.

“We’ve been a leader in highly qualified lead generation in the college search space for many years and will be integrating a similar model with real estate on our Local site over the next year,” Tressler said.

Neighborhood reviews and ratings

Niche.com has long operated Niche K-12, a website that serves up millions of reviews and rankings on schools, and CollegeProwler.com, which hosts a platform that helps students learn about colleges.

Part of what Tressler says gives Niche Local an advantage over competitors is that it can tap the millions of people who visit its school information sites for neighborhood reviews and ratings.

Niche Local has already made quite a bit of headway in accumulating reviews on towns and neighborhoods. For example, Bridgeport, Connecticut, a city of 146,000 people, has racked up 152 reviews on Niche Local, while Shippan, a neighborhood in Stamford, Connecticut, with a population of about 3,000, has accumulated 15. (See Bridgeport’s Niche page below.)

For relatively large geographies, like Bridgeport, Niche Local has also tapped users of its sister sites for a wide array of user-generated ratings (as opposed to reviews).

Bridgeport’s profile page includes poll results for questions like, “If you could do it all over again, would you still choose to live in this area?” and “How safe do you feel in this area?”

Niche Local augments this user-generated content with a large variety of statistics.

They include:

  • Demographic composition (including racial makeup)
  • Niche’s proprietary school ratings (which it recently began licensing to some real estate websites)
  • Crime rates
  • Median income
  • Poverty rates
  • Renter-to-homeowner ratios.

Unintended consequences? 

Niche Local paints some of the most vivid portraits of neighborhoods available online.

But it also typifies the sort of real estate website that has sparked concerns among some observers and fair housing advocates.

Making it easy for people to filter for homes or communities based on neighborhood characteristics or ratings, they argue, could ultimately aggravate the social and economic divides that shape many neighborhoods.

If popular sites highlight a crime-ridden area’s high crime rate to many buyers, for example, they could further tarnish that neighborhood, effectively “redlining” it.

Plenty in the industry think that theory is hogwash. They also point out that community data can shine a light on little-known positive attributes of some areas, prompting buyers who might otherwise have dismissed certain areas to gravitate toward them instead.

Tressler said that the website’s grades actually favor neighborhoods with racial diversity, affordability and low economic quality.

“We want to help eliminate potentially unwarranted stigmas with objective data and a database of diverse opinions,” he said. “That’s why Niche exists.”

Yet even if the website’s grades reward racial diversity, its neighborhood profiles still prompt prospective buyers to assess communities based on their demographic composition.

That’s why some have expressed concern that websites like Niche Local may be undermining fair housing laws, which most real estate agents believe prohibit them from discussing demographics with clients.

After Inman published a series exploring the potential negative consequences of mixing hyperlocal data with the online real estate search experience, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) launched an investigation of the ways that demographic information is displayed on real estate sites to determine whether some companies’ practices violate fair housing laws.

The NFHA continues to investigate “this issue on websites that are listing and selling homes,” NFHA CEO Shanna L. Smith recently told Inman.

That would mean Niche Local won’t come under the NFHA’s scrutiny. But that might change once the website enables users to search listings.

Tressler said it’s not lost on his team that stamping a grade on a neighborhood “can have a very real impact on that area’s health and reputation.”

But, he said, Niche Local, would “rather provide transparency, objective analysis, and a diversity of viewpoints than have people continue to rely on local perceptions and biases.”

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Email Teke Wiggin.