You’ve shortlisted a handful of properties in Montclair and Bloomfield, New Jersey, the towns where you want to live. They’re near decent schools, no more than 30 minutes away from work, and they fall within your price range. But what you don’t realize is that there are dozens more listings that meet your commute, school and budget requirements.

  • ThinkHome can help buyers discover properties that meet their search criteria in towns they might not have known about or thought to search in.
  • Search tool prompts buyers to search based on preferred commute time, school quality and housing and commute costs, not just property price.
  • Startup joins growing ranks of lifestyle-based search services and a smaller group that is scoring properties.

You’ve shortlisted a handful of properties in Montclair and Bloomfield, New Jersey, the towns where you want to live. They’re near decent schools, no more than 30 minutes away from work, and they fall within your price range.

But what you don’t realize is that there are dozens more listings that meet your commute, school and budget requirements. They’re just in towns that weren’t on your radar, or that you hadn’t thought to search in, such as Nutley, Clifton, Belleville and West Orange, New Jersey.

ThinkHome is built to make sure you don’t miss all those gems. Instead of requiring buyers to filter properties primarily by location and price, it prompts them to search based on preferred commute times, school quality, down payment and monthly housing costs.

The startup, which currently covers New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, also rates properties based on sometimes-overlooked costs, including property taxes and insurance, maintenance and commute costs. The higher the score, the more a buyer’s money goes toward building equity, rather than other expenses.

A nascent property-rating search trend

“ThinkHome Scores” reflect a nascent trend in the search space of rating properties, sometimes based on a buyer’s search preferences. Casamatic and Revaluate are among startups testing this approach.

ThinkHome search tool.

ThinkHome search tool.

“You might have some very good town just near your work location where the taxes are low and the schools are pretty good, but you just don’t know about that town,” said ThinkHome founder Rahul Gokhal.

In many cases, a higher-priced home can can carry a lower cost than a lower-priced home due to cheaper property taxes, vehicle maintenance, association fees and the like.

Some towns in New Jersey charge a property tax of 5 or 6 percent, while others can charge less than 2 percent — even though those towns could be the same distance from a homebuyer’s office and provide the same school quality, Gokhale said.

“If you save $250 per month in property tax/commute cost and instead spend it on building equity, you can afford an additional $50,000 worth of home,” Gokhale said.

ThinkHome search results page.

ThinkHome search results page.

A resource for agents and consumers

Gokhale sees ThinkHome as resource for real estate agents, not just consumers. Agents can use ThinkHome to draw up property lists that include suitable properties outside their client’s stated search area and perceived price range, rather than do the extensive legwork required to identify those properties themselves, he said.

“Homebuyers struggle for hours to shortlist towns based on proximity to work location and school ratings, often missing out on some perfectly good towns,” Gokhale said, casting his startup as a solution to this problem.

Crime rates one missing piece

While ThinkHome centers around what Gokhale believes are the primary search criteria that homebuyers consider, he acknowledged that the search tool still doesn’t incorporate a fourth vital consideration for many homebuyers: crime level.

Weaving crime level into its search experience is certainly on ThinkHome’s roadmap, but the task presents challenges that ThinkHome must think through first, such as variance in how crime rates are calculated and the sensitivity of such data, Gokhale said.

A growing number of search services have been empowering homebuyers to quickly search listings based on school quality, commute time and even crime level, and ThinkHome centers its search experience around these criteria. It doesn’t just offer them as optional filters.

Are lifestyle filters the future?

ThinkHome is also among a smaller group of search services that let homebuyers filter based on net housing costs, rather than price alone. One member of this club is TLCEngine, the provider of a search tool that can be added to real estate broker or agent websites to allow visitors to search based on their budgets and lifestyle criteria. Unlike TLCEngine, ThinkHome offers a search site to the public.

Some industry observers say that lifestyle filters are the future of online home search. Bernice Ross recently wrote in a popular Inman post that the “days of bedroom, bath and price are dead.”

Yet the fact that national listing portals have only integrated these filters into their search experiences to a limited degree suggests that listing portals are confident that homebuyers still are very much inclined to search based on traditional criteria.

“If consumers really need this information the ‘data dinosaurs’ … will provide it,” commented Waldorf, Maryland-based agent Donna Thomas, referring to big-name listing portals. “They will produce it in-house or buy the competition.”

Email Teke Wiggin.

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