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My remote-controlled life

By Liana Grey

In early March, Eric Grannis, a lawyer and former teacher, launched a website for apartment hunters with young children. The service, Schoolfisher.com, rates New York’s public elementary schools, and matches families with listings in the zone of their choice.

Before the site went live, buyers had to comb through Department of Education data on their own; under fair housing laws, brokers are prohibited from discussing the quality of a neighborhood’s schools.

“If you were to do an experiment and say, ‘I’d like to find 50 schools were I can buy a two-bedroom for less than $600,000,’ that process would take you a week,” said Grannis, who served as a founding board member for several charter schools, including Bronx Preparatory in Morrisania.

On Schoolfisher.com, a search takes about 90 seconds. Visitors select a sales or rental price range, and are provided a map with dozens of schools rated by letter grade, the lowest being B. (Grannis limited his data pool to the city’s top 200 schools, and considers all of them above average.)

Each district is paired with a list of nearby apartment listings, gathered from Streeteasy.com and brokerage firms like Corcoran. “All of our data is publicly available, you can find it on the Internet,” Grannis explained. “What we do is we simply put all the test scores on a curve, so you can find out how each school compares.”

A parent himself, Grannis knows couples who have settled in hip, up-and-coming neighborhoods before having children, only to discover that the elementary school down the block performed poorly on standardized exams.
“They have an apartment that’s cool and they’re happy with,” he said. “They focus on the school down the street, and then they look at the scores and go, oh my God! Where can we afford to live where the school is good?”

Such families are only a portion of the site’s target audience. Grannis also envisions it as a tool for brokers, who can point clients to the website when the inevitable questions about education arise. And he has begun soliciting advertising from landlords and developers.

“Anyone who has something for sale or rent in the zone of one of these schools is our target,” he said. After speaking with industry veterans, he predicts that the majority of ad space will sell to the owners of rental complexes.

Several developers have approached Grannis on the matter, but he is waiting to assess the site’s popularity before jumping head-on into advertising sales. “Our first plan is to get enough traffic,” he said.

That shouldn’t be much of a problem. Demand for online house hunting tools, particularly those related to schools, is booming. “Real estate is leveraging social networking more,” said Mark Friend, director of marketing at Maponics, a Vermont-based consulting firm that provides GIS data for real estate websites.

Through an algorithm that defines neighborhood boundaries, Maponics enables online apartment hunters to narrow their search to specific parts of town, including individual school zones. “Schools can be married with neighborhoods,” Friend said.

Estately.com, a real estate search engine, and Hotpads.com, a map that pinpoints available listings using bright yellow house-shaped icons, rely on data provided by Maponics. “Both are newer companies, up and coming, and are getting a lot of buzz really quickly,” Friend said.

The same is true of more established websites like Zillow and Trulia — both Maponics clients — as well as traditional brokerage firms. “They’re competing against the Trulias and Zillows of the world,” Friend said of the latter, and must rely on the latest remote-search technology to compete.

According to a study commissioned by Prudential Roach Fox, a Philadelphia area brokerage firm that also works with Maponics, 63% of homebuyers used websites to aid their search, the most popular being Realtor.com, Zillow, and Trulia.

The Maponics team spent three years compiling the data it provides to such sites, and adds thousands of new and revised neighborhood configurations every few months. “There are 120,000 neighborhood boundaries across the US,” Friend said. “Every quarter, we add seven to 10 thousand neighborhood boundaries.”

The company is in the process of breaking down neighborhoods (particularly suburban ones) by individual development complex. At first, the team counted 150,000 subdivisions. The number has since leapt to one million.

Real estate professionals have taken as much interest in such breakdowns as consumers. Recently, Fannie Mae began using school zone data to aid in valuations. Agents affiliated with the National Association of Realtors, which controls 50% of MLS listings, according to Friend, have access to the data as well.

But in the years since Maponics was founded, on the cusp of the internet boom back in 2001, real estate firms have been busy developing digital products of their own. Zip Realty launched an iphone app, and Corcoran provides listings via smartphone.

Developers and architects, too, have jumped on the bandwagon, weaving remote technology into the fabric of buildings. In condos equipped with smart panels, like the Plaza Hotel and 949 Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, buyers can switch off lights and control climate from their Blackberries. This past holiday season, mall developers, including several in St. Louis, unveiled a GPS service that guides shoppers through their properties.

Even outside the realm of real estate, dozens of life-simplifying services have proliferated over the years. Harried professionals can order groceries through Fresh Direct, and outsource vacuuming to iRobots — silver, disc-shaped cleaners that range in price from $200 to $600, and can detect dirt and navigate around furniture.

In some cases, tools for online house hunting and seemingly unrelated digital conveniences build off each other. Twitter and Foursquare, a social networking tool that allows users to check in digitally at venues, have latched onto Maponics’ neighborhood boundary data.

And the Wiki concept has spilled over into real estate with the launch of RentWiki, a site that provides user-generated apartment hunting advice and neighborhood reviews, and relies on Maponics data to provide detailed searches.

But given the sea of competition, data alone is not enough. Aesthetics and user-friendliness aside, what allows a remote house hunting site to shine is the depth with which it analyzes information.

In addition to aggregating available properties, Estately.com connects visitors with a network of brokers, and provides custom-tailored alerts on new listings and sold homes. As the website describes it, “we handle the bureaucracy and all of the nerdy details so that you can focus on shopping for your home.”

That’s an invaluable service real-life brokers provide, too. So it’s only natural that the latest technology would make its way into sales offices. Jay Goldberg of Stasse and Company, a firm that markets new developments throughout New Jersey, installed a state-of-the-art flat screen monitor in the sales center of the Residences at Palmer Square, a community of townhouses and condominiums in downtown Princeton. The computer provides an in-depth, interactive overview of the project.

“You start with a community plan that looks at the building,” said Goldberg. “You can print out floor plans,” saving visitors the hassle of carting around pamphlets full of layouts. “People really like it,” Goldberg said. “I’ve seen it in a lot of new home sale centers. It has become heavily used because it’s so convenient.”

Either alone or with the help of a broker, prospective buyers can inspect the community’s construction progress, read about the sales and development team, and scour a neighborhood map. “You can click on icons on the map of specific restaurants,” Goldberg said, and browse a handful of local attractions.

Since sales teams can only say so much about a building’s surroundings — school and demographics information included — websites pick up where they leave off.

In order to provide a thorough analysis of school zones, Schoolfisher.com highlights high-value neighborhoods, like a top-notch district in Flushing, Queens, with apartments in the low $200,000-range, on a map in gold.

As Grannis, Schoolfisher’s founder, notes on the site, Harlem Success Academy, a network of charter schools, scored higher than schools in coveted neighborhoods like the Upper East and West Sides, as did PS130 and 184 on the Lower East Side and PS 254 in Woodhaven, Queens.

“One of the things you can infer when you look at this is that there are some areas of New York where there are really thriving immigrant communities,” Grannis said. “Those communities have formed awfully good schools.”

2 Responses

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  1. Anonymous
    May 18, 2011 - 06:35 PM

     Shocker…another plug for his wife’s chain of Success Academy schools. Ugh. the conflicts of interest march on.  Anyway, with zone lines always ripe for change, aren’t brokers discouraged from marketing apartments with school affiliations attached?

    Reply
  2. Tony Baize
    May 18, 2011 - 11:24 PM

     What laws prohibit brokers from discussing schools?  I have been a fair housing advocate for 20 years, and I know of no such law.  The problem is/was/is that many agents and brokers *lied* about the quality of schools in minority neighborhoods to steer white buyers away.  

    I don’t think there are laws prohibiting agents from talking about schools.  They just have to tell the truth about them, and not use them as proxies for race.  

    Reply

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