It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and I’m heading back to the train station after meeting a friend for a lunch date. On the leafy street I’m walking down, I spot a row of elegant Georgian houses that make my heart skip a beat. Two of them have a “for sale” sign outside. Perhaps it’s the evocation of the Jane Austen era or the grandness of the architecture but Georgian houses have for a long time epitomised my dream home. The area is in the right part of London too.
Up until about a year ago I would have got details of the property by phoning the agent on the “for sale” sign; now, however, the process is now much simpler. All I need to do is point my iPhone in the direction of the property I’m interested in. Seconds later, it provides me with a full property description, images and a floorplan.
Welcome to the world of mobile phone property apps. Since last August’s launch of the first such app in the UK by search website Rightmove, rival firms and estate agents have been rushing to capitalise on its success with their own apps.
The premise is simple. The apps replicate each property company’s website, enabling users to search a location or postcode for properties. They then display a detailed list of properties available for sale.
But the feature that has really helped improve the process of searching for your dream home is the GPS search. This locates the buyer’s exact position and enables users to find properties in that area – perfect for those who accidentally stumble across their dream property or location.
Whereas the internet revolutionised the way people bought and sold property, cutting out a lot of window-shopping, agents say mobile apps are the next step forward.
“Five years ago you wouldn’t even have dreamt about looking for property while you were out and about, you would have been chained to your desk doing it,” says Natalie Marques of Rightmove.
The latest app on the market, launched last month, shows how mobile technology can be developed to enhance the homebuyer’s search process even further. Property website Zoopla aims to provide one of the most comprehensive property apps in the market, with the inclusion of its data on sold house prices and valuations as well as properties for sale or rent.
The company claims to be able to provide value estimates for all 27m UK homes, as well as 16.5m sale prices for houses dating back to 1995 using Land Registry data.
“This is the main differentiator of our app. While all the others are essentially search tools, ours is also a research tool,” says Alex Chesterman, founder of Zoopla.
I found this was certainly one of its big advantages compared with apps from rivals such as Rightmove, FindaProperty, Hamptons and Knight Frank. All you have to do is select the option “values” at the bottom of the screen and you can check the values of other similar properties in the area.
The listing of previous sale prices also enabled me to see how much other properties had recently sold for, as well as how much the property had gone up in value.
However, a word of caution. Zoopla’s valuations are estimates only. Chesterman says it calculates its estimates by using a formula that analyses property data such as historic sales and current asking prices.
Roarie Scarisbrick of Property Vision, a buying agent, believes valuation estimates by property portals are “worse than useless, in fact dangerous”. He says: “Valuation is an art, not a science, and there is no way a website can do this. Listing sale prices is their most useful function for buyers as this information comes directly from the Land Registry.”
While Zoopla’s augmented reality tool is an interesting gimmick – allowing would-be buyers to use the camera to see results on the screen of properties near your current location – it is available only on the newer versions of the iPhone, the 3GS or 4.
However, the Zoopla app doesn’t lead the pack on all fronts and it is worth comparing it with other apps on the market. I found that Rightmove came up with the longest list of properties in any location compared with its rivals thanks to its much bigger database of 1m properties for sale or rent. Zoopla only has half that number.
Zoopla’s property search filter is also slightly more limited. It offers only the choice of houses or flats, although it does allow users to type in certain keywords such as “double garage”. In contrast, the FindaProperty app allows users to search for waterside houses, new-build homes and properties up for auction.
For homebuyers interested in property both in the UK and abroad, the Knight Frank and Hamptons apps will appeal more. The Knight Frank app enables a search across 34 countries by clicking on lifestyle icons, such as waterviews, vineyards, ski chalets or golfing facilities. The Hamptons app can also search for properties abroad, but extends to only 15 countries and does not include popular second-home destinations such as France or Spain.
Property search apps are already proving popular with prospective homebuyers. Rightmove leads the way with 790,000 downloads since its release a year ago, compared with Findaproperty’s 330,000.
Property portals and agents are already looking to the future to find additional ways of developing and improving the services they provide to homebuyers.
In May, both Rightmove and Primelocation were quick to launch property search apps for the iPad, with Hamptons hoping to be the first estate agent to launch its app for the iPad this month. Its iPad app, as with its iPhone version, will provide the option of searching by country, region, town or postcode. It will also display prices in the currency of choice.
This month, Rightmove also launched its mobile site for other smartphone models such as the BlackBerry and Android. Natalie Marques says it will include more features than its iPhone app, including the ability to sync with a user’s online account, so that searches on both the mobile site and a PC are saved for later reference.
“There’s a huge amount of scope for what we can do, from social media to internet television – considered to be the next big thing – which are just different ways for people to access Rightmove and find their perfect property,” she says.
ON THE MOVE
Tap and search worldwide
All mobile phone property apps offer the following basics: a search function refined to include parameters of price range, distance, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, age of property, etc; a map of the area; the ability to save, e-mail and share search results; and photos and floorplans of each home in the listings.
Many apps are solely compatible with the iPhone 3, 3GS and 4; others can be used with the Android, BlackBerry and other makes of mobile phone. There are now hundreds of property apps available around the world. Here are just a few:
Knight Frank, www.knightfrank.com/iphone
iProperty Group, www.iproperty.com
Commonwealth Bank, www.commbank.com.au