Transformation of the consumer property search, buy and sell experience

This post is the second in a three part series exploring the transformation data and the internet have had on consumers in the property industry. Through this post we’ll explore how property portals have changed the way consumers find, buy and sell property. The final part showcases some of the latest property search innovations and explore what the future consumer experience could look like for movers and investors.

As noted in part one, my real estate experiences before the dawn of the internet saw a lot of manual processes keeping the industry running. Before the internet I imagine movers had to invest a lot of time in their property search – scouring the local newspaper property listings, regularly checking out estate agents window displays and building personal relationships with multiple local estate agents if they wanted to be alerted to the best opportunities. Consumers were on a back foot when it came to comparable information to understand if they were getting a good deal – and they relied on the trust of Estate Agents. These issues were exasperated if you were looking to move further afield.

But things were changing fast around the turn of the century. The millennium bug (a computer thing, not a pandemic!) didn’t bring consumer electronics crashing to a halt as had been predicted. Instead the internet was booming with companies going online. 

The property industry was no different. Records show the domain name rightmove.com was registered in July 1995 and first trawled by web.archive.org in 1996, but the first public Rightmove property portal site wouldn’t enter the market until 2000. Other UK property disruptors included FindAProperty.com (which launched in 1997) and PrimeLocation.com (founded in 2001) – both acquired by The Digital Property Group in 2006 and three years later acquired by Zoopla (which itself launched in 2008). Of those names, Rightmove and Zoopla remain the dominant names in the online property arena today. Such is the dominance of property portal’s that at the time of writing Rightmove ranks as the 12th most popular site in the UK (measured by volume of traffic) and 155th globally, whilst Zoopla follows as the 46th most popular site (by traffic) in the UK and 923rd globally.

These property sites meant consumers suddenly had access to a lot more information. They could widen their search area and search for properties 24/7 from the luxury of their arm chairs – or back in 2000 when I did my work experience more accurately from the nearest chair or floor space close to the wired phone socket. Using online portals agents could distribute property details quicker, and reach a much larger audience. In parallel, digital cameras were improving in quality, functionality and connectivity – creating more detailed photos to rival traditional 35mm film and making it quick to upload photos to computers and embed them in property particulars. New property portal features were being introduced to query property particulars and arrange viewings – at a convinient time that suited prospective movers rather than just when the Estate Agencies were open. Movers could register their interest online, and find contact details for agents in a standard, predictable way at the touch of a button. No more were consumers reliant on flicking the property pages of the local press, or gambling on the British weather whilst traipsing around looking at estate agent windows.

Over the subsequent years further technological advances would promote rise of online property listings and search. Whilst 3G internet launched in the UK in 2003, it didn’t become popular until the advent of Smart Phones. With the original iPhone launching in 2007 (albeit without 3G internet) the next generation of Smart Phones would feature far greater connectivity for movers. Consumers now had improving digital cameras on the phones in their pockets, and the ease of taking and viewing property particulars was becoming simpler. July 2008 saw the second generation iPhone launch – billed the iPhone 3G for its new connectivity. This phone featured the innovative App Store and led to new consumer experiences.  Rightmove launched their first iPhone app in 2009, and a native iPad app in May 2010, with Zoopla launching its own iPhone app in July 2010 that it billed as “game-changing” for property consumers . By 2015 Rightmove mobile traffic had overtaken desktop as the nation took advantage of improving mobile internet (now 4G) connectivity and native mobile features to check out properties on the move.

Web analytics meant investors, sellers and agents had access to insights around properties, prospective leads and viewers with portals creating greater lead generation for Agents.  Portals even experimented with features to aid off-market opportunities, with “how much is my property worth” tools and Zoopla’s “Tempt Me” feature. Love them or hate them, property portals were here to stay.

Consumers now have a lot more data and information to help understand the full market and inform their view of the market. Over the last decade the UK government has moved its data online and made this data accessible to third parties. In 2010 Rightmove’s “Sold Prices” feature launched and included HM Land Registry price data. This data can be used to help value properties, tempt potential sellers to test the market, and to help buyers understand the value of their property. Property portals have combined this data with their own wealth of listing data and are using this to show you property histories and market comparables. Portals also recognise some of the key questions we repeatedly ask when assessing properties and have integrated data to give users insights – for example nearest schools, public transport stops and local broadband internet speeds.

But not everyone is happy with the way the industry has shifted. Many agents feel trapped by the status quo of giants Rightmove and Zoopla and concern has grown that agent costs for these platforms could spiral, upselling opportunities could be reduced and local agent’s existence in the property ecosystem could be displaced. In response, agent backed site OnTheMarket.com launched in 2015 to challenge Rightmove and Zoopla’s dominance. From a consumer perspective this newer entrant’s features are comparable to Rightmove and Zoopla. The key difference is the volume of properties available. With significantly lower listings on the platform OnTheMarket.com continues to lag behind for consumer adoption.

When we look back at the last 20 years there has clearly been huge disruption in the consumer real estate world. But if we focus on the last 5 years I’d question how much has really changed for consumers listing and searching for property. The way property portals enable you to search for properties has remained fairly static. It feels like only the look and feel has evolved. Features such as automated email notifications for new listings, custom search areas and sales and lettings histories have added additional ways to find and understand the value of your current or next home, but fundamentally the experience is very similar to how it was 5 years ago. 

In the last part of this series I’ll be exploring this question to look at what emerging trends we are seeing in the property sector, and considering what the future of finding your next dream home or investment could look like. 

Use the comments to discuss what the biggest changes (good or bad) you’ve seen to the way you find you buy, sell or rent homes? If you’re an Agent or worked in the industry through this change I’d love to hear your perspective too.

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Darren

Darren

Darren is an experienced product manager currently working in the Real Estate industry. He is passionate about using data, listening to people and focusing on user experience to identify and solve real problems and in doing so to make a lasting impact for our communities.

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