The real estate domain has long occupied a prominent place on the web and in the app stores. Today, there’s a lot of speculation that real estate websites and mobile apps might one day replace agents and brokers completely. This may sound a bit disturbing if you’re a real estate agent who hasn’t already gone digital. On the other hand, real estate mobile app development is something that agents can invest in to keep pace with the times.
No wonder interest in real estate app development has reached its highest point ever. According to the Real Estate in a Digital Age 2018 Report by the National Association of Realtors, 73 percent of homebuyers use a phone, tablet, website, or app in their search. New real estate apps are constantly emerging on the market. This article will shed some light on the current trends in the US mobile real estate market.
The internet is changing the US real estate business
Agents continue to play the leading role in the US real estate market, with 88 percent of buyers seeking an agent's help. However, property information that was once only accessible through real estate agents or brokers is now available through search engines and mobile applications.
More than 90 percent of real estate companies have websites with home listings. The average buyer now uses a smartphone to find properties. They look through real estate aggregators with photos, property listing apps, and details about the buying process. Buyers then get in touch with an agent and visit several homes before buying one. By the way, we’ve developed a real estate app called HomeSway that provides a better home tour experience. You’re welcome to check out the case study.
[The HomeSway app]
Who brought about the change?
Zillow and Trulia did. They’re the ones who have transformed the housing market and made the home buying process more transparent.
How Zillow and Trulia managed to revolutionize the housing market
Originally, neither of these companies were in the business of selling homes (instead, they sold advertising to real estate agents). This enabled them to provide more insight and transparency in the housing market compared to trade associations and housing industry establishments like the NAR.
According to Stefan Swanepoel, a consultant and writer on real estate trends, portals like Zillow and Trulia have created a whole new trend of real estate lifestyle surfing. People who engage in real estate lifestyle surfing are interested in home prices and community information even though they may not be in the market to buy or sell a home.
Merger between Zillow and Trulia
In 2015, Zillow acquired Trulia, and this combined entity has become the biggest player in the online real estate market. In terms of monthly traffic, Zillow had 36 million visits and Trulia had around 23 million visits in May 2018.
The merger has had a crucial impact on Zillow's development: around half of Trulia’s visitors weren’t using Zillow before the acquisition. Now the websites complement each other. Zillow concentrates on the full lifecycle of owning and living in a home, while Trulia focuses on the home search process.
As a result of the acquisition, the company’s websites and apps had a combined total of around 186 million monthly visitors during the third quarter of 2018, roughly triple that of Realtor.com, which averaged about 60 million monthly visitors during the same period. Zillow’s estimated 2018 ad revenue is $1.3 billion.
Zillow business development
Despite Zillow’s earlier statements that they would never sell real estate, they’ve taken the first step toward the selling side of the business. In 2018, Zillow announced its Instant Offers program. This program enables sellers in specific markets to get offers from investors.
Soon after that, Zillow became an investor itself and bought some homes. At the end of 2018, Zillow acquired Mortgage Lenders of America (MLoA). Zillow has gone a long way, from showing buyers homes to actually purchasing homes. Now they’re all set to finance home purchases.
According to Bloomberg, the deal between Zillow and Trulia is the largest acquisition for Zillow thus far. But it certainly isn’t the first and won’t be the last. Here’s a short list of some of the acquisitions Zillow has made over the years:
- Leading New York–based real estate website StreetEasy
- Agentfolio, a collaboration tool to help real estate professionals and home buyers stay organized and communicate more effectively
- Map-based apartment and home rental search engine HotPads
- Retsly, a Vancouver, B.C.-based startup that helps developers access real estate data from Multiple Listing Services (MLS). This service takes data from MLSs and normalizes it so real estate app developers can more easily use the data in their own applications.
Since acquiring Trulia, Zillow has kept buying up other companies to expand its sphere of influence. Zillow has receipts for Dotloop, Naked Apartments, and Bridge Interactive, just to mention a few.
[The Agentfolio app]
What you need to know if you want to develop an app like Zillow or Trulia
Zillow and Trulia complement each other, and this applies to their apps. Both companies have a number of apps serving different business needs, including mortgage and rental apps.
In case you decide to develop an app similar to Zillow or Trulia, we thought it might be worthwhile highlighting a few of their prominent features. This should save you a bit of time on researching the competition.
Zillow and Trulia provide home search and detailed listings of properties for sale and for rent. Actually, there isn’t much difference in functionality between these apps.
Users prefer one over the other for their sorting criteria. For example, Zillow users can filter properties by year built. Others decide on Trulia as it has a Transit Score, which measures how well a location is served by public transportation. There’s one main difference between the two brands: Trulia Real Estate is built to simplify the search for properties for sale. On the other hand, Zillow Real Estate provides guidance at every step of the homebuying process, including purchasing, selling, renting, financing, and remodeling.
Let’s spell out the ingredients both apps have in common and see why they’re important so you don’t miss any key points in your own app.
[Trulia Real Estate]
Databases are crucial
A database is a crucial component in real estate mobility solutions, as data has to come from somewhere. The real estate industry in the US is still run by the MLS system, and even big portals like Zillow and Trulia depend on MLS to find information about homes.
How does Zillow get listing data?
Zillow receives MLS listing data in a feed when real estate brokers opt into listing syndication with the Zillow Group. This process is carried out via apps like SimplyRets, iHomeFinder, and Spark APIs. These apps normalize MLS data flows, as fields in each area’s MLS database have to match up with Zillow’s database to show the data in Zillow’s format.
However, Zillow receives listings from an MLS only in some cases. Most of its listings are taken from listing syndication platforms, brokers, and agents. According to the Zillow Group website, Zillow’s database numbers 110 million US homes. You can explore how Zillow interacts with third parties to get data in one of our previous articles.
Right after Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia, there was a popular opinion that the bigtime deal would lead to Zillow becoming the owner of a proprietary network that would pull brokers away from NAR (a housing-industry establishment) and unseat MLS entirely. However, Zillow, which gets more traffic than all of its competitors nationwide, still uses MLS listings.
How to use the Zillow API
If you want to create a full system like Trulia or Zillow, you’ll eventually have to comply with rules established by NAR regarding public property details. You’ll also have to deal with local MLSs in the US. But in the short run, to prove your product works, you can start with using APIs from Zillow. Keep in mind that you can use the Zillow API only to retrieve and display dynamic Zillow content without an ability to store it. You’re also not allowed to create an app using the API that doesn’t have links back to Zillow. You can find a full list of FAQs related to the Zillow API on their website.
By the way, improper use of Zillow’s proprietary data may damage your business. In 2014, the Seattle-based startup Flipt faced charges of violating Zillow’s terms of service. The startup managed to survive, and now they connect real estate specialists with potential home sellers by means of AI technology. Keep in mind avoiding similar mistakes when you build your real estate web portal or mobile app.
Advanced search functionality is more of a requirement than a recommendation
Filtered search is extremely important for real estate apps. The better structured your data, the better your app’s user experience. Try to organize information so that property listings highlight the most popular criteria for home buyers. We can separate must-have search criteria like location, property type, and price range from other criteria like square footage, on-site parking, in-unit laundry, year built, and whatever else you think is important to include.
It’s advisable to integrate analytics into your app or gather data from the server to know what your users are most interested in when looking for properties. That way you can make this information catch their eye. We recommend starting with an MVP and continually enhancing the product. With so many geographical areas and user segments, it’s important to find the best fit for your app.
Also, implement a save search feature to retain users. Saving searches or liking properties isn’t only useful for keeping a list of homes in one place; it also makes it possible for a realtor to see what a client prefers and suggest similar options. An app should also send push notifications when a new house appears that matches a user’s search criteria.
Let’s go back to the Zillow and Trulia apps and discuss their search functionality. Even though they both have separate apps for rentals, they put Homes for Rent alongside Homes for Sale in the search menu of their real estate apps. By having two apps perform one and the same function, the company aims to acquire more users. In addition, every single Zillow and Trulia app promotes other apps the company owns (e.g. apps for agents, mortgage calculators), thus increasing customer loyalty to Zillow brands.
[ Zillow’s app for mortgage credit lending (left) and Zillow’s realtor app (right)]
Listings should portray data graphically
What’s the best way to get users to engage with information about real estate listings? It’s simple: visually. Portraying data graphically reveals patterns that are difficult to detect otherwise. Graphs and pictures always beat long descriptions. Your app can have both, but don’t overload it with too much info.
Zillow and Trulia listings differ. They both, however, have graphical components like a monthly mortgage breakdown. There are a huge number of ways to display information graphically on both iOS and Android platforms. You can find an SDK with developer resources for any type of chart and graph.
Apart from maps and pictures of properties, including other properties in the neighborhood, these apps can redirect you to Google Street View and Google directions with one click. This feature is both simple to implement and valuable for the end user because it adds transparency.
One of the unique features Zillow has is an estimated market value tool called Zestimate, which is a starting point for determining a home’s market value or monthly rental price. This estimate is based on public data like neighborhood market guides and forecast calculations.
What to put on the map and how to make it look nice
Neighborhood information plays a big role in a real estate app, especially now as homebuyers are paying more attention to the community they plan to live in. In Zillow’s app, you can access neighborhood information by clicking on the map. Markers attached to places display information filtered according to the criteria you’ve specified. If there’s too much information to show, you can cluster your markers; in other words, you can put a large number of markers on the map without making it hard to read.
The Trulia app also provides detailed neighborhood information. As soon as a user has chosen a house, they can check the crime level, availability of schools and stores, and other local information. The section “What Locals Say” gives crowdsourced insights.
[Neighborhood information in the Trulia Real Estate app]
Together with placing markers at locations such as schools, Trulia has heat maps that use colors to represent the distribution of data. You can consult Google Maps documentation for information on implementing a heatmap utility on Android and displaying overlays on a map in the iOS developer library.
Maps in both the Trulia and Zillow apps have a draw feature, which makes them super convenient to use. You can circle an area with your finger and the map will show you everything of interest within this zone.
[Drawing a custom region on the map in the Trulia Real Estate app]
Trends in the era of digitalization
According to the 2019 edition of Inman Disconnect, homebuyers and real estate agents will swap roles over the next five years. In the future, agents will seek clients as opposed to homebuyers seeking agents. The number of real estate agents will shrink, and only the most competitive will remain. How can you seamlessly connect agents with sellers and buyers? Let’s find out how to do this in the rapidly changing market.
Matching customers and agents
The following three brands have already built their real estate businesses around the principle of matching.
Nobul.com is an online Canadian real estate marketplace that allows agents to compete for clients. The service enables buyers and sellers to compare agents’ services and decide on the agent they prefer. On Nobul.com, a buyer/seller describes the type of real estate they want to buy/sell. Interested agents can then reach out with their offerings. Nobul charges agents a 20 basis point referral fee – $2,000 per $1 million of real estate value – for closed deals.
Property Whispers is an Australian matching platform that covers the residential marketplace, including real estate that’s advertised for sale and that’s for sale off-market. The platform is appreciated by agents, brokers, and vendors since it helps them get the contact information of matched buyers. In a world where traditional advertising campaigns cost thousands of dollars, the platform charges agents only $99 plus GST per listing (with a free trial provided). Private vendors, in turn, pay only $139 plus GST to list their properties.
Homes.com is also built around the matching principle. With the platform’s Snap & Search feature, buyers just take a photo of a home they like and the service helps them find similar ones. In addition, the platform provides a kind of conversational search. It navigates a buyer to their ideal location providing average area pricing by helping buyers choose criteria that matter to them the most. Filters such as “must-have” and “around” (for approximate pricing) enable users to find relevant listings. All property results have a match score on a scale of 0 to 100, showing how closely a property matches the user’s preferences.
Virtual tours and video walkthroughs
It’s obvious that buyers want to physically examine a property before buying it. It’s also great that people can minimize travel to homes they would like to see thanks to virtual tours. With virtual tours, homebuyers don’t need to schedule multiple real estate showings before deciding on a property to buy. Virtual tours are especially helpful when people want to purchase a house overseas.
The Zillow 3D Home feature, which is totally free for listing agents, integrates with Zillow and Trulia listings. Agents just have to capture panoramas and the app automatically creates a tour. There are also apps dedicated solely to virtual tours. Realync allows users to interact via live video and audio, take pictures and notes, and send messages. Each tour file is automatically saved to the cloud for later access and sharing.
Video walkthroughs are another common practice to show properties remotely. Walkthroughs are short videos of a listing recorded by a mobile phone or some other device. The Zillow Real Estate app (iOS only) has a feature for recording such videos.
Real-time chats enable a constant connection between a client (the app) and the server. In this case, the server knows the online/offline status of each user and can make sure messages are delivered instantly.
Real-time chats are typically implemented with the XMPP protocol. This protocol has to be transported across the network using a transport binding such as TCP/IP (used with native clients on devices), HTTP, or WebSockets.
Challenges to ensuring smooth interactions
Apps that support showings on demand cater to people’s growing appetite for immediate gratification, but they also raise a number of concerns for agents, homeowners, and homebuyers.
Safety. Traditionally, a buyer first meets an agent in the office for an initial conversation and only then arranges showings. Digital real estate apps don’t require that an agent be acquainted with a potential buyer, and meeting a stranger might be dangerous. Apps like Silent Beacon and Trust Stamp are tailored to ensuring realtors’ safety. Silent Beacon, for example, has a panic button and is considered the most trusted app. It provides a list of emergency contacts to send alerts to by means of call, email, or text message. In addition, Silent Beacon shows an agent’s current location to trusted people within five seconds.
Suitability of agents. Nobul ranks all agents and assigns them a score based on clients’ preferences. This model provides healthy competition, where the most professional and reputable agents compete for customers and offer them incentives.
These are the components you need to pay attention to when building your own real estate app. Zillow Group, despite its leadership, still has plenty of competition from other sites and mobile apps such as Realtor.com and Homes.com as well as from Coldwell Banker, Re/Max, Century 21, and other real estate brokers. You should check them out too if you decide to try your hand at digital real estate. Yalantis can help you build a real estate solution by sharing our vast experience in native mobile app development and web development.