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Localisation – local knowledge moves online

by James Cole

As more of us start our home-buying search online there is a growing need for sources of local information.

The last few years have given us instant access to objective information such as sold house prices, bus routes, school catchment boundaries and distances from shops, restaurants and train stations,  but we now have an appetite to digest the subjective information online as well.

 a hand drawn map of an area

Local Knowledge: Invaluable

Not only do we want to know the house prices trends for the area and what our target property sold for last time around but we want to get a feel for the area itself, and we want to hear it from people who live there.

Internet people call this ‘user generated content’ and it means that we write for each other.  No more do we consult the a restaurant guidebook written by a professional critic but we ‘Google’ the restaurant and read reviews written by other diners.  Word of mouth moves online.

The same applies to local area knowledge.  We want to read what residents are saying about an area to put some depth and colour behind those dull statistics.  Yes there may be 12 restaurants within a 10 minute walk – but are they any good?  Has the map eaten there?  The software? Perhaps the website dropped in for a coffee and croissant?  I don’t think so.

The merging of mobile phones with personal computers has really put the ‘location’ into location-based search.   Rather than typing a postcode into your office based computer you can, in theory, use an ‘app’ on your phone that already knows your exact location – and provides information relevant to it.  You can be standing outside a flat you’re about to view and access the Ofcom score of the local school or read what residents think of the local library.

Property websites have recently woken up to the power of localised information, not only because house-hunters are demanding more access to it, but because the internet’s Chief Whip Google demands it.

In Google’s quest for localization, the search engine has started giving precedence in search results to websites that show that they have local relevance to queries.  This means a search for ‘Hotels in Glasgow’ is less likely to return a list of national hotel booking websites and more likely to return a list of actual hotels in Glasgow, represented by the business’ own website.

Likewise a search for ‘houses for sale in Brighton’ may, in the future, be more likely to reveal the websites of estate agents in Brighton than a national property portal website.

To stay relevant and retain the enormous footfall they (we) receive from property-related search queries, property portals are developing local strategies online.  In Rightmove’s case by developing a place to share local knowledge and reviews: Rightmove Places.  Zoopla were ahead of this game with their AskMe! feature where you can ask and answer location-related questions and their recent acquisition of  houseprices.co.uk will allow them to give customers access to sold house price data from the Land Registry should they so wish.  Personally I could never buy a house without knowing how much the previous owner paid for it.

Rightmove places Logo

The property search engine Nestoria has a number of data sources that add flavour to the home search, if not colour – giving census information, healthcare facilities, house price trends, post office locations and other hard facts.

Findaproperty.com have a ‘how far is this from…’ tool allowing you to measure the distance of certain services from a given property.

For property portals serious about catering for the needs of their users, location based information services are more than a nice-to-have feature and not only adds to the experience of the online home-hunter – allowing them to do more of their research in one place – but will attract more home-hunters to the website by capturing more of the home-hunt research queries made in search engines.

Check the Area - a service form home hunters

For those without the time to do their own research,  a new service called Check The Area uses a nationwide network of retired police officers ‘each tasked with using their local knowledge and investigative skills to research your potential new neighbourhood’.  The service starts at £150 for their bronze package.

Their website claims that ‘ a bad neighbourhood can knock up to £30,000 off the value of your property’.  Friends of mine recently pulled out of purchasing a flat at the 11th hour when they discovered, quite by accident, that the flat above was owned by a charity that re-homed ex-prisoners and recovering drug addicts.  This flat shared an entrance and, stairway and hall and being in their early 60s and planning to retire to this flat my friends didn’t feel safe and backed out of the sale.  Had they commissioned an area search earlier they could have made a significant saving in abortive solicitors’ fees.

If your budget will stretch to it, using a property buying agent can also reveal more about an area than you might have time to find out yourself.  The Association of Property Finders and Buyers Agents could be a good place to start looking for one.

Online forums can also be a great place to get an inside view on an area – many hyper-local forums serving just a postcode or a whole town can reveal what residents are talking about whether it be crime or the local library.

Websites such as Local Mouth, We Love Local and Qype bring together sources of information about an area – as well as providing a forum  for local people to post reviews and comments about their area.

If you know of any good online resources for local knowledge and house hunting research feel free to add them in the comments below.

(The hand-drawn map image in this post is used courtesy of Danny McL.)

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