Technology

Real estate: Know your neighbours

Zoocasa moves to town.

Canadians love looking at homes online, even when they’re not buying. Nearly a third of all Canadian Internet users browsed real estate listings at least once in July, according to comScore Media Metrix, with the most visits going to Realtor.ca, run by the Canadian Real Estate Association.

But a new player now wants to crack that dominance: Rogers Communications (TSX: RCI.B). In late August, the secretive New Ventures division of the cable, wireless and media giant (which also owns Canadian Business) publicly launched Zoocasa, a real estate search site that aims to combine listings, Google Maps and the characteristics of specific neighbourhoods, like school ratings and public transit. “We think there is a lot of value in the contextual data about neighbourhoods,” says Butch Langlois, the site’s general manager. “Is it pre-Starbucks up-and-coming? Is it economical? That’s relevant to homebuyers.”

At the moment, the site is sparse on listings, showing only about half the actual number of homes for sale in any given region. Langlois’s challenge is to get agents, brokers and real estate boards — the same industry professionals that currently feed Realtor.ca with listings — to share that same information with a glitchy startup website showing more promise than performance.

Software developers could write code that automatically collects information about homes already listed on the web outside the confines of Realtor.ca, which is protected, but Langlois would rather convince real estate agents and brokers to sign up freely as a way to reach prospective buyers. “I am doing deals with the real estate boards, so that we can get direct feeds of listings,” he says, “and then we’ll basically duplicate the infrastructure that is at Realtor.ca.”

He may have to move quickly. Zoocasa is hoping to get out front of potential competition from Canpages Inc., which recently acquired local-search startups ZipLocal and GigPark and may go into real estate, and Trader Corp.’s stable of housing-related sites, including HomeTrader.ca.

Canadian real estate is a rare example of traditional industry players coming together to embrace the web before an upstart could undermine their business. The Canadian Real Estate Association created MLS.ca in 1996 (it was rebranded Realtor.ca in 2008) to open up to the public a chunk of the huge Multiple Listing Service, which accounts for as much as 90% of all resale housing activity.

But Zoocasa thinks that purchasing a house entails researching the neighbourhood, too. It has already developed a downloadable application for iPhone users and is currently updating the application to allow house hunters to take photos and notes of homes they view in person, and will use their current location to find the nearest open house. “The real innovation comes on the wireless device,” says Langlois.

Therein lies Rogers’s interest. Zoocasa is the first of three startups gestating in the New Ventures portfolio, which was spawned about two years ago to develop and finance new technologies for markets created by the growth of wireless and wireline broadband, according to Mike Lee, Rogers’s chief strategy officer. Lee is one of the executives directly responsible for the division, and reports to Melinda Rogers, senior vice-president of strategy and development, and the entrepreneurial daughter of founder Ted Rogers, who passed away in December.

In July, Lee recruited Langlois back into the Rogers fold (he left the company in 2000 to pursue other opportunities), partly to accelerate development of Zoocasa. Despite being in development for nearly two years, Zoocasa is still rough around the edges, as Langlois freely admits, with a twitchy search engine and many features still not up and running. “In six months, the product is going to rock,” he says.

Making a site that works is less of a hurdle for Zoocasa than navigating the politics of the industry, but Rogers can guide the way. It has nurtured links to real estate professionals for decades, in part because moving house is synonymous with also moving cable and phone service. “Real Estate is an industry that we work very closely with on a range of different services within our company,” says Lee, “and we think of this as one more tool to create a stronger relationship.” The question is whether Realtor.ca’s backers, real estate agents themselves, will play nicely with the new kid on the block.