When you think of the ideal place to find a new home, you probably conjure up a mental image of a specific website or app. It will have familiar branding, a familiar layout, as well as features and tools that help you find exactly what you're looking for.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the website in your head looks the same in every country around the world. People's needs when looking for a place to live are mostly the same—right? After all, how hard can it be to build a real estate portal website?
The truth is, we've looked through all the real estate portal websites in the world (twice now) and, unfortunately, they aren't all the same. Some are excellent and some are, honestly, really quite bad.
The reality is that, while most real estate portals may look similar on the outside, the features and tools each has vary wildly—even for websites in the same country.
There is no consensus about user experience on these websites, and no tools or features that come 'as standard' on all of them.
After looking through 650 online real estate marketplaces in 2021, we repeated the exercise with 718 real estate marketplace websites in 2023 to see what had changed with the expectation of seeing a big improvement.
We were disappointed.
The following are some of the general points from our investigation, we highly recommend viewing the full report which includes breakdowns by geography, market leadership and speciality available here. If you already subscribe to our newsletter, an email with a link to the report is already in your inbox.
The percentage of real estate marketplace sites that map their listings has gone up since we looked in 2021. There is a correlation between the maturity of the market a portal operates in and the likelihood that it has a map. Generally, sites in more mature markets are more likely to map their listings and have a map view for their users to see all the listings from a bird's eye view.
It turns out that the big deciding factor here is whether a country's real estate market operates with exclusive sales mandates. That is, if a home seller entrusts the sale of their house to just one agent or to many.
Non-exclusive mandates are particularly common in non-mature markets around the world. Someone who knows the problem well is Galia Jordanova, the founder of the Enoti portal in Bulgaria.
"For younger, not well-regulated real estate markets, where the agents in general do not get exclusivity from the seller, it's easy to imagine that agents' commission is at risk. The buyer can shortcut the negotiations and go straight to the seller, or other agents (that did not invest in good photos, or professional workforce but offered a price discount) can easily win the deal. Not sharing the exact location in that case is the main insurance for the agent in order to protect his piece of the pie."
Of course, real estate portals can get around the issue in a variety of different ways, some more sophisticated than others. There are websites that use AI to determine a listing's location via its photos and words in the description. Some portals just give a rough estimate of a listing's location on their map view.
Former REA Group CEO, Simon Baker recalled when the Italian portal Casa.it (which REA Group owned at the time) had a crude solution for putting non-exclusive sales mandate listings on a map.
"We were not able to plot the exact location because the agent didn't want it. So we would basically pick a random spot within a kilometre of where the actual property was. Now that works fantastically well when you're in most cities. However, if you're in Venice, you have a slight problem putting a lot of properties in the middle of canals."
For Enoti in Bulgaria, the solution was to ask users who attended viewings where the listing was actually located. It was a tactic which had its drawbacks.
"That let us enjoy more and loyal end users but we also got angry agents threatening to take all their listings down."
For Jordanova, ultimately the question of whether to map listings on a real estate portal is a numbers game.
"Would you as a portal have the muscles to survive and resist agents until you have enough traffic to be unavoidable for them?"
Letting users draw their own search area is a feature that has been around for a decade but it's still a rare one on real estate marketplace websites, even among leading portals in mature markets as it turns out.
There are some markets such as Australia and the UAE where the boundaries of each suburb are well defined and well known. But for users on most property portals, the ability to define exactly where they want to live should come as standard (in our humble opinion).
One real estate portal Chief Product Officer who feels the same is Luke Kenyon of Homely.com.au.
"I'm shocked by the lack of people doing maps and actually utilising the maps."
Kenyon says that his company's data shows that maps are the most engaged-with feature by serious property hunters. Homely.com.au was the first in the Australian market to let users draw their own search area with the feature proving a great success among users.
One of the few features that was more common on portals in 2023 than it was in 2021 is the floorplan filter. During the COVID-19 pandemic, floorplans became increasingly useful for home hunters looking to get a feel for the layout of a property without actually having to arrange a visit. It seems they're becoming more common on property listings around the world and more important for many users.
Asked what his 'pet peeve' is when looking through other real estate portals, Luke Kenyon had a swift answer:
"[I need] a quick link from the search experience to the floorplan. So many portals don't do that, they hide it within the listing page. I want it to be right there. For me, that is so important and it's been in this industry for nearly eight to ten years."
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to search for a new place to live by how long it would take to get to work from your new home?
Well, a small number of real estate websites around the world now actually let their users input an address (place of work, children's school, etc) and how long they would like to take to get there before only showing listings that meet those all-important commute parameters.
Those that let users search by time are seeing some impressive conversion boosts with Charlie Davies (CEO of specialist location data provider TravelTime) telling us that Zoopla saw a "300 percent uplift in conversions" when it started using the tech.
While the number of portal sites that let the user search by travel time is small for now, it seems that around the world real estate website operators are beginning to allow their users to search by distances and show more information related to nearby points of interest on their listings pages.
According to Simon Baker, this is part of a broader shift in the world of real estate marketplaces where the goal is to go from having the user search through listings to a scenario in which the portal intelligently helps the user discover their new home via richer input.
"I think traditionally, we've been super reliant on people searching based on the fact they know where they want to live. And knowing where you want to live is often actually determined by where you work, right? The two things sort of interplay with each other."
When we look back at these real estate portal websites in a couple of years, what might we find?
Luke Kenyon thinks that portals will have advanced their user experiences with the help of AI. New technology is helping real estate portal operators around the world extract richer textual descriptions and identify a property's features from images and Kenyon says, that can help portals build better filters and even help SEO.
"Pointing out, does it have a balcony? Does it have aircon? Does it have central heating? Then using that to actually help enhance your search filtering and SEO. I think that's where we'll be in two years' time."
Simon Baker says that real estate portals are not without examples to follow when it comes to implementing new technologies and features. For Baker though, portals shouldn't think that they have to build out all the features themselves.
"There's a whole bunch of companies out there who are developing this technology as plug and play features which allows you to insert a search function for travel time as a feature on your website very quickly."
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