Wanted: Property search revolution

If you know me, you might also know that I recently moved to London. Well, almost-moved to be more precise.

See, physically, I’m in London, crashing at my sister’s place. However, I can’t say that I’ve moved to London until I find a place of my own. And I’ve been searching. Really, really hard, actually. No matter however hard I try, looking for a flat in London (and I suspect most large metropolitan cities) simply sucks. We desperately need someone to fix the whole experience. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What I’m doing right now

My process right now revolves around Zoopla. As a service, they are really comprehensive, have a wide reach, and decent search filters. I usually filter out anything older than 3-7 days, as those are highly likely to have already been taken. Since I don’t actually have a particular zone in mind (it’s more like a set of zones), I just search for “London” and browse the map view. So far, so good.

Zoopla map search

Having opened the map, I open up various properties in new tabs. Here’s where the troubles start. The property pages’ titles all start with the property type, which in my case is always “1 bedroom flat,” and follow with the location.

Screenshot of useless Chrome tabs

Finding the tab you need is practically impossible. Luckily, armed with Tampermonkey (Greasemonkey for Chrome, since you can’t install extensions from [userscripts.org] anymore), I made the titles a bit more manageable.

Screenshot of more useful Chrome tabs

Get the script here.

Okay, time to arrange a few viewings! I prefer calling people on the phone, so I need to get their phone numbers.

Except there’s no automatic way to do that.

Zoopla has Saved places but that’s only a list of properties with links to the details page. I already have that in my tab bar.

Okay, back to pen and paper - I copy all the addresses, prices, estate agencies, and phone numbers on a sheet of paper and just call them one by one. I then jot down the agent’s name, time and place of the meeting, and any extra details he might provide.

Then, I add all the appointments to my calendar, along with the addresses and contact numbers and off I go throughout London.

Looking for a flat is a two-way conversation.

So far, I’ve only covered one side of the process. The reality, however, is that flat hunting is a two-way conversation. And this is where it gets tricky.

  1. Zoopla hides the agencies’ phone numbers behind a phone redirection system. What this means in practice is that I can’t know who’s calling me from just the number, since I’ve never seen that number before - I’ve been calling the Zoopla phone lines all along.

  2. When the agents refer to a specific flat I have to dig up my notepad and see what exactly he’s talking about. I also better have a good memory for photos and other details as I don’t copy those to my pad. Screenshot of mobile Chrome tabs [This is slightly aleviated if I’m using a hands-free, since I can just open up Chrome on my phone and quickly find the tab from my laptop via Chrome Sync; this wouldn’t have been possible without that user script though]

  3. It’d be nice to be able to see my agenda for the week while talking to the agent on the phone - again, a headset comes in handy here but is still no panacea.

  4. Searching for more properties on my phone is a pain of demonic proportions. The Zoopla website has no mobile web version and their app is entirely and completely useless.

I need a flat search assistant.

The second best option, after someone managing your search for you, would be a really smart app that can do at least the following:

  1. Two-way sync between my laptop and my phone
  2. Produce a list of numbers I should call, with the appropriate details next to them (agency name, street, price). This should also group properties by agency, so I can ask about multiple flats in one call
  3. Let me take notes about viewings, contact names, phones, and subsequently export those to my calendar
  4. Take all my listings offline, so that I can still reference them when they are pulled off the market

These four things alone would greatly speed up my side of the process.

The following are nice-to-haves that tackle some of the smaller issues:

  1. Ability to take photos and associate them with a property
  2. (Temporarily) import a list of phone numbers for the agencies I’ve contacted, so that their names show up when they call me
  3. Better maps - Google Maps at a fixed zoom level is not ideal for property search. A better map would zoom out to include the nearest transport hub (Tube station, train station, etc), show all the bus stations around, as well as local convenience stores. Ideally, the map would be customizable (OpenStreeMap comes to mind) and would allow me to show and hide the various layers. Also, when showing a property on a map, it should show me all the other properties I have saved, so I can compare and contrast locations.
  4. Area stats - the ones from Nestoria are actually really comprehensive and would be a nice feature.

Why not Nestoria?

Nestoria is this wonderful search engine that integrates all the big players in one giant pile of listings, maps, and advanced filters. It, however, is completely unusable.

What makes it unusable is the inability to filter by date added. In the fast-paced London market this filter is the difference between calling about 20 properties that have all been taken and being the first one to view the best flat ever.

Other than that, Nestoria is excellent (though their maps are weird!).

What now?

Both Zoopla and Nestoria have free APIs. I’d pay good money for an app that works well and does the stuff listed above.

Alternatively, once I settle down, I’ll just write it myself, since no one seems to care all that much.

P.S. It just occurred to me that I’ve not explained why I insist on calling agents. The reason is quite simple - they don’t check their emails often enough. Phone calls seem to be the prevalent mode of communication in this industry and so I’d rather use that.

Zoopla has some mass-email functionality to the agent but it’s rather poorly thought out and not very useful overall.


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