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There Goes The Neighborhood? More Like Here It Comes, to the Rental Search

By Colin Ryan

Industry News

When I think about the mad-eyed, mouth-frothing masses who will move into newly-leased apartments in the Boston Area in the wee hours of September 1, I settle on a few different kinds of people. There are working- and middle-class families and couples, for whom buying a home does not make financial sense; there are also college students around the city, eager to drag particle-board futons into the beer-soaked apartments adjacent their respective schools. As far as real estate professionals are concerned, these people are a collective no-brainer, tied to a specific location or area based on familial, financial, employment, or educational obligations. There is, however, another group that is far more dynamic and therefore far more exciting in the world of rentals: namely, recent college graduates and young professionals. I don’t mean to suggest that these people have complete freedom of choice when it comes to where they live; nevertheless, twenty-somethings have more options and fewer attachments than ever in their lives, and can make decisions based on nightlife, culture, and vibe, rather than, say, the quality of public schools.

But how do we in the industry respond to this need for relevant information about our neighborhoods? In particular, how do we give prospective renters a sense of what it will feel like to live there? Why, with technology and social media, of course! The Internet is lighting up with companies eager to provide people with the data they want about the communities they’re interested in. As fate would have it, the two that have caught my attention lately are a year-old Internet startup and a computing and technology giant three and a half decades in the making.

First, we have NabeWise. Founded in 2009, NabeWise is based on the idea that “People moving . . . want to find a place that fits their identity, lifestyle, and values.” The site has taken an extremely methodical approach to describing neighborhoods, offering users in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Chicago real-time rankings across 65 attributes, under categories like Quality of Life (income, safety, public transportation), Character (trendy, clean), People (conservatives, gay/lesbian), and Things To Do (nightlife, farmers’ market)–categories “people really talk about and care about.” To see NabeWise in action, consider Allston-Brighton, my current neighborhood. Consistent with my experience, the area boasts #1 rankings in the singles and hipsters attributes and is near-bottom in the rent and quiet attributes. (It seems to me that for a true hipster, a #1 ranking would actually be a negative attribute–but with the number of people I see wearing red jeans increasing daily, I must be wrong.)

Street Slide: Browsing Street Level Imagery

Second, we have Microsoft, with Bing Maps‘ newest tool, Street Slide. I, like many of you, am generally skeptical of Microsoft’s attempts to stay ahead of more cutting edge competitors; nevertheless, Street Slide should have the techies over at Google Maps, currently coasting on their fixed-gear bikes, pedaling furiously. The technology works by piecing together multiple panoramas into one long strip that users can scroll through. A demo of Street Slide is shown at the link above.

As the voiceover suggests, Street Slide offers something that previous street-level mapping incarnations haven’t: context. Josh Lowensohn of CNET News aptly describes what makes Microsoft’s tool more immersive than those of its competitors:

“The end result is something that lets users skim around long stretches of street, as if they were looking out the window of a moving vehicle, then stopping to get out and look around, once they’ve reached any one particular spot within the series. This obviously works better for long, straight roads, but in large cities and even small towns where a main avenue is prevalent, it can create a browsing experience that is more seamless and that requires less clicking.”

While NabeWise creates logic from the organic, Street Slide makes the organic from the logical–that is, it uses mapping technology to provide a user experience that more closely resembles the one we have as we pass through a neighborhood, therefore allowing us to better appreciate the subtleties of feel that are an important part of choosing a neighborhood. Here’s hoping that Street Slide will make it to Bing Maps soon, and that more companies will get involved in the neighborhood aspect of choosing a place to live.

[image via flickr’s The Eggplant]

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