New Mapping Reveals Property Secrets

Copyright: David Lawson - published in Property Week Sept 2005

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Imagine being dumped with the property from hell. A site visit with the digital camera produces that old stand-by ‘in need of attention’. The off-pitch address will be ‘up and coming’ and the rubbish-strewn surroundings ‘offering great potential’. What a shame the neighbouring green belt, station, posh new housing estate and proliferation of local schools and shopping will be overlooked as punters skip over gruesome pictures as they flick through an online search page.

   One of the great ironies in property is that location is meant to be vital yet can be so hard to sell. It took an outsider the crack the problem. Sean Phelan, a lifelong sailor, says: ‘Anyone who has spent time at sea knows the crucial importance of not just knowing where you are but what is around you.’  Some of those but are dangerously hard; others comfortingly warm and secure. The same applies to a house or office. The best can have a rubbish tip upwind and the worst a delightful park two streets away, just past the convenient shopping centre.

Phelan saw the key need to get all this into on one easily accessed page.  Ten years on, Multimap is as much part of the online furniture as Google or Ebay. Click on any site which offers to show where they are in the real world and the odds are it comes from Phelan’s ubiquitous service. Search a major residential agency such as Foxtons and it throws up the now familiar list of properties within set price bands and rough location. Another click, however, reveals a map showing where they are. Tick a few boxes and up pop local schools or stations. One more click and you are looking down from above, showing swathes of green space where the kids can play or the dogs run amok. The nightmare pictures suddenly fade to insignificance.

  Mapping has advanced immensely since Phelan saw the link between his special expertise in technology and a hobby dependant on location. Multimap gets 160m ‘hits’ a month as web surfers make queries ranging from the location of a local dentist to how far their holiday hotel in Magaluf is from the station. Often the dentist or hotel has already built in a link to a map. So have hundreds of agents. It took a while for Phelan’s idea to catch on, as he fought a stifling technophobia that haunted the property industry. But as more went online and fast internet connections emerged, property began to seem half-cocked without a map.

   Now that barrier has been breached, extra information is emerging almost by the month. Propertyfinder, which pools information from almost 2,500 agents, is launching a Multimap enhancement at next week’s PCS Expo which shows properties as icons dotted around a map. Floating the mouse arrow over each one throws up a miniature picture and basic details.  Foxtons will unveil further enhancements which add the kind of local features buyers and tenants normally spend hours digging out, such as local schools and stations.  This goes beyond simplistic sketches used in many brochures, showing a station close by.  Using a detailed map and aerial pictures can save a wasted visit which reveals the property is also right next to the noisy railway, says  Multimap chief executive Jeff Kelisky.

   This kind of sophistication relies on a fundamental change in use of maps. Until recently they were tied to single properties. The breakthrough came when supermarket chains asked Multimap for a way for customers to see a selection of  stores, so they could judge the most convenient. Agents saw the potential and it was tweaked for them – which is why the program is called Storefinder rather than Homefinder.

  Nor is there an Officefinder or Factoryfinder. Commercial agents are missing out on a huge opportunity by lagging behind their residential cousins. Admittedly, commercial buildings are more one-off products, often basing marketing on rents and internal specifications. But tenants are increasingly looking for local magnets to attract staff such as transport, shopping and local housing. ‘We were looking for a new office recently and could certainly have done with this kind of system,’ says Phelan. So is a commercial version on the drawing board?  That depends on demand. The next step will happen as companies and agents start the mammoth task of rebuilding web sites, but expect changes over the next year or so which could revolutionise the way commercial property is sold.  


Google Earth is a wonderful time-waster which stitches together satellite pictures showing how our towns and cities look from above. But zooming in like a rocket often dissolves into a green splodge rather than the Hollywood fantasy of sky-spies peering into windows. When it comes to detail, people turn to maps. Google is also carving a niche here with a free service that also works out access routes.  But even these can disappoint. Two thirds of property buyers want maps detailed enough to show building and garden outlines, yet less than 5% five per cent of agents provide them, according to a YouGov survey. Only a third even offer street maps. 

  One of the leading mapping specialists is aiming to plug this gap. Landmark, almost synonymous with historic and pollution mapping ,  has launched an online system based on its ProMap system which shows gardens and property boundaries as well as high quality street and town maps. GoView is on show at PCExpo for the first time but has already picked up more than 700 agents. Three Ordnance Survey maps on scales from town level down to individual site can be downloaded onto a PC and dropped into property details for around £10.

  Mapping has come a long way in the last 200 years, says Richard Pawlyn, managing director of Landmark’s property and environment division, evolving from tape measures and triangulation to satellites, computers and geographic positioning systems [GPS] in the digital age.  ‘Maps are part and parcel of every day life for property professionals,’ he says. ‘But the form they take, how they are created and the applications they will be used for continue to change with technological advancements and business ingenuity.’

 "We've seen from our experience with Promap that this is a product clearly in demand by estate agents who want to be distinctive, make their property details work harder and present a very professional and thorough image.’

   Promap already serves 14,000 professionals with access to digital OS maps, claiming more than 90% penetration among the top 100 surveyors, more than half all architects, and 90% of house builders. . Its earned Landmark a finalist place at this year’s National Business Awards for best use of technology.  The fact that so many estate agents have signed up may indicate they, too, have finally come to accept that location need more than words.