NovaLoca seeks to fill business property listings gap

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week Feb 2008

Every commercial property agent has an imaginary job specially reserved for dinner parties and school parent evenings, where the merest hint of involvement in real estate unbottles a tide of chatter about house prices. This aura of superiority over low-bred cousins crowding Britain’s high streets is reflected in sales and marketing. Residential agents are all flash and glitter, eager to chat up potential buyers and try anything which makes the product look better. Commercial is about agent-to-agent networks, rents and yields.

  The gulf is obvious on the internet. Residential web pages have made huge strides in the last couple of years, offering comprehensive listings backed up with pictures and local access maps. Business property is still lost in a blizzard of dry statistics. When Miranda Munn trawled the internet to find space for her employer, she gave up and handed everything to an agent. But as a specialist in commercial property marketing, the experience sparked the idea for a more user friendly service.

  Unfortunately, there were other priorities in her life, however, such as having children and then setting up her own direct mail company. Far from missing an opportunity, however, she felt a surge of déjà vue last year after returning to the internet, expecting great things after the advances being offered to home buyers.  Lots of commercial agents were online but there was still no ‘one-stop’ site, and even those pooling property were awkward to navigate. She began chatting with a network of clients about the problem and found them surprisingly keen on a new approach. They wanted more competition with established sites and far better quality of service, says Munn.

  Less than a year later, NovaLoca was born.  And despite a deep conviction that the market was crying out for something better, even Munn has been surprised by the response.  Within a couple of weeks of the January 1st launch, more than 600 agents from 127 companies had signed up. Almost 5,500 properties were listed and another 2,000 waited in the queue. Targets for the next 12 months are back in the melting pot as a couple of new clients arrive every day. 

  Visitor figures were still relatively modest at just over 20,000 a month towards the end of January but were growing at a rate of 70% a week. ‘We are still in very early days and our advertising has hardly started,’ said Munn. ‘With such growth it is impossible to even guess what our traffic will be when your article goes out.’

    Rivals are quick to insist that such enthusiasm is inevitable when agents are being offered cheap terms to help fire up the launch. Listings are free for the first batch of property, with fees kicking in after those are gone.But costs are not the issue driving potential clients. Like Munn, agents are becoming frustrated at issues such as how commercial property is marketed within the narrow confines of professionals.

  Tenants and occupiers have started to use the web to investigate space, says Nicola Webb, a director in the industrial department of GVA Grimley, who has put all her property onto NovaLoca. ‘They still use agents for all the legwork but will also do their own searches. We are already getting messages sent in the evenings when people are home from work and working online.’

  This validates Munn’s feeling as a marketing expert that the industry had failed to keep up with changing demands. The new service is aimed squarely at occupiers rather than other agents, backed by all the technical tricks of the internet generation such as search engine optimisation and Google links. Above all, it will look and act like the sites which people have come to expect when looking for anything from a plane ticket to a washing machine, let alone a new home: lively, interactive and helpful. That will raise smiles among some high street cousins, who can now boast they are leading their snooty relatives into the 21st century.

 Pictures make property listings more user friendly but occupiers know carefully staged photographs can bear little relation to reality. Aerial shots are becoming more common but even these do little more than show the general location and a view of blank rooftops.   NovaLoca is following pioneering residential sites by using oblique pictures which are far more realistic, showing property from above and to the side.  These come via Earthware, the interactive map specialist, which has been helping revolutionise web sites with applications such as Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth.

  Getting such a heavyweight on board early enabled the operation to be far more ambitious than initially planned. Earthware took over development, creating a site which end up could cost triple the initial £20,000-£30,000 set-up target cost.   NovaLoca will also spin-off services such as 3d modelling for new buildings,  virtual tours and the option to buy aerial pictures for brochures and other promotions. ‘The partnership has ensured we get a superb site for less than it may have been and  displays our commitment to development and innovation, staying at the forefront of technology,’ says Munn.