As a property broker or owner, you know your buildings like the back of your hand. The age of their HVAC systems, the exact amount of their tax bills and a range of other highly specific questions as well. But how much do you know about the neighborhoods and cities that surround them? Distance to the grocery store? That’s an easy one. But do you know the crime rate, five nearest transit stops, percentage of college-educated residents? How about the rate at which average rents change over the mile radius around your building? These are all important area analysis questions, but they may not be as easy to answer as property-related ones, particularly if you’re focusing on more than one market or (gasp!) property type. However, geographical information systems (GIS) are tools purpose-built for the job.
The map-based nature of GIS systems make them uniquely capable of answering property questions in the context of the neighborhoods and cities around them. With GIS, users can view information about their property in relation to the broader markets they are operating in. These tools can help with very creative use cases, like finding all the neighbors of properties that recently applied for renovation permits, or determining who owns the most triplexes in town. For the property business, where the difference between a five minute and a fifteen minute walk to the subway can spell the difference between “go” and “no-go,” GIS tools provide a sharable, reproducible way to see where areas go from good to great or from connected to unconnected.
While it can be easy to look at a GIS system and see only a glorified map, most of the bigger systems offer a gigantic amount of functionality that stretches well beyond simple visualizations. Things like automated property research via Python or statistical analysis of submarkets most likely to experience price increases are possible through the relational databases that power modern GIS tools. But learning how to use this advanced functionality takes time and energy that few real estate people had the bandwidth to allocate before COVID-19, let alone during the pandemic.
Brokers could themselves take classes in GIS applications, but these are much too time consuming for most professionals to invest in mid-career. And much of even the most basic GIS functionality out there is far too dense to be delivered easily over a webinar here or there. Not to mention that many non-industry specific GIS systems like ArcGIS and QGIS offer such an incredible breadth of functionality across completely extraneous uses like remote sensing and natural resource management that to gaze into the user interfaces of these systems can sometimes be too intimidating to even begin working. Brokers could also choose to hire someone to run their GIS programs for them, but the costs of part or even fulltime GIS help can quickly add up. Meanwhile, some professionals will simply throw up their hands and try to squeak by using only the bare basics, tools like Google Earth that possess very little analytical power of any sort. Such solutions might be good enough for today, but they are far from future-proof.
There are, however, other GIS systems out there that cater specifically to the needs of real estate professionals. LightBox’s LandVision is one such tool that offers a variety of out-of-the-box tools specifically aimed at brokers, developers, and other professionals in real estate. LandVision has a unique solution to the challenge of balancing between today’s tasks and future-proofing for tomorrow, too. According to Tina Lichens, senior vice president of broker operations at LightBox, “We built out a number of the most common real estate workflows into easy to use buttons that guide our users through the process. At the same time, it allows users to dive into the higher-level functionality in the system, as well.” This approach cuts a middle ground between the oversimplification of tools for the sake of tasks that need to get done today, and the overwhelming nature of full-on professional GIS suites. “If you’re ready to drink from the firehose,” Ms. Lichens added, “we’re ready to support you.”
A similar approach comes from Deepblocks, a real estate technology company that offers a zoning map with built-in design and financial analysis functionality. Deepblocks is meant to help acquisition teams make quick decisions on various parcels and specific opportunities. The company is rolling out its own GIS system, too, that will allow users to consider specific parcels in the context of trends at the tract level and beyond.
Olivia Ramos, founder and CEO of Deepblocks, told me that real estate professionals will be able to use the system to view trends in “population over time, rents over time, neighborhoods with high growth potential, and areas with inventory primed for new construction. They can then combine zoning information with those elements to create proprietary layers showing areas with high development potential.” Ms. Ramos explained that the layers and data points included in Deepblocks were chosen in response to user feedback. “In every discipline within real estate you have amazing tools like ESRI ArcGIS, or Revit and Maya for design. What we tried to do is make it so simple that the maps are already in place and users can switch on or off heatmaps layered on top,” Ms. Ramos added. Again, here is an example of a powerful tool that does not force users to spend time worrying about map projections and does not require a deep understanding of geographical concepts to get up and running. That functionality is there for those who seek it out, but the more straightforward zoning and preliminary financial analysis capability is there too for those who only need that much.
The power of GIS can seem overwhelming at first but it’s true strength lies in solving a range of challenges, whether simple or complex, local or regional, and operational or evolutionary. The right systems give their users the opportunity to get as much utility as they need at any given time, thus making it easier to succeed in today’s business and future-proof for tomorrow. And for teams that need to combine an intimate knowledge of properties with a comprehensive understanding of blocks, neighborhoods and cities, adopting a GIS system can make the difference between cutting edge and obsolete.