Those of you who have been following my blog for a while, or know me personally, are likely aware that I am an information junkie. I love to do research. Usually that research is on practical things, like research on a new product or service I want to purchase. Although it is fair to say that I sometimes go overboard on the quantity of research I do, the reason for doing the research is usually based on a need, rather than a desire to simply do research.
Yes, usually my research activities are pretty logical exercises, but not always. In certain areas, I do research just because I am interested in the topic and want to stay informed. For example, my family owns two vehicles right now – one is a 2008 and one is a 2011. Although we are not likely to trade either one of them in on something new for a few years, I still look at car ads on Autotrader.ca, Kijiji.ca, and various dealer and manufacturer sites fairly often. That might seem like a waste of time to some people, but I enjoy it. Some people do needle point for fun, some play video games, I sometimes like to do endless research on things I have no intention of doing anything about for some time.
In addition to cars, the other topic I never tire of researching is real estate. We have lived in the same house now for 11 years. During that entire time I probably haven’t gone more than a couple of weeks without researching homes and/or land in my immediate area, the Halifax area as a whole, or other areas of Nova Scotia and Canada. Stop shaking your head and rolling your eyes – it’s fun…really.
In the past, my time spent researching real estate was spent on several websites:
- Realtor.ca and HomesAcrossCanada.com for MLS Listings
- PropertyGuys.com and Kijiji.ca for Private Sale listings
- nsassessmentonline.ca for lot layout and property assessment information
- Google Maps and Bing Maps for map, satellite, and close up overhead views
- hrsb.ns.ca for school information
ViewPoint.ca – One Stop Shopping for Nova Scotia Real Estate
ViewPoint.ca is the brainchild of Bill McMullin, an entrepreneur based in Bedford, Nova Scotia. Mr. McMullin has started several businesses during his career, but to date his most successful has likely been InfoInterActive, which he started in 1994. InfoInterActive’s best known product was something called Internet Call Manager (ICM). ICM was created to address the issue that was created in the 1990’s when households started using internet services but had to (sometimes chose to) access those services via dial-up connections.
With dial-up, as you may recall, being on the internet meant that your phone line was tied up. Internet Call Manager was created to allow the user to see information about the incoming call on their computer screen and allow them decide how to deal with it, rather than letting the caller simply get a busy signal or voice mail the whole time. InfoInterActive was pretty successful with ICM and in 2001 the company was acquired by America Online (the dial-up king of the 90’s) for $43.3 million. It is interesting to note that Mr. McMullin seems to now have control of the ICM product again under the umbrella of ServicePoint, which from what I can tell is a holding company for his various technology-related initiatives – http://www.servicepoint.ca/icm.html.
ServicePoint’s main area of focus right now seems to be ViewPoint.ca which at this point includes information for Nova Scotia Real Estate only. Their mission statement is as follows:
Our mission is to become Canada’s next online real estate marketplace, the place where buyers, sellers and service providers meet.
Based on that mission statement, as well as recent activity at Nova Scotia`s Registry of Joint stocks, it looks very much like Mr. McMullin is looking to expand Viewpoint beyond Nova Scotia at some point.
Although ViewPoint.ca is a very useful tool, it is important to note that it does not bring a whole lot of unique content to the table. What the site does, and very well I might add, is consolidate content from a number of sources into one comprehensive and cohesive real estate portal. To gain access to all of the available content, you must register for a free Viewpoint account. Although the site is still useful without an account, registering is well worth it as it gives you access to a pretty extensive list of capabilities.
ViewPoint’s registration page states that “We don’t spam, call, visit, or hassle you as a result of registration.”, and I am happy to report that in the many months since I have been registered, I have yet to receive any unwanted communications from them.
Viewpoint`s Map offers probably the site’s most impressive capability. It features a Google map view that is overlaid with property lines. Depending on your zoom level in the map, properties are outlined or shaded as follows: blue for current Multiple Listing Service (MLS) listings, red for MLS listings sold in the past six months, and green for properties “Pre-Listed“ (more on that later) with Viewpoint. New MLS listings, listings with changed prices, sold MLS listings, and new PreList properties show up on the map as colour-coded markers the day the change is effective. As well, advertising links appear on the map in the appropriate places (e.g. – a subdivision developer may a have a graphic and link to details about their new project overlaid on the section of the map where the development is). In the bottom right corner of the map is a legend that includes the changes on the site that day with their associated markers, and a summary of the number of current MLS listings, MLS Sales in the past 6 months, and current PreList properties.
Beside the map is a pane that offers four capabilities to a registered user: Search Listings and Properties, New Today, Properties You Follow, and Saved Searches.
The Search Listings and Properties section is broken into three tabs. The first tab allows the user to search by Address or Property ID. The second tab allows the user to search by a number of property criteria including Price Range, Minimum Bedrooms, Listing Date Range, Property Type, etc. The third tab is a search results tab that allows the user to click on the properties returned to get more details. If the list was generated with the criteria tab, the user is offered the opportunity to save their search criteria for later use. When a property in the results list list is clicked on, the map zooms in to that property and a pop-up appears with basic property information and a link to get more information. Clicking on a property in the map itself launches that same pop-up.
The New Today section consists of three tabs that show the user all the changes that have happened on the site that day. The For Sale tab shows all the properties in Nova Scotia that were listed that day, including both MLS Listings and ViewPoint PreListed properties. The New Price tab shows all the properties that have had a price change (up or down) that day. Finally, the Sold tab shows all the properties that have been indicated as Sold that day. I believe these lists of properties are supposed to be sorted by update time, but my experience has been that property updates from the various areas across the province do not seem to meld well with those from the Halifax / Dartmouth board so the user experience feels a lot like the properties are listed in random order.
The Properties You Follow section provides quick links to properties that the user has chosen to follow. I will provide more details on the Follow feature later on in this article.
The Saved Searches section provides the user the ability to run a search using criteria saved in previous sessions.
New Map (Beta)
Viewpoint has been offering a new Map (Beta) tab for several months now and is slowly transitioning functionality and links throughout the site to point to the new map. I can`t really see a great deal of new functionality offered by the new map, but the graphics are definitely snappier and a few usability tweaks have been made.
On the New Map, when you run a search query, markers for the properties returned “fly in” from off the screen (cool), and when you hover over one of the properties in the list, the associated marker for that property bounces up and down to show you where the property is on the map (cool and useful). Another nice feature that was recently added to the New Map is a hover-over feature for ViewPoint listed properties and properties that are New, Changed or Sold that day. For all of those types of properties, the hover-over shows a picture of the property, the price, and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. You can also click through from the hover over to see the Property Views and Details Pop-up for the property in question.
The control on the new map for Search Listings and Properties, New Today, Following, and Saved Searches also offers Map Tools and Site Traffic sections that add a little more functionality. Also, in this case the control hovers over the map and can be partially hidden rather than being in it’s own section that takes up a fixed-with column of space on the whole page. The net result is a larger map section to improve usability.
Property Views and Details
Clicking on the “See Views and Details“ button in the property pop-up for a particular property launches a detailed property information pop-up window. Although the look and feel of this pop-up is slightly different depending on which map you launch it from, the pop-up will have the following information on it:
- The Overview tab provides basic information about the property such as the Property ID, Current Assessment Value, and Property Size. If the Property is currently listed via MLS or PreList or sold via MLS in the previous six months, the address, listing/sold price, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, the listing/sold date, and a link to the listing cutsheet with more details is also included. Finally, this tab also includes some advertising, including a link to the selling agent’s page if they have made arrangements with Viewpoint for that service (likely fee based now, but as of last spring I know they were offering agents a free trial of that service.
- The Aerial tab shows the Birds Eye view offered by Microsoft’s Bing Map service if it is available for the property in question.
- The Street View the Street View offered by Google’s Google Map service if it is available for the property in question.
- The VP Street View tab is one of the areas where Viewpoint brings some unique content to the table. This tab shows the Street View offered by Viewpoint’s own Street View service if it is available for the property in question. In some cases there will be more than one picture of a particular property so the user can see what the property looks like during certain seasons and changes that have been made that are visible to the street.
- The Photos tab displays any pictures that have been posted for properties that are listed or have been sold in the past six months.
- The Schools tab displays information about the public schools that children who live in the house could attend. At this point schools information seems to only be available for properties that fall within the Halifax Regional School Board.
- The Tax Info tab displays property tax assessment information going back as far as 2001 at this point. A table is provided that lists the market assessment by year with the % change. A bar graph is also provided.
- The Mortgage Calculator tab is only available for listed properties and offers an applet to allow the user to select their interest rate, down payment amount, and mortgage term to estimate a payment based on the listing price.
- The Sales History tab is another place that ViewPoint brings some unique content to the table. On this tab, they display the MLS sales history for the property going back to approximately 2004. You see details about listing dates and prices, price changes, listing expiry and cancellation dates, status changes, and sold dates and prices. This is a fantastic feature and as far as I know, the only way to get this information before ViewPoint was on the scene was to establish a relationship with a real estate agent and ask about specific properties you wanted the information on.
The Advanced Search page allows the user to search by a number of criteria including including Price Range, Minimum Bedrooms, Listing Date Range, Lot Size Range, Property Type, where the listing came from (MLS, Viewpoint, Viewpoint PreList), Property Style, Area and District within, and Sale Status. There are also check boxes to display only properties that include a Garage, include a Fireplace, include a Pool, are on Waterfront, are Income Properties, or have an upcoming Open House. The results are returned in a scrolling list on the same page. The list includes a picture and a brief description of each property returned (Note – if the search criteria are broad enough to return more than 500 properties, nothing will be displayed). Clicking on a property in the list will launch the detailed cutsheet page for the property.
The Advanced Search page also provides a link to a page that displays all properties that are “unmappable” based on the information provided to ViewPoint.
The Dashboard feature displays details about your Viewpoint account and allows you to make changes to it. The Dashboard is made up of two tabs:
- The Account Home tab shows a marketing section from ViewPoint at the top of the page. Below that is a link to ViewPoint’s Professional Services Directory page which displays a list of real estate and property related service providers organized by category – ViewPoint allows services providers access to this list free of charge. Below the Professional Services Directory link are the items related to the users account including links to Followed Properties, Saved Searches, and Recently Viewed Properties.
- The Settings tab allows the users to enter and change details about their account including First and Last Name, Property Address, Email Address (Username), and Password
Entering the address of your property allows you to get a Property Report for that property. The Property Report includes information such as Clicks on the Viewpoint Map for your property District and Sub-District, the 12 Month’s Market Activity for your district and sub-district, Similarly Priced Properties Currently For Sale in your sub-district, and Similarly Priced Properties Sold in the Last Year in your sub-district.
Although the focus of this article is on ViewPoint’s free services, I should mention that ViewPoint now offers listing services at three different levels. They previously offered listing services in their early days but had abandoned it. It looks like they are taking another crack at it with a different approach. You can see the different options available by going to http://www.viewpoint.ca/selling.
I had intended to write about ViewPoint’s Pre-List feature which was essentially a free For Sale By Owner offering that offered great exposure. Unfortunately since ViewPoint started offering listing services again, I can no longer find any information about what PreList is and how it works. The last time I managed to stumble across a page describing the service, there was a cost associated with it. Although for now ViewPoint continues to offer the ability to search for and view PreListed properties, based on the lack of information about it on the website, I have to assume they are planning to discontinue the PreList service completely in the not too distant future.
Areas for Improvement
As you can tell by my descriptions above, ViewPoint brings a lot of great capabilities to the table and does an excellent job of consolidating information from a number of sources. Of course no organization is perfect and the folks at ViewPoint have a few issues they need to address.
Mobile Device Support
ViewPoint.ca has been designed with PC users in mind. From my experience the site works fine with Microsoft Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 using either Microsoft Internet Explorer or Google Chrome. That said, using the site from an Apple iOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch, or an iPad) can be a frustrating experience. I have not tested the site with Mac OS or Android devices so I can’t speak to the performance on those operating systems.
Most of the frustration I have with using ViewPoint.ca is focused on design choices that simply don’t translate well to a smaller touch-based screen or don’t work well with the Safari browser included with iOS. Here are a few examples:
- When a property pop-up appears on the map it is extremely difficult to close it using the “x” in the top right corner without also selecting the property on the map behind that “x”. What of course happens next is the pop-up for that second property (that you don’t necessarily want to see) appears. Closing that pop-up again selects the property behind the x again. And on it goes…
- When using an iPod Touch (and iPhone I suppose), when the Additional Search criteria link is clicked on the Search tab on the map, the Search Button disappears off the bottom of the page. Scrolling does not bring the button back, making it pretty difficult to execute a search at that point.
- The controls used for scrollable areas on various pages do not seem to translate to iOS Safari. Often there is no way to scroll through a list of returned properties so the user has to run numerous more detailed searches to get all the information they want
- I have noticed the new map to be far less forgiving than the original map with some mobile devices. In fact site crashes frequently when the New Map is viewed on my iPad.
ViewPoint iOS App
To address some of the deficiencies of the website’s iOS support the folks at ViewPoint have developed “an app for that”. I have downloaded the ViewPoint app and used it a bit.
You log in to the app with the same credentials and there are three ways to look at properties: Nearby Properties, Search By Address, and Favourites. The Nearby Property function lists properties that are located up to 250 meters away from your current location. The Search function list properties that are located up to 250 meters from an address that is entered by the user. The Favourites function lists properties that you have followed. You are able to follow and unfollow a property in the iPhone app and the followed properties list is the same list as on the website
In my opinion the viewpoint iPhone app offers very limited functionality and is really just there so ViewPoint can tick an “iOS support” box. The features I noted above are the only features offered by the app and I have yet to bring up a property that included any pictures, despite the fact that the pictures for that property are displayed on the web site.
I think it is telling that the iPhone app has not been updated since April 21, 2010. It does not seem to be something the ViewPoint folks are focused on.
My approach is to always start with the good and finish with the bad. The Areas For Improvement section above is not an exhaustive list of issues. I can assure you there are more problems with the web site, but they are even smaller issues than the ones I have listed and not really worth mentioning.
All that said, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that ViewPoint’s issues make me negative on the service they provide. Their issues are in fact fairly minor when compared to the capabilities ViewPoint offers, mostly free of charge.
As I said near the beginning of this article, if you have an interest in Nova Scotia real estate, ViewPoint.ca is probably the only website you need.