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(Background image: illustrated map from a Union Steamship tourism brochure ca. 1925)

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NEW REAL ESTATE MAP LAUNCHED ON REALTOR.CA,
BUT MANY USERS ARE STILL LOST

SECHELT, BC, CANADA — July 10, 2008 — Sunshine Coast real estate agent Gary Little has written the following article which appeared — in a form edited for length — in the August issue of Real Estate Marketing magazine. For a PDF version of the published REM article, click here.

On July 2, after more than a year of planning and development, CREA released an interactive map showing the locations of over a quarter million properties in the Canadian MLS® database. See www.realtor.ca. It's an important — though imperfect — first step towards allowing buyers to efficiently locate properties of interest by displaying them geographically rather than in long, tedious lists.

No other real estate mapping service in Canada matches the completeness of CREA's map. There is a commendable feature-rich map at century21.ca and a more quirky one at remax.ca, but both include only listings from their own franchisees, so are not too useful for buyers who generally prefer to see everything available for sale in an area. There are a few regional maps — including my own Sunshine Coast map at map.GaryLittle.ca — which do include all properties for sale, but only those within a specific geographic area.

Using CREA's new map is fairly easy. When it first comes up, the map is in the centre with search criteria selection controls on the left and a sidebar on the right which contains a list of properties which satisfy the current search criteria. There are also controls on the map for panning and zooming. I found the Location box above the map quite convenient for quickly panning to a location of interest by specifying a postal address or just a postal code. A nice feature is the ability to save searches (including the map position and zoom level) so that you can repeat the same search later by picking its name from a list. (Inexplicably, the searches are saved for only 30 days, too short a time for most buyers these days.)

When the map first starts up, you probably won't see any properties on it because none are plotted when more than 500 are found within the geographic bounds of the map. CREA suggests refining your search criteria to solve the problem, but you can also just zoom in until property icons start appearing. Rolling the mouse over a property icon causes an information balloon to appear which includes a thumbnail photo and a bare-bones summary of the property. To see a full data sheet for the property, you click the More Information link in the balloon.

One shortcoming I noticed right away is that the information balloon does not include the street address of the property. To discover it, you have to click the More Information link, then hunt for the address buried on the data sheet in fine print. Conversely, the MLS # is prominently displayed in the balloon. Feedback to CREA: clients couldn't care less about the MLS #, but they definitely want to see the address.

CREA's map includes an aerial photo view but I found the resolution of the photos to be very poor, especially in rural areas, when compared to the photos used with mapping solutions based on Google Maps technology. (CREA's map is based on Microsoft's Virtual Earth technology.) For example, in my service area, CREA's aerial photos are not clear enough to see individual houses; with Google Maps I can zoom in very close and see rooftops as well as cars on the street. Even in a couple of city areas I looked at, the aerial photos for Google Maps had at least twice the resolution of CREA's photos.

A huge problem that CREA needs to solve quickly is the often atrocious placement of properties on the map, especially in rural areas. CREA uses a software geocoder to convert street addresses to geographic coordinates (latitude, longitude). Geocoders typically return an accuracy code to indicate how well the conversion went. Any property whose address cannot be determined at a resolution of street corner or better simply should not be included on the map: I would prefer using an incomplete map with well-placed properties than one strewn with lost souls. Mapping of land-only listings is really bad because most of these listings don't have a conventional street address for the geocoder to work with and the map becomes just as confused as the geocoder. The best solution to the problem is for individual listing agents to provide coordinates directly to their real estate boards.

My loudest complaint about CREA's map is the abysmal support for people who don't happen to use Internet Explorer and Windows. CREA doesn't mention system requirements anywhere but, hey, this is a public Web site, it should just work regardless of browser or OS, right? Not quite. When using Firefox 3 or Safari on Windows or Mac OS X, I noticed the zoom slider was either missing or mostly covered by the map, the panning control didn't work at all, and the Location box was missing entirely. On occasion, property icons did not appear on the map. The worst flaw occurred when running Safari on Windows: the map did not appear at all!

In closing, I have some pointed advice for my fellow sales reps as well as for CREA to ensure the interactive mapping experience for buyers and sellers of Canadian real estate is enjoyable and productive. First, to the sales reps: verify that all your listings are properly positioned on the map; if they're not, provide correct coordinates to your Board immediately. Do this before your client discovers his multi-million dollar waterfront property in West Vancouver appears next to a gravel pit in Sechelt — this will make him irritable and difficult to please, so I'm told.

Next, to CREA: modify the map so it works flawlessly with the Firefox and Safari browsers on both Windows and Mac OS X. Over 20% of the public is now using Firefox and although Mac OS X has only about a 5% market share, it is —as the late Douglas Adams once famously said — the top 5%. And don't forget that Safari is the browser inside those incredibly popular Apple gadgets, the iPod Touch and the iPhone (which arrived in Canada on July 11). We want all these people to be browsing the map and buying property, don't we?

___________

Gary Little is a sales representative with Royal LePage Sunshine Coast in Sechelt, BC. He is a former senior software marketing manager, having worked in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years at the worldwide headquarters of Apple Inc. and Sun Microsystems, Inc. He is well known for his interactive real estate map of the Sunshine Coast, his interactive George Vancouver 1792 exploration map, as well as the many antique paper maps on display in his office. He is known as "Map Man" and has the cape to prove it. Gary's contact info can be found at www.GaryLittle.ca.

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CONTACT INFORMATION

Gary Little, realtor®
Royal LePage Sussex
5485 Wharf Ave., P.O. Box 65
Sechelt, BC V0N 3A0
Cell: 604-741-5347
Office: 604-885-0299
Fax: 604-885-0298
gary@garylittle.ca
www.garylittle.ca

This news release is located online at: http://www.GaryLittle.ca/pr-20080710.html