A visitor was asking Toll Bros. CEO Douglas Yearley about the location of property in another state.
Instead of trying to describe it, Yearley called to his assistant and asked her to get Google Earth up and running in the conference room where he and the visitor were sitting.
In an instant, Yearley was able to click his mouse a couple of times, and the location, including a tennis court, was clearly in view – yet another example of how technology has transformed, and continues to change, the way builders and real estate agents do business day to day.
Obviously, as marketing director George Polgar of Philadelphia-based Local Development Co. emphasized, finding and acquiring locations for residential, commercial and industrial development “still requires a street-level knowledge of places where growth is likely.”
Polgar said his firm has experienced property specialists “who cruise the streets of target neighborhoods identifying potential development sites. These decisions are based on the usual real estate criteria of location, size, context and environment.”
But tech tools can offer companies such as Toll Bros. an almost grounded view of properties from far away.
“We would not look at acquiring a piece of land without understanding where it is, and Google Earth is good for places that aren’t close to headquarters,” said Kira Sterling, the luxury home builder’s chief marketing officer.
In places such as Dallas and Denver, “the ability to use Google Earth to determine the location and proximity to transportation and amenities allows us more room to explore opportunities,” Sterling said.
At Local Development, the tech cycle starts at the most basic level, Polgar said: Using a smartphone, a property specialist takes a few pictures, determines an address, then looks at it on a mapping system (including possibly a Google Earth view).
That’s significant, he said, “because just 20 years ago a big step in the development process was the decision to hire a helicopter and photographer for a flyover for aerial images, or pay a hefty fee for aerial views on file.”
The property specialist – either on the road or by transmitting a request to the office – also can get Web access to public records to determine ownership, transactions on the lot, or building and tax status, he said.
Drones – unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras attached – are beginning to be used by some builders and real estate agents, though there are questions about privacy and the use of images taken with them.
“The problem with Google Earth is that what you are seeing in 2014 might have been taken in 2011,” said Michael Duffy, an agent with the Philadelphia-area real estate firm owned by his father, John Duffy Sr. “You look at the Google Map images of Philadelphia, and they are missing a lot of the new construction in the last three years.”
At Christmas, Duffy said, he and brother John Duffy Jr., also an agent, exchanged tech gifts: a drone ($600 on the Internet) and a GoPro camera (about $200).
The Federal Aviation Administration has restricted use of drones and is now developing rules for their commercial use. For example, a drone operator cannot charge a client for a flight or sell a photo taken on the flight, but can ask a fee for “editing that picture,” Duffy said.
A drone quadcopter is 18 inches by 18 inches and is maneuvered using a controller with joysticks, Duffy said. The camera is mounted on the drone, and takes video that is downloaded into a laptop.
What results is an aerial view closer to a property than can be had by plane or helicopter, he said. That allows him to offer visuals of a house that otherwise might be hidden by trees.
With privacy an issue, “you need permission from the seller and (must) make sure that you don’t infringe on the adjoining property,” Duffy said.
Sterling said Toll is in very early stages of investigating and testing drones for marketing purposes.
“We are hopeful that there is soon clarity about regulations” so that drones can be used more freely, she said.