The web has revolutionised the way we look for all kinds of information: film listings, recipes, delays on the West Coast mainline and much else besides. Property is no different: I no longer need to wander around my local borough while keeping my eye out for For Sale signs, because mobile internet access is giving me expert guidance. As I pound the streets of SW17, my progress is plotted on a map. As suitable properties come within striking distance, they appear on that map as a purple pin, and a click on the pin gives me the lowdown. Not quite Minority Report, but not far off.
The impact the internet has had on the property business has been profound. As with the music industry, it has upended the natural order and replaced it with something a lot more chaotic and beguiling. The huge amount of information available online via estate agents and property portals has turned us all into casual home-browsers; some 8 million unique individuals looked at property online last month, and while transactions over a similar period were only around 1 per cent of that figure, the potential for us to be tempted by property ads has never been greater.
In addition, online services such as Google Earth and Google Maps with StreetView give us the opportunity to explore nearly every street in Britain – and not just as potential visitors but as potential residents. This huge democratisation of information has been a boon for buyers and sellers, and the migration of this data to the kind of mobile phone apps I'm using to guide me around Wandsworth is encouraging even more speculative searching for property: either sat in an armchair, parked in a car or, as I am, walking through town on a lunch break. On a screen smaller than my palm, I can instantly find out more information about homes in my local area that could have been dreamt possible 15 years ago.
Apps are to modern mobile phones what videos are to video players; without them, smartphones would be pretty limited in their functionality. Each platform – iPhone, Nokia, Blackberry and so on – has its own store, with innumerable apps, many of them free to download. A search in these stores for "property" or similar brings up a list of apps dedicated to finding a home that can be downloaded with a single tap; in just 15 minutes, I'd got hold of a dozen. Then it's a question of searching, either by area or by postcode, and narrowing that search using criteria such as number of bedrooms and price range, as you would when using a website.
The killer feature in property apps, however, is their ability to sense your location. This is done either using your phone's built-in GPS (as with a satnav device) or by using a system that can calculate your location from your relative proximity to nearby Wi-Fi access points – hence the the purple pins (in an app developed by Zoopla) that are dictating the course of my journey around south London. It's certainly changing the way we look for a home – the property portal Rightmove noted a substantial leap in traffic from its mobile app during a balmy weekend in mid-summer, as prospective buyers took their searches to the streets.
So, what makes one app better than the other? Their value is best measured by the comprehensiveness of their list of properties. This, in the view of housing expert Henry Pryor, makes estate agent-branded apps something of a marketing gimmick. "When you think about property, there is no brand loyalty. No one decides they want to buy a house from a particular agent. So you need an app with a comprehensive inventory – and, currently, Rightmove is the big one."
While Rightmove's famed database of 90 per cent of all properties available for sale in Britain notionally makes its app the market leader, other apps have bells and whistles bolted on that give them value over and above a simple search. Mouseprice, the sister app of the website mouseprice.com, was devised by Calnea Analytics, a consultancy specialising in automated property valuation, to combine Land Registry data with their own valuation estimates to give information on every residential property in Britain. Zoopla's app offers similar estimates on property values (although in the case of flats in my Wandsworth block, their valuations came in at around £40,000 below Mouseprice's) while incorporating the innovative use of a camera view. This allows you to point your phone's camera at a property, and see tabs appear on-screen to indicate nearby homes that might be available to buy. It gives an indication of the way this technology may end up: point a device at a house and be told everything about it, from its square footage to its estimated value.
Other apps find their niche by offering particular kinds of property; an aspirational urge leads me to launch an app developed by Knight Frank which specialises in high-value properties and which guides me to a sought-after street adjoining Wandsworth Common. It's out of my league, but on screen I can see more reasonably priced properties nearby that I'd never have seen otherwise. These apps are eye-openers, but according to Pryor the property industry is very slow to appreciate rapid technological change. "In some ways, estate agents are the definitive Luddites," he says. "They are in the marketing game, and take a lot of time and trouble taking pictures of a house, for example. But with these apps, and things like Google Street View, prospective buyers can decide not to view a property based on information that's totally out of the estate agent's and seller's control – say, if Google's image of a home happens to feature a load of scaffolding, or a skip, or some other eyesore in the vicinity." But the colossal amount of information can overwhelm buyers, and as a result they can become too focused on satisfying particular criteria – a situation estate agents can help with. "We certainly miss out on the inspiration we might get from looking through a traditional selection of properties," adds Pryor.
Apps for the iPad could prove to be game changers if tablet computers catch on, with the level of detail and standard of presentation taking a huge leap forward. In addition, the rapid take-up of smartphones – particularly the Android platform, which is vying with Apple's iPhone in terms of popularity – could see them become an automatic choice for browsing property, and hoist traffic above the 5 per cent of the total that Rightmove attributes to its apps. But it's moves by the company behind the Android system, Google, that could signal the most profound changes, says Pryor. "Google have planted their own billboard in this space by including properties directly within Google Maps. And if they start to carry private listings, it's quite possible Google will change the balance of power within the industry by bypassing estate agents."
The notion that a device small enough to fit in your pocket could put you directly in touch with a vendor of your dream home is an incredible one. For the time being, it's only on the horizon – but it's definitely worth getting your apps at the ready.
On the move
Zoopla: This app, for iPhone and iPod touch gives you price information for available homes in your area, access to a database of 15 million house prices going back to 1995, and value estimates for all 27 million UK homes.
Rightmove: With more than 800,000 downloads since the app's launch a year ago, Britain's leading property portal also operates its most popular property app, delivering over 1,000 leads every day to estate agents.
Mouseprice: The only app of this selection that doesn't come free of charge (£2.99 for the iPhone and iPod Touch), Mouseprice is highly regarded by the industry. Henry Pryor describes this valuation service as "essential for anyone looking to buy property".
Property Radr: One of the first property apps for Google's Android mobile platform, Property Radr is in Beta (still coping with teething troubles), but delivers results from Gumtree, Zoopla and FindaProperty.
Knight Frank: There's room in the app market for niche products, too; Knight Frank's iPhone offering concentrates on high-end properties, allowing you to search by "lifestyle" (water views, vineyards, skiing, golf and equestrian).
FindaProperty: This app, again for the iPhone and iPod touch, has racked up 360,000 downloads since its launch in February.Reuse content