If you overheard just snippets of Brian Timpone’s conversation, you’d probably swear he was a developer. He can talk REOs, property taxes, and new construction. He knows who’s selling what and, once it’s sold, how much that buyer paid for it. He can tell you which neighborhoods are hot and which are not, based on everything from foreclosures to school district. “Real estate is a very interesting local story,” he says.
But Timpone is not a developer. He’s the president and founder of Blockshopper, a hyper-local online real estate news and data site for home buyers, sellers, homeowners, and anyone who serves them in a handful of major markets around the country: “We make real estate into a news story,” says Timpone, who established the site in 2006 after selling off a chain of weekly newspapers. “We take public records, and we humanize them, making them interesting to people, not just buyers and sellers.”
Blockshopper takes these public records from a variety of places—the county recorder’s office, the tax assessor, and more—and puts it together in a giant database, correcting discrepancies and designating properties as foreclosures, bank-owned, new construction, or other relevant tags. The database also incorporates whatever might be in a public record about a home that is on the market or recently sold, such as date built, square footage, number of bedrooms, and its address. It includes the sales price (current and historical) and the final transaction amount.
“We basically build a digital representation of every parcel in the county based on deeds and transactions,” says Timpone.
That provides the backbone of the Blockshopper site, which allows would-be home buyers to research comps, look at foreclosures near a potential purchase, or narrow their search by neighborhood, school district, or other parameters in a handful of major markets. Currently, Blockshopper covers Chicago (Cook County), Lake County, Ill., South Florida, and St. Louis as well as Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and four New York boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx).
The concept appears to be working. The family of Blockshopper sites attract 750,000 unique visitors a month, each of whom typically look at an average of 22 to 26 pages as they look at the listings, crunch their own numbers, and discover how much homes are selling for down the street. “People come to Blockshopper to do research on where or what to buy,” says Timpone, who says his site differs from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) in an important way: "Blockshopper isn't just listings. It's about what actually happened."
In contrast to many who have wanted to keep the MLS closed, Timpone also has has a journalist’s faith in the power of data and the importance of accessible public records. “The more transparency the better,” he says. “That’s true not only for homeowners, but for businesses. This information shouldn’t be available only to insiders.”
But perhaps the most intriguing feature of Blockshopper are its news stories, which link various listings or transactions to the homeowners or home buyers, citing them by name and often mentioning their job, professional background, and education along with a photo.
For example, Mark Pulte, son of Pulte Homes founder Bill Pulte and a custom builder himself, this spring listed a to-be-built home in Boca Raton for nearly $14 million, according to this Blockshopper story.
“The story creates immediacy around the data,” Timpone explains. “A [transaction] is only understood by the audience when it’s humanized, so you write a news story. … The names make it local.”
Of course, the combination of all that information in one place, on the Internet, can also cause controversy. “People don’t understand that it’s a matter of public record what they paid for their house,” says Timpone, who says some initially angry homeowners ended up benefiting when they learned that county records for their home were wrong, via Blockshopper, or discovered their property taxes were excessive compared to their neighbors. “This helps people,” Timpone asserts. “You’re not better off not knowing that you’re being taken advantage of.”
As for the celebrity factor in Blockshopper’s news stories, Timpone says his writers aren’t the real estate paparazzi. “We’ll write about anyone we can find,” he says. “We look for people who promote themselves on the Web. If people are promoting themselves on the Web, they’ll be on Blockshopper. If you don’t want to be on Blockshopper, don’t promote yourself on the Web.”
“We’re not US Magazine,” he adds. “We don’t look for celebrities.”
Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Las Vegas, NV, Chicago, IL, Phoenix, AZ, Seattle, WA, Philadelphia, PA, Miami, FL, St. Louis, MO, Cleveland, OH, Los Angeles, CA, Washington, DC, New York, NY.