Real Estate, Like Everything Else, Getting More and More Public

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Recently I was speaking with a colleague who lives near me. We are both rather fixated on the development to our entire area, hoping as property values continue to rise and nearby infrastructure is improved, the surrounding commercial developments will improve. Better grocery stores. More restaurants. The whole nine yards.

The question we both had, however, was how to find out when those changes were coming. It was then I realized there are lots of ways thanks to the Internet, but with apps and websites and databases full of public information comes an openness about our homes and businesses we must learn to accept.

In the neighborhood where my wife and I bought a home last years, there is a home owners association. I never thought I would want one let alone want to be involved but the rapid growth of virtually every area inside the Beltway and the dramatic increase in the cost of real estate makes me interested in protecting my investment. But for many of the older residents of my new hood, the biggest concern is privacy, something nearly always guaranteed until recently. Now, with technology, that protection is threatened, but that's the price we pay for information.

In the case of my little HOA, that technology comes in the form of Nextdoor.com, a kind of Facebook for neighborhoods that has seen a swell of interest in the past year. My HOA uses e-mail to alert residents of heavy trash pickup and warn of would-be criminals they think could be haunting our streets. Some are so protective, they've decided Nextdoor.com is simply too risky for information on our neighborhood, so "official" notices are left to the privacy of personal, verified e-mails. After all, what if people who live in nearby apartments were to read about our neighborhood and its residents? There might be unsavory characters who live there. Sigh.

Still it is worth noting that safety has real value, but so does that information. In the case of real estate websites Trulia and Zillow, $3.5 billion to be exact, both websites that not only display homes for sale but boatloads of data on every home that has ever been listed. Nextdoor.com has gotten infusions of cash from investors who realize young homebuyers aren't as skittish as their older neighbors about sharing information online.

In Houston, we have resources like HAR, Swamplot and Red News, all built to provide details about what is out there and what is to come. The extensive Houston Architecture Forums (HAIF) have been home to real estate news in Houston for years. And those are just the local business and personal websites. Dig into city and county records, most available online, and there are resources at our fingertips previously only accessible through forms and trips to the courthouse.

Then there is Google Maps complete with satellite and even street view. In seconds, I can pull up a pretty clear image of my home, or yours. Think about it too much and it starts to feel downright creepy.

For all the tools we have at our disposal to find the perfect home, research the right neighborhood, dig up dirt on crime, learn about all the new stuff being built nearby and make sure we are living near the perfect schools for our kids, we are sacrificing something, Maybe it's not that big of a deal. There is a certain degree of safety in transparency.

Then again, maybe my septuagenarian neighbors aren't as overly cautious as I initially suspected.

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