KiwiBank ups the ante with Home Hunter mobile app

by Alistair Helm in ,


The mobile property searching environment has become a little more heated with the launch of a significant campaign promoting KiwiBank's Home Hunter app for iPhone and Android. The app was originally launched late last year but seemed at the time to suffer from data integration issues which have now been fixed and with that has come this recent promotion.

It is by no means the only foray into this space by the main retail banks eager to establish closer relationships with home buyers. ASB launched an app back in 2012 which was based on the data from QV which was a rather weak experience and appeared to 'wither on the vine' - I still have it on my iPhone but its lack of data integration leads to it crashing - it is also not in the app store. It is interesting as an example of how to manage the retirement of an app as of course the actual app lives on even when you delete it from the store and your brand therefore is tarred with the implied experience of it not working!

Westpac have been active in this space but rather than build an app chose to partner with both Realestate.co.nz and Trade Me Property to sponsor those apps. They also in my mind built an excellent service called Home Club which with a data integration with Trade Me Property enables the user to scrapbook properties and receive property insight data from QV.

The Home Hunter app from KiwiBank works well as far as data integration which it receives through a data feed from Realestate.co.nz which provides the most comprehensive portfolio of agent listings. However I struggle to see the value in the app for the general property "hunter", except for one very sweet aspect.


I believe that the team at KiwiBank (I use the term specifically as there is a Facebook page for the team!) have rushed off in their excitement to develop the app, grabbed some "shiny objects" along the way but have not stopped to think about the user and what the user might find useful. Here is my take on the app - the pros and cons.

1. Shiny object #1 - the name 'home hunter' goes along with the functionality of the augmented reality capability that allows you to see property around you overlayed with details of property for sale. There is a small circular 'radar' image that tells you if you are near to property for sale. However the whole experience is a classic case of a technology seeking a solution - you have to ask yourself do you want to walk around holding your phone up in front of you? The better solution is the map based presentation of Realestate.co.nz - better to have people look down at a map of where they are and see what is around them for sale.

(As a friendly note to KiwiBank, there is a terrible unexpected consequence of this feature; if as I did, you give up using this feature from the drop down menu and close the app, when you next start the app again you immediately think something is wrong or broken because all you get is the phone's camera with no context of the app).

2. Shiny object #2 - the sun finder feature is one of those functionalities that you go "interesting to know but not something I need everyday!" - it shows the trajectory of the sun relative to the time of year wherever you are standing. Now maybe I am wrong, but not really that compelling; after all what you need to know is where is north and any Sky satellite dish will tell you that.

3. Sweet Honey - the app will provide you with an estimated price range for every property on the market - now that is compelling and appealing!

However. yes there always has to be a however; you need to get a pre-approval from KiwiBank. Now I would think if I was thinking of buying what harm could there be in being pre-approved? After all the estimated price range for every property you look at that is on the market is compelling and considering the cost of a one-by-one request of QV for this data would be $49.95, the trade off of 10 mins of your time and providing your details to KiwiBank as compared to hundreds of dollars of cost for multiple property e-valuer estimates, is a no brainer - where do I apply? Added to this KiwiBank highlight with a little green tick properties that in principle they would lend against.

4. Dead end - the app despite having all this rich set of listings of property on the market and estimated price range, fails at the core benefit of a tool to find property for sale and to contact the agent. Instead of having the agent details on each listing, the app has to open up the whole listing as a app browser-window from Realestate.co.nz for you to have to scroll down to find the agent contact details within that listing.

5. Disorientation - I have in the past bemoaned the Trade Me Property app as it does not put the map based search front and centre on its app, burying it as a secondary functionality. Almost 100% of real estate mobile apps the world over (inc Realestate.co.nz) launch into a map. It's logical. It's a mobile device with built in GPS. Sadly KiwiBank goes one huge leap backwards and has no map on their app!

 

So in summary, this Home Hunter app has one killer piece of functionality that in my view outweighs a stack of poor user delivered functionality. So if you are serious about buying, get a pre-approval and use the app from your desk at the office or at home, and then when you are out an about to view property use the Realestate.co.nz app.

As an extra piece of insight I thought I would have a look at the level of downloads for this app as compared to the main portal apps. The chart below tracks (via App Annie) the ranking of downloads of the 3 apps over the past 30 days. Clearly the advertising campaign is working for KiwiBank, they are the most downloaded app for property at this time. For Realestate.co.nz it's a steady rate of downloads on top of the more than 200,000 to date, whereas Trade Me Property whilst benefiting from a spike in downloads after the relaunch in April, is struggling a bit in 3rd place.



Choosing the right Property app for the iPad - a review of the NZ options

by Alistair Helm in , ,


Digital background iPad shutterstock_174836606.jpg

It’s just 4 years since the iPad first entered our lives and despite the view of some commentators, that sales might only top a couple of million, the product has become a legend and total sales to date far exceed 100 million and are likely to continue to accelerate in the coming years.

The device fulfils a role that is far removed from the functionality of the smartphone device or the classic desk-bound computing device. The device is tactile and is as likely to be found on the couch or kitchen bench, as on an office desk. For this reason, the iPad (and the other Android based tablet devices) is in many ways the battle ground for property apps, as property searching is largely a ‘lean-back’ experience undertaken in times of rest when you want to immerse yourself into a world of escapism with dreams of a new home.

For these reasons I would contend that the best property iPad app almost bears no relation to the iPhone or smartphone app. They provide platforms for very different use cases. The smartphone is all about proximity based discovery and routing to viewings as well as alerts to new listing - functional activities requiring key information, easily and quickly accessible. The iPad is all about browsing in a mode that the traditional laptop or desktop could never deliver to the needs of the buyer or renter. The experience needs to be more of a magazine experience - rich in imagery and immersive in context. The iPad is an intimate device that is held close and in effect caressed and so the experience of an app needs to bear that in mind.

For New Zealanders however I have to sound a note of cautions for the options here are limited and to be honest none of the 3 I have reviewed really deliver to the experience of some of the best in the world and for me some of the best are found in the highly competitive US market with the app from Redfin being a great example.

So let me share my thoughts on the 3 options for New Zealanders, from Trade Me Property, Realestate.co.nz and uniquely a real estate company app from Barfoot & Thompson. I propose to deliver this review in the similar manner as a car review, scoring points based on key categories. These categories are ease of use, content, search and overall user experience.

Just for clarity this review is based on these versions of the various apps:

Trade Me V2.0.13 March 27, 2014

Realestate.co.nz V2.0.2 April 1, 2014

Barfoot & Thompson V1.5 April 2, 2014


Ease of Use

In overall terms, all of these apps are easy to use and fairly intuitive. However to start with extra marks go to B&T for the new overlay intro tutorial which in a couple of screens gives you a great overview of the functions so nothing is left to chance. 

Both B&T & Realestate.co.nz choose to begin the user experience with a map defaulted to your location devoid of any filters. In my view this is the best landing screen for a property app on the iPad. Realestate.co.nz does things slightly better in having a right hand column of listings from the area ranked by latest listed date - a missed opportunity would be the contextual reference numbering which could show the location of these properties on the map.

Trade Me on the other hand defaults to a list view of properties ranked by latest listing but based on the whole database of NZ making the initial experience woefully irrelevant as context is everything! To get to the same experience of a local map as the other two apps takes 3 more taps - a tap too far!

When selecting a listing from the map to view details, B&T chooses to take you to the listing and ignore the location context of the map, whereas the other two provide a hybrid screen of map and listing details. Here there is a vast difference between Trade Me Property & Realestate.co.nz in terms of the amount of screen space given to the listing vs the map. Way too much focus on the map by Realestate.co.nz diminishes the viewing of a listing.

When in this mode it takes just a single tap on a listing pin on the Trade Me Property app to shuffle to another listing - very intuitive. Realestate.co.nz makes you work hard with a required 2 taps to get to a new listings.

None of the apps provide what I judge to be a logical interactive functionality - that being a map with a list of properties whereby the selection of a property on the list highlights (by changing the colour of the map marker) where it is on the map and visa versa - here's this in action on the Redfin app - not a perfect execution but valuable functionality.

The B&T app provides one form of functionality that the other two don't and I love it. It is a flipboard style image viewer which lends itself to the casual, elegant flipping through properties in a magazine style - great execution and a powerful point of difference.



Content - Listings

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Listings are what powers these apps and each have the same core data regarding their portfolio of listings. Clearly in richness of content the B&T app can only showcase their own listings thereby pushing them down the rankings however because they originate the content of the listings they show they are able (or have chosen to develop) functionality that is richer; I speak specifically of videos and floor plans.

Trade Me has the most comprehensive portfolio of listing, especially considering the dominance in rental listings the site enjoys as a function of the private landlord market. Talking of rentals, a point of note is the fact that the B&T app does not feature rentals, only property for sale.

The most important component of all listings are the photos, this is key whether you are viewing on a handheld device or a laptop, but to fulfil the desire of a lean-back browsing based couch device the iPad has to have stunning images. The raw data of image files for each app is identical (although B&T has the advantage of the original raw image files) but sadly Realestate.co.nz lets itself down by what looks like the use of compressed image files designed to be viewed on an iPhone. The sequence of images and 'blow-ups" below graphically illustrates this.

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Content - Complementary data

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I added this category to make a point. That point is School Zones which is the differentiator between the B&T app and the others. Neither Trade Me Property nor Realestate.co.nz offers any complementary data other than listings. But that is what we want! - I hear you cry!

Well there in theory could be so much data that could be of value:

  • Crime stats
  • Flood zones
  • Postcode
  • Sun angles
  • Walk score
  • Transport routes
  • Parking zones
  • High Speed Fibre coverage
  • Flight path routes
  • Rateable value
  • Property valuation estimate
  • Council Zoning

Many of these sets of data are simply not available in NZ or only at prohibitive cost. However the point is valid and I think important. School zones are public data and easily incorporated into an app and yet the two leading players choose to ignore the details. Good on Barfoot's for showing the way.

However B&T don't stop there they also have a tab in the listing view that includes the StreetView from Google - beautifully integrated into the full screen view - beautifully executed!


Search

The Realestate.co.nz app is the only one of the 3 to use aggregation of listing 'pins' which on the zoom out function reverts to a number to show the total of listings in an area. Trade Me uses red pins which cluster on zoom out until they disappear with a notice instructing you to zoom in - not a very friendly experience. B&T adopt a kind of mid solution - red pins which don't cluster but when you click on them on zoom out show a number of listings for the local area.

Only Realestateco.nz uses differentiation in the pin design to highlight 'New' listings, in my view a valuable feature it is the only app allowing you to also filter the search by 'days-on-the-market'. Both B&T and Realestate.co.nz do display 'Open Home' flags on listings with B&T offering an ability to filter the parameter of open homes by 'any time / this week / today / open in next hour' which I find really useful.

In terms of search filter the Realestate.co.nz and Trade Me apps rely on the iOS format scroll wheel for price and tick boxes for other criteria. As noted in the review of the Realestate.co.nz iPhone app the somewhat restricted search ranges especially on price and on bedrooms as compared to the website is surprising. B&T adopt sliders for price, bedrooms and bathrooms, something I find difficult from a user functionality perspective as the finger tends to obscure the slider and there are no visual cues to the gradations on the slider.

A key part of search on any device is the context of location presented by maps - real estate is always conditional on location and therefore despite the fact that the use of the iPad app may be on the couch the map view is important. Here the 3 apps differ, with in my view Realestate.co.nz taking top honours by using the Google map application layer whereas both B&T and Trade Me Property have defaulted to the Apple Maps layer. This is so evident as a drawback when viewing in Satellite mode - the resolution on the Apple Maps layer is so inferior to the Google Maps layer. These images below show the highest zoom in you can achieve in each app before losing resolution - a vast and significant difference.


Overall User Experience

Getting to use these apps begins to show their respective strengths and weaknesses. In reference to my earlier comments, in my view Realestate.co.nz is the weakest, as simply this iPad app is the iPhone app adjusted to fit the format of the iPad, and sadly as noted earlier the issues with screen resolution makes it the least likely app for 'lean-back' browsing. Too often the majority of the screen is taken up with the map view which does not interact with the property or list view in an intuitive manner. It does have the value of the higher resolution satellite imagery but this is not enough to make for the shortfalls.

Trade Me Property delivers a better solution, however given the resources and capability from a company of their size and knowing how critical the property sector is to the overall performance and long term value of this publicly listed company, I would have to say the app delivers at the lower end of expectations. Too much focus remains driven on the user experience of the web and too little time seems to have been spent on experiencing other property apps and other magazine apps in general as a benchmarking exercise.

The winner by a wide margin in my view is the Barfoot & Thompson app. A well executed iPad app that has been thought through and tested to deliver an experience that I would enjoy using - a credit to the marketing and tech team there.

The saddest conclusion though is that the best app is at best a great platform which will be so seldom used as fundamentally who will ever use it? - it showcases just Barfoot & Thompson listings - sure that is close on 4 out of every 10 listings in Auckland, but what use is that?

Given the clear advantage that the app delivers if I was in the role at Barfoot & Thompson I would make a smart decision. I would as a 22.22% shareholder in Realestate.co.nz* license the app to Realestate.co.nz and thereby benefit doubly - prove the credibility of the technical and marketing prowess of the team and at the same time earn a license fee whilst at the same time deliver to Realestate.co.nz as a championing industry owned website to challenge Trade Me a superior app to the current one - food for though!

Note * Realestate.co.nz is a joint venture between The Real Estate Institute of NZ (REINZ) (50%) and Property Page (NZ) Ltd (50%). Property Page (NZ) Ltd is owned by Harcourts Group Ltd (22.22%), Ray White (Real Estate) Ltd (22.22%), LJ Hooker New Zealand Ltd (22.22%), Barfoot & Thompson Ltd (22.22%) and Bayley Corporation Ltd (11.11%)

 

 


Realestate.co.nz releases a new version of it successful mobile app for iPhone

by Alistair Helm in ,


Update 2 April

This article was written on the 27th March based on the then Version 2.0.1 of the app. On the 1st April a Version 2.0.2 was released that has dealt to all of the issues in this post. 

I am pleased that the company was able to respond so speedily to these issues which I judged to be significant. Clearly the development team is passionate and responsive, it is just a pity that inadequate testing lead to the Version 2 and Version 2.0.1 release without user testing. My opinion of this app has always been positive as in my mind it remains the best app for the iPhone on the market.

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There is no doubt that Realestate.co.nz gained a significant advantage over Trade Me Property when it launched its iPhone app in November 2010. It would be another 2 years before Trade Me released their first dedicated iOS property app. That early advantage has been key to the brand’s development and appeal over these past 4 years.

So, more than 3 years after its initial launch and save for a couple of bug fixes and an upgrade to allow for synchronisation of favourites; Realestate has recently released a whole new Version 2 of its app and I have been naturally keen to try it out to assess the developments that have been implemented.

Quoting their own summation of the changes on the App store, the new app delivers these benefits:

As they also rightly point out one of the great new features is that there is now a true iPad version - something long overdue as Trade Me Property has been the only purpose designed iPad property app for nearly 2 years.

Mobile apps are critical for property portals as the trend is ever more focused to mobile usage when searching for property. In the US, UK and Australia, the leading portals attract well over half of all visitors via a mobile device, with the US portal Zillow claiming weekend mobile activity approaches 70% of traffic. With this as a backdrop, delivering the best user experience on the mobile platform is critical for any property portals. 

Sadly I have to report that Realestate.co.nz appears to have let itself down with this V2 in what appears to be a 1 step forward, 2 steps back release. Whether it is a case of a rushed release or inadequate testing, this version has some serious weaknesses. This could have very serious consequences on the brand and the business especially considering how competitive this portal space is today in NZ. (By the way, I have deliberately waited a couple of weeks after the initial release of V2 to write this review to ensure that if they had spotted these issues, then I was prepared to allow them time to correct these issues. In fact they have already released an update with V2.1 a couple of weeks after the V2.0, however as I see it and detail below there remain serious shortfalls).

Let me work my way through the features, benefits and my critique of the this app on the iPhone, I will leave the evaluation of the iPad for another article.

iPhone app

First impressions

The start up of the new app is in many ways cleaner and clearer than before. There is no home screen. Instead the first screen takes you immediately to a local map indexed to your location - great! exactly how the user wants to engage with mobile real estate “show my what’s for sale around me”. In the same way as before listings are signified by red pins with open homes and new listings using cleaner iOS7 icons than the prior flag icon - nice.

Untitled_2.png

Touching a listing pin shows the address exactly as before. However I continue to maintain that this is a missed opportunity as most other property apps bring up a thumbnail image of the property or some details in brief vital to make searching easier, as it avoids having to move through to the listing to validate the property, as ably demonstrated by the example from Realestate.com.au.

When you do go through to the listing you do get the same details page with the great image viewer as smooth as ever. Overall the format is certainly cleaner, very reflective of the iOS7 template.

On each listing the key tabs of Details, Inspection, Affordability and Agent are arranged neatly and carry out the same functionality as previously.

Another missed opportunity in my eyes though is the enquire service. With such extensive usage on the smart phone of this app, why could the enquire service not include a text message integration with the phone - certainly there is a cost associated with sending what may be thousands of texts, but the value would far outweigh the cost. The only option is to type in an email which does not pre-populate with your details as a default.

Map Search

Back to the map, and the first functionality change that frustrated me. In the original V1 version there was a clear ‘Refine” button which allowed you to filter your search on any chosen map area. At first viewing I found no refine button. Trial and error lead me to the search button which had the required filters. However upon making this necessary filter of beds, baths and price; I tap the search icon fully expecting to be taken back to the local map - no! I now get a map of the whole country filtered for my 3 beds, 2 baths $500,000 to $600,000 !!

This is a serious issue as all I wanted to do was refine my local search - I was after all doing a local search around me. After picking up my iPhone back from the corner of the room where I had thrown it… I thought to try the GPS location icon at the top of the screen and low and behold I am back to my local map. Why oh why do I have to jump through hoops now, to do what used to be so easy!!

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This experience really concerns me as one of the beautiful user experiences I liked with the original version was to effectively “fly around the country” seeking out what is for sale based on the map search - how can I now do this now, when if I want to refine my search, I end up looking at the  whole country?

After random trial and error sometime later I did notice that in the search options there is a filter that says ‘Current Map Location’ - but it is by no means easy to find hidden as it is under Regions! User testing would have highlighted this shortfall I am sure.

 

Search refinement

Another grumble in what I would have hoped would be an improved V2 of the app would be around the search filters of beds, baths and price. The ideal I would have thought would be to replicate search filters of the web on the mobile app - allowing for example to be able to search for properties having between 2 and 3 bedrooms. No - you can only choose 2+ on the app, which clearly gives you 2,3,4 and 5 bedroom houses. Also the website allows for 25 price segments, whereas the app you have to choose from just 16 - hardly a ‘mobile-first’ approach.

Synchronisation with Favourites

Some of these preceding issues may seem small and in someways they are, however the next one is a whopper. Where has the synchronisation between the web and mobile app gone if you have an iPhone 4 or 4S?

Simply put, the developers of this app clearly only tested on the iPhone 5 for as the screenshot below demonstrates the layout is optimised for the longer screen of the iPhone 5. On a 4 or 4S the bottom of the screen is cut off thereby effectively relegating owners of these models to a far inferior app! I thought that the V2.1 would fix this - but not happening. It’s like I can see where the function link is in the filter section but it looks to be hidden? 

Listing Search

Another significant failure of the app is the ability to search by listing number. The search function has a classic search box as in the original version to allow access to a single listing by entering a listing number, so allowing you want to look up details on a property having seen it in a newspaper or street sign. Try as you might (as I have done) it does not work. Worse still some listing numbers take you to other places in the world - try 013 and you end up in northern Holland, 0555 takes you to Pensacola in Alabama!

I did after a couple of tries notice this small text below the search box "Start Property ID with a #"! - how bizarre, this was not a requirement of the original version of the app, why now do I need to add a # to the ID number? - sadly this advice proved useless as adding the # did not aid searching - the search by ID number seems broken - please fix! 

The example below demonstrates the issue. Listing number BOT21586 is a 3 bedroom property for sale in Pakuranga, one of thousands of such properties for sale. Enter BOT21586 on the app and you get a notice "No location could be found", search #BOT21586 on the app and you get a notice "No listings with that number could be found" - but do a map search for 12 Elizabeth Street and the listing can be found on the app and the listing on the app has the listing number #BOT21586 !

Enough of the negatives I hear you cry! - so what can I praise ? - well the open home calendar sync is beautiful and super smooth. The open home times are laid out in a logical position and tapping the chosen time and adding it to your calendar is great. There you go.

Other than that and the above mentioned examples of issues, I still think this is a good app. I am just surprised and disappointed that the app does not seem to have been tested adequately.  In my opinion technical developments of this nature have to take a significant step forward and add features that enhance the experience. I would have to say that overall this version 2 is a case of form over function, of a desire to create an iOS7 look driven by the need for an iPad app which then spawned a iPhone app as a secondary outcome with many resulting issues.

It will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed in the coming months.

 

Disclaimer: I was formerly the CEO of Realestate.co.nz from 2006 to 2012. I now have no relationship with the company, nor with its competitor Trade Me Property. I have written this review as an impartial objective analyst and commentator on the real estate industry in NZ and overseas. In my current role I do advise and assist other property portals in other countries on strategy and operations and thereby judge that I am in a position to offer such a review, for no other reason than professional advice.


Realestate.co.nz iPhone update - the return of Google Maps

by Alistair Helm in


Realestate for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad on the iTunes App Store.png

It was just over a year ago that Apple took a bold step that ultimately lead to massive backlash, as it deleted Google Maps as the default mapping platform for iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) and replaced it with Apple maps. Now in many countries the change was not so bad, but in NZ the change was dramatic especially when viewed by satellite image.

Apple had not even come close to providing the resolution quality of Google Maps - so for Apple iPhone and iPad users they had to accept that situation or download another app such as MapQuest, at least until December last year, when a native Google Maps app appeared in the apps store.

However for applications such as the Trade Me and Realestate.co.nz apps which rely so heavily on the default mapping platform, there was at the time no alternative and as such the user experience fell seriously backwards in June last year with a very poor low resolution experience for satellite view of property on the app.

Now I am delighted to see that Realestate.co.nz has released a new version of the app (Version 1.5) which uses Google maps again as the underlying platform layer for satellite and street maps. 

It's funny but it is not until something is taken away do you realise how much you missed it! 

This return to the Google maps layer for the Realestate.co.nz suddenly in my mind catapults the app far ahead of Trade Me Property app, a far cry from the rating I gave it just 4 months ago - especially as both now have synced integration of saved properties between web and mobile. 

Just look at the side by side comparison between the apps for the same property on the market. The image on the left for the current version of the Trade Me Property app in satellite view mode is the highest zoom before you loose image - the Realestate.conz app on the right uses the same zoom - staggering difference!!

Trade me app vs Realestate.co.nz app.png

Then the Realestate.co.nz app satellite view gets even better given the quality of the underlying image resolution allowing the tighter zoom-in as shown from the screen shot on the right. 

 

Zoom in Realestate.co.nz app.png

In my view this now places the Realestate.co.nz app as the must-have for mobile property searching. 


The iPhone holds a great asset for real estate marketing

by Alistair Helm in


The buzz is out there for the new iPhone 5 - some people are just experiencing the iPhone for the very first time without worrying what the latest phone has and how much better it is than the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 3G and of course lets not forget the original iPhone - how much progress has been made in this amazing piece of technology since it was launched just 5 years ago! 

However as fast as the versioning of new hardware, has come the new versions of the software; which despite the unforgivable experience with Apple maps has been welcomed as a step forward at each new release of the operating system iOS. 

The latest version of iOS6 holds a rich capability which I am sure will excite real estate agents and those involved with real estate marketing - Panorama imagining

Transient
Transient

I am grateful to Charles Arthur from the Guardian in the UK who brought this to my attention on the excellent Tech Weekly podcast and subsequent article in the Guardian. 

This new feature which sadly only works on the iPhone 4S and the new iPhone 5 allows the most ham-fisted individual to take beautiful panoramic images. Not the hugely distorted fisheye images or the nausia inducing virtual tour ones - no, just simple stitched continuous images that showcase up to 240 degree field of view.

So what has this to do with real estate? 

Well this could be the tool of choice for smart agents that want to be open and share the real streetscape of the property they are marketing or the inside of the rooms. 

I tried it out on my iPhone 4S and the image below is the result of a photo taken in the street of a recent sold listing. It is very much like Google Street View and could be a valuable way to update a Street View perspective of a property if the situation has changed, if for example renovations have been completed. 

Click to enlarge in a lightbox