We needed a better way to understand a home’s value. So we built one.
On a night in 2009, when home prices across the country were crashing and foreclosures soaring, I got an angry call on my cellphone.
The man calling me had lost his job as a construction worker the year before. Now, he was about to lose his home.
His house was an ordinary tract house in a middle-class neighborhood in Goodyear, Ariz., a few miles west of Phoenix. The man had been trying to sell the house for several months on his own, at a price based on what a national real-estate website was telling him it was worth. But it wasn’t selling. Now, the bank had scheduled a foreclosure auction.
It was the beginning of the Great Recession and most horrible housing crash in metro Phoenix history. Home prices were falling more than 10 percent a month, and few people were buying.
The man, who asked then and during several follow-up calls that I didn't use his name because he was embarrassed, was mad at me.
Streetscout.com's home valuation tool uses the most accurate real estate data in Arizona. What's your home worth?www.azcentral.com
Why me? I was the real estate reporter for Arizona’s biggest newspaper and website. I had been a go-to expert on the housing market for more than a decade. And I couldn’t tell him what his house was really worth. I truly didn’t know.
I gave him the names of some real estate agents who knew his area. But I knew they were struggling, too.
I was frustrated. All that year and into the next, I wrote stories about people like that caller, people I couldn’t help.
Speculators had blown through the housing market in metro Phoenix and blown up home prices more than 50 percent during 2004-06. Those short-term investors walked away from homes when they couldn't sell them for a profit. By 2009, the crash they had started was unprecedented. It claimed many people’s homes and jobs in Arizona – much as similar crashes did in Florida, Nevada and elsewhere.
Back then, with foreclosures looming, people needed better valuations about their homes, so they wouldn’t go on believing they could sell and then being caught off-guard when they couldn’t.
Back then, with the housing market in freefall, people needed better information about where prices were really headed, day by day. Better valuations and easier access to accurate home sales data would have helped many people back then.
That kind of information would have helped people back then. But we didn't have it.
Today, I believe we do.
For a year and a half, I was part of a team of data experts and journalists to build a new service we call Street Scout. It’s a real estate and neighborhood website with the most accurate data and information in Arizona. We launched it in March 2016.
Building Street Scout was a like launching a start up, but with the support and collaboration of Gannett’s USA TODAY NETWORK leaders and journalists. I worked with a top editor at The Arizona Republic, who is also the company’s director of innovation, Keira Nothaft and a team of analysts from the leading real estate research firm in town. We talked to hundreds of homeowners, real-estate agents, builders and housing-market watchers.
We also worked with a group of other reporters and photographers at The Republic and azcentral.com to create in-depth and in-focus looks at neighborhoods across our region.
So we believe we have created a site that helps everyone navigate metro Phoenix’s real-estate market more effectively. We feel certain it provides the most accurate home valuations in Arizona and real-time real-estate data on home sales.
It's also a place where top-notch data and reporting come together with award-winning photography to give you a panoramic view of your home and your neighborhood.
Street Scout allows us to connect with our audiences more intimately – because we are helping them find the right home, the right neighborhood, the right fit for their lives.
Real estate is the most local business around. And the best real-estate information comes from local data collecting and reporting. We talked to hundreds of homeowners, real-estate agents, builders and housing-market watchers to create Street Scout. Then we took a closer look at the whole Valley, neighborhood by neighborhood.
It's not easy to define a metro area like Phoenix by neighborhoods.
I have covered the Valley's real estate market for 21 years, but I don't know the best places to eat in Ahwatukee Foothills, the best hike near Anthem or the average commute time for Buckeye. Thankfully, we have great expert reporters who do and who contributed to Street Scout.
How Street Scout works
Creating the home-valuation tool, the Scouting Report, was one of the biggest challenges in creating Street Scout. But many in the real-estate industry told us a more accurate home-valuation tool for consumers than what national firms were offering was needed.
The construction worker in Goodyear showed me that in 2009.
Unlike most valuations that are triggered to fall or soar with one nearby sale, the Scouting Report has been created through a formula of carefully weighted indicators. So if your neighbor sells to a home to a relative for half of what it is worth, that's not going to cause your home's value to plummet.
And conversely, a home in your neighborhood purchased for $400,000 in 2013 that has been has been significantly expanded or renovated that sells for $550,000, won't push up the valuation on your house by $150,000.
The experts at our data partners, the Information Market, look at every Valley home sale daily, confirm the prices, the house information and then adds them to the Scouting Report's formula.
Our valuations might be lower than other valuations, and that might disappoint some homeowners. But if you think your home is worth more than it is, it's easy to make bad financial decisions.
Our Scouting Report is new, but it is already averaging within 5 percent of home sales prices. And it will become more accurate with every home sale.
We don't know if you put in a $50,000 kitchen or spent $20,000 on hardwood floors. If you see your home's valuation and think it is low, consider what you have spent fixing it up.
As it says on the site, our Scouting Report doesn’t replace a real-estate agent’s expertise in helping you price your home or an appraisal needed to sell one. Only those experts can tell you what a $50,000 new kitchen will add to a home’s value in your neighborhood.
But we know those additions affect your home's value. So we provide a range of comparable sales to help homeowners figure out what homes are selling for in their neighborhood.
Because you’ll always make better decisions with better information.
That’s our mantra, motto and belief as journalists and people who care about the Valley’s very important real-estate industry
After getting important feedback from the real-estate industry and our own neighbors, we have made many changes to Street Scout to make it better during the past several months. And we want your feedback to make it even better.
Creating Street Scout has been a labor of love. I know it would have helped many people during the boom and bust, including the man who called me that night in 2009.
He lost his house to foreclosure and it sat empty for several months. An investor who bought his house a few years later paid less than a third of what it sold for in 2005.
Home values in that Goodyear neighborhood still aren't back to boom levels
But the comparable sales show they are climbing – according to Street Scout.
I still wish I could have helped that man more back in 2009. But we hope Street Scout helps you now.