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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 23, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Estately launches real estate app, finally

Seattle online real estate startup Estately is launching a mobile app today.

Normally that would be unremarkable.

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Apps are a dime a dozen, especially among consumer startups like Estately.

But Estately stands out for waiting so long to join the party. The company has been running an online real estate search service since 2007 — steadily growing through and beyond the recession, carving out a niche in the online real estate world that’s largely centered in Seattle — all without an app.

Co-founder and Chief Executive Galen Ward said the company has done pretty well with a mobile version of its website that people access from smartphones and tablets. Overall the 15-person company has seen sales more than double every year for the past few years, and Ward thinks it can become the next $1 billion company in online real estate.

You can only put off the inevitable for so long, though, especially when customers are begging for an app. Investors who have put about $1 million into Estately also thought it was time.

“We’re definitely the last big online real estate company to build an app,” Ward admitted. “But you know, a lot of our competition has built an app because people told them to build an app and not because they knew an app could change their business. We don’t do things lightly — we wanted to be sure it was the best real estate search app.”

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It is a pretty nice app, especially for real-estate voyeurs in the regions — including the Northwest — where Estately has partnered with Multiple Listing Services to provide details on pretty much every home available. So far it’s working with more than 60 MLS groups in more than 35 states and Ward hopes to have most of the country covered by the end of this year.

The app — for Apple’s iOS platform – includes a search service based on Apple’s Maps. Ward says the mapping has improved dramatically since its awkward debut. He has no immediate plans for apps on other platforms.

When a home is selected from a map in the Estately app, users are given the choice to save the home or search, or to contact an agent to see the home. Estately works with about 700 buyer’s agents and gets a share of commissions, if its referrals lead to a sale.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the app uses a heart icon and heart animations. When you save a house to your watch list, a heart drifts across the screen, into a little folder.

Most useful are the app’s notification capabilities. You can set the app to notify you if homes in a particular neighborhood are listed or have price drops, for instance.

Ward said more than 25 percent of Estately’s site visits come from people using mobile devices, two-thirds of which are running iOS.

“The No. 1 question we get is, do you have an iPhone app?” he said. “With the advent of iOS7 we saw an opportunity to make a best of breed app.”

The company’s mobile website is “a great experience for users” but such sites just aren’t as good as apps today, Ward said. “Maybe in 10 years it will change, but right now a native app has so much more fluidity and power and push alerts. You can build a more comprehensive, sophisticated product on a native app.”

Estately has been operating in the shadows of online real-estate giants, just down the street from Zillow and Redfin and across Lake Washington from Trulia’s outpost in Kirkland.

“The app,” Ward said, “is a step along the way to being a giant among giants.”

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