A breakthrough in home shopping for the visually impaired
“Finding Homes” is an Alexa-based tool that could revolutionize real estate for blind and visually impaired consumers.
- Developed by Justin Lundy, a licensed agent in San Diego, the tool allows users to search for homes using common parameters.
- "Finding Homes" can do what screen readers can't: Provide detailed home information using natural language, without being foiled by ads and pop-ups.
- First adopted by the Park City MLS, the tool is now being used by 7 MLSs, including First MLS in Georgia.
Justin Lundy loves real estate, voice tech, and his mother-in-law. And he's found a way to combine his affection for all three with a voice-activated property search engine to help the visually impaired find homes for sale.
"Finding Homes" is an Alexa-based tool that could revolutionize real estate for the visually impaired — and help busy agents while on the go from one showing to the next. Forget about just turning lights off or playing music while you cook. In some markets, Alexa can now help you find your next home.
It's a huge step in accessibility and inclusion for the visually impaired.
Once you launch the Alexa "skill," you can set some simple parameters — like price range and number of bedrooms and bathrooms — and the device will sort and offer homes for sale that meet your criteria.
Users can even drill down to quickly find out about everything from appliances to flooring to HOAs, all in very intuitive, natural language.
Lundy, co-founder and CEO of Lundy.io and a licensed real estate agent, got the idea from his mother-in-law, who is blind. Like so many with vision impairment, "she aged into it," Lundy says. That means tools to help her and others like her need to be intuitive because they haven't spent a lifetime using them.
The visually impaired is a small but growing market. The CDC estimates 4.2 million Americans aged 40 years and older suffer from uncorrectable vision impairment, including more than 1 million who are blind. The numbers are predicted to more than double by 2050 because of increasing rates of diabetes and other chronic conditions and an aging U.S. population.
Home shopping is anything but simple for the visually impaired
Searching for homes, even just the kind of window shopping that sighted Americans take for granted, is largely out of reach for people with vision impairment, Lundy learned after working with focus groups from the National Federation of the Blind.
"When I asked how they found their current home, overwhelmingly it was, 'Well, my spouse can see or my kids can see or my sibling comes over on the weekends and they'll spend hours reading every description of every property,'" Lundy says. "And they sit on the sidelines. That's not what they want."
Screen readers designed to assist the visually impaired run into ads, pop-ups and headers that can turn the simple task of finding the number of bathrooms in a listing into a 30-minute ordeal.
Getting off the the ground in Park City
Lundy, who was an active real estate agent in San Diego when he got started, approached the Park City Board of Realtors MLS to see if it would sell him its data feed to build the program. "At that point we thought we would have to start buying data," Lundy says. But MLS Director Bob Bemis said they could have the feed for no charge. "He just said, 'If you build something cool, give it to us.'"
And that's how the tiny Park City MLS in Utah became the first in the nation to provide the leading-edge service.
MLS data is usually pretty messy. The first step for Lundy.io is to clean it up. Then it goes through a natural language algorithm to produce short, understandable and conversational answers.
Once he worked through the Park City MLS data and gave a demonstration, Bemis was thrilled with the result. Lundy then reached out to the Utah Chapter of the Federation of the Blind to get user feedback. "It was about validating whether or not this is something real," he says. As a sighted person, he wanted to make sure it was a service that actually worked for the people he was designing it for.
Very quickly, he got the attention of the national office of the Federation. In each state where an MLS adopts "Finding Homes," Lundy meets with a local chapter to educate them about its availability and how to use it.
Creating more accessible searches across the country
So far, seven MLSs with 12 data feeds have signed up, most recently First MLS in Georgia, the fourth-largest MLS in the nation.
"We're honored to bring search-by-voice and enhanced data accessibility of FMLS and our partners' listings to those that have vision loss," said FMLS President and CEO Jeremy Crawford. "We want to be as inclusive as possible, and this is one monumental step in the right direction."
Lundy says he hopes to fill in gaps around the country so that those with vision loss in any market can have access.
And while Finding Homes is essential for visually impaired homebuyers, Lundy says it could be a good tool for agents. "As an agent, I spent my life in the car," he says. "There were times I couldn't remember anything about the house I was going to and I'd be frantically flipping through my printouts while I'm driving or going on Homesnap trying to figure out details about the house. Just by having the Alexa app open on my phone, this would have allowed me to get that property overview or answer specific questions about before I got there without dying."
But he's quick to point out that while it could be useful for agents, that's not the issue it's designed to address.
"The fact that technology is where it is and we've left some folks behind, that's the problem."
Oh, and his mother-in-law? "She's very proud of me."