Guest Blog: Data, PropTech, and the Hunt for Land

By Hugh Gibbs, co-founder, SearchLand

Anyone who has worked in property development will know that the traditional process for sourcing sites needs to change. The constant hunt for the next site and the burden of keeping one’s pipeline full of promising plots has been a drain on developers’ resources, holding them back from achieving greater commercial success.

When I first started working as a land and planning graduate, I was drawn straightaway to site sourcing. Every developer, agent, and architect dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to searching for suitable off-market sites – such as back-land plots and infills between existing properties. However, finding potential sites, and then assessing their viability, has hitherto been a time-consuming and painstaking process.

The data needed to identify sites was out there – the problem was getting it. What should have been 20 per cent of my job ended up taking up 80 per cent of my time; I was constantly going to Land Registry and local councils for planning constraints, approval rates, price-paid data, title ownership and boundaries… it just wasn’t sustainable.

The few services that provided access to the necessary data were priced far too high for SME developers.

Positively, the world is currently going through a data revolution, with sector after sector discovering how data can drive growth and increase efficiency – eCommerce, recruitment, logistics, transportation all now benefit from it. My co-founders and I believed the property sector had a lot to gain by adopting a more advanced use of technology and data, so we designed a platform that had the potential to make a property company of any size data-driven overnight.

Challenging the status quo

SearchLand was launched after just ten months in development, a project that was born during the pandemic, with my co-founders and I working remotely to develop our product. We combined our respective experiences in planning, data and computer science, software engineering and GIS to build a service that is intuitive and easy to use – after all, it should no longer require specialist knowledge or training to take advantage of data.

Our goal was to create a search tool that allows users to quickly and easily identify plots of land with high development potential, simplifying the associated due diligence and data analysis of site sourcing into a one-click process.

SearchLand allows developers to act as their own land agent, using our map-based search engine to specify a target area, then using our linked datasets to filter out potential obstacles like planning constraints and title boundaries. It would have previously taken days for developers to whittle down a list of a hundred potential sites to the select few that match every one of their criteria – with all the data in one place, it takes seconds.

Making a platform that does more

Site sourcing is not the only stage of the development process that can benefit from embracing technology and data. Even when developers have identified a good site and cross-checked it against the relevant datasets to ensure its viability, they still must somehow establish contact with the owner. Letter sending is still a vital part of the site sourcing process, although there remains a vast disconnect between the number of sites that developers consider and the number of landowner meetings they can arrange from those sites.

Just as data works best when compiled into one platform, processes can be made easier and more efficient when they are integrated. By automating letter sending and making it a part of SearchLand’s search function, we can improve the efficiency of a company’s site-finding workflow while also helping to convert more leads through a targeted approach.

In September 2021 we also launched a new tool to allow developers to search for permitted development (PD) sites. This upgrade makes it quicker and easier for users to find sites that have PD rights, which means certain building works and changes of use can be carried out without the need for a full planning application.

Levelling the playing field

The development sector is getting harder and harder for SMEs – in 1988, smaller developers accounted for four out of ten new-build homes in the UK, a proportion that by 2018 had dropped to just 12 per cent. This disparity between larger and smaller players needs to be addressed. And while smaller developers face bigger challenges derived from their scale in today’s less-than-perfect planning system, having the right tools in place can drive significant efficiency gains for businesses operating with smaller teams.

At SearchLand we believe that the benefits of being data-driven should be affordable and accessible to all. As a SaaS solution, we keep our pricing fair and scaled to usage, enabling even the smallest players to take full advantage of gaining rapid access to the most vital and up-to-date information required to find the right site.

As we face record house prices and an ever-worsening housing crisis, housebuilders and developers need to be empowered to build more. SearchLand was made as a resource to allow businesses of all sizes to maximise their output, and provide them with the right tools to make the most of what is available on- and off-market and we’ll keep upgrading and improving our offering to support them however we can.