Many of us rely on a variety of visual cues while purchasing a home. We might look at property maps to study their layouts, view pictures of the appliances in the kitchen or laundry room, or take in the lush green hues of the accompanying backyard. However, taking in such a wide plethora of visual cues can be downright impossible or extremely challenging for the visually impaired. For a blind person, who, like other buyers, has to do things like decipher a property's layout, understand the features in the kitchen, or even decipher its square footage from a jargon-heavy text description, obtaining even basic information from a normal listing can be an onerous task.
This is a problem with wide-ranging implications. In the United States, approximately 93 million adults are at high risk for vision loss. This means that millions of people cannot easily engage with property listings, making it more difficult for them to find their dream home. The joy of house-hunting turns into a cumbersome and complex puzzle, with pieces hidden behind layers of inaccessible visual data.
To address this pressing need, Lundy Inc. has charted a mission: to produce the most comprehensive property search engine available by voice. Working with Multiple Listing Services (MLSs)—centralized databases where real estate professionals list and access property descriptions and values—Lundy Inc. is redefining home-buying accessibility with Alexa.
Using voice technology to facilitate home buying
Lundy Inc. was created by Justin Lundy, an entrepreneur and investor with a background in real estate. While working as a realtor in San Diego, he began to experiment with voice technology to communicate features about different homes.
“We would put details about the home in the MLS, but these were rarely enough,” Lundy says. “We would still get lots of questions from the buyer’s agent. We needed a natural and intuitive way to communicate all of this information to agents, and here’s where Alexa comes in. I realized that we could use Alexa to build an informational hub and help get information to agents.”
Lundy then reached out to Jim Grady (who later became the CTO of Lundy Inc.) and created the company’s first Alexa skill: Neighborhood Info. Using Alexa devices, buyers could visit properties and ask questions such as “Tell me about the schools in this community” or “What material is the flooring?”
Lundy soon saw another important application for Neighborhood Info. When Lundy’s mother-in-law developed retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease that causes vision loss, he witnessed the difficulties that blind and visually impaired people face when buying homes.
“My mother-in-law is very active in the blind community, and we’ve gone to several functions and met many visually impaired people,” says Lundy. “We began to notice how inaccessible many resources are for the visually impaired. This is true for information that is generally available on the internet and is especially true for real-estate websites.” Lundy was motivated by how the Alexa experience could better the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the country, and chose to pivot his company to improve home-buying accessibility.
Lundy and Grady partnered with the National Federation of the Blind and engaged in focus groups about assistive technology. At the end of this process, they created an innovative Alexa skill that was targeted specifically towards the visually impaired: Finding Homes.
Bridging accessibility gaps with voice technology
The Finding Homes skill uses voice technology to communicate all of the information that a buyer needs to know about a home, pulling this information directly from the MLS. Currently, the skill is connected to 13 MLSs and counting, which comprises approximately 20 percent of all agents in the United States.
The Finding Homes skill helps blind and visually impaired people overcome challenges that they often encounter with other assistive technologies. Traditionally, many people rely on screen readers, which convert digital text into synthesized speech.
“In our focus groups, we learned that a majority of blind people in the United States age into the condition. This means that many people have to learn how to use technology like screen readers later in life,” says Lundy. “Although screen readers are amazing technologies, they’re not easy to use—especially for older people.”
Additionally, real estate websites can be very difficult to describe using screen readers. Photos usually do not have captions, ads, and headers are not properly labeled, and listings are often full of acronyms and jargon that can be difficult to decode. “One of our focus group participants was born blind and is incredibly efficient with the screen reader,” says Lundy. “But when we asked her to go to a realtor website and tell us the size of the first property that she could find, it took around 30 minutes.”
With the Finding Homes skill, users have a more intuitive interface that taps directly into real estate listings. Instead of decoding jargon-filled listings, users can ask Alexa about a property's features or neighborhood information. This direct voice interaction minimizes the learning curve, which is especially beneficial for those who are new to assistive technologies.
A new capability allows customers to directly invoke the Finding Homes skill on Alexa, so instead of saying "Alexa, start finding homes," customers can say things like "Alexa, find me a condo,” “Alexa, are there any homes for sale near me?" or "Alexa, help me buy a home," and have even more natural and intuitive experiences.
As Lundy Inc. adds new markets to Finding Homes, the company is working with local chapters of the National Federation of the Blind to drive awareness and teach members how to use the skill. “At every meeting, I’ll do a demo, and it’s like a light bulb goes off in their heads,” says Lundy. “They realize that Finding Homes was built specifically for them, and it doesn’t just tack on accessibility features as an afterthought.”
Making home buying accessible for everyone with voice
With the Finding Homes skill, Lundy Inc. is making a difference in the lives of blind and visually impaired people. “We’ve become the only brand in the real estate space that is building tools with voice,” says Lundy. “We have a responsibility to see what else we can do with this technology.”
The company has made available multimodal experiences with Fire TV to help families collaboratively engage in the home-buying process. This interactive experience is not limited to visually impaired users. Entire families, whether or not any members are blind, can sit together, view properties on their TV screens, and vocally navigate listings with Alexa.
Lundy Inc. is also assessing Echo Auto, a hands-free Alexa device designed for vehicles. With Echo Auto, realtors can drive around neighborhoods, receive voice-activated information about nearby properties, and identify ideal homes for potential buyers.
Alexa has empowered many blind and visually impaired people to live fulfilling lives, and Lundy Inc. has created an exciting way for them to find their dream homes.
“Alexa is a major leveling up as an assistive technology,” says Lundy. “Anytime you connect information that is not accessible by voice and make it accessible, you’ve done a big service to the blind—and everybody. This is about bridging a universal experience: finding a home and providing for your family.”