The Questionable Ethics of Using Science Fiction to Research Real Estate
Updated: May 17
I've always been a voracious reader, with science fiction high among my list of preferred genres. If you had told 11 year old me, back in 1977, about a guy who uses his phone to identify property in Portugal from space by comparing swimming pool shapes, I would have asked to read that book.
This topic merits some serious consideration because there are potential serious implications. If ever there was an online tool for burglary, robbery and stalking, this is it.
I'm going to start off by quoting myself at length from "Homestead in the Middle of a Silves, Algoz, and São Bartolomeu de Messines Triangle."
"Ok, we are entering some interesting territory here, both literally and figuratively. Interesting and problematic enough that it deserves its own dedicated post on this blog, which I will do at some point. Here's the problem. The idealista listing format for advertisers allows them to indicate on a specialized Google Map feed the location of the property they are representing. 99% of the time, this location is not exactly specified, as "The advertiser prefers not to show the exact address, but it's in this area..." The thing is, it can often be very easy to locate said property on Google maps, especially when the property is in a very sparsely populated area, like this one. If I make public the coordinates of the property, like I have just done here, I am violating that preference. Yet anyone can do what I just did in about five minutes. Complicating matters further, this is extremely valuable and pertinent information. If you were thinking about buying a property, wouldn't you want to see what it looks like from the street and "walk" around the immediate area?
Here's an anecdote, and it's a long one but a good one. When I started using idealista to look at properties, I begain in Spain, specifically Barcelona, followed by Sitges. I chose Sitges because I had visited there one afternoon when I was 18 with a couple of high school friends. Nice beach. I found a beautiful hotel for sale at around $1,500,000 CDN, two minutes walk to the water, in the Old Town, 3 floors, colourful and traditional style, a converted fisherman's home, just amazing. I really wanted to see it from the street but was faced with challenges. Because it was just one more building in a street-long row of buildings, there was nothing particularly distinctive about it from above. No certain style of swimming pool, no peculiar driveway or lawn shape, no particular configuration of outbuildings. None of the clues I usually use to identify a property from space.
Now that I write that sentence, what a fucking incredible world we live in. Good lord! And what a weird and extremely specific hobby I have developed. "What do you like to do in your spare time?" "Oh, the usual. Gardening, listening to podcasts, sleuthing properties in Portugal using satellite imagery. You know how it is."
In fact, let me dig this place up. I know I emailed it to myself. I will be back. And I will post this in the meantime.
Advertised by ENGEL & VÖLKERS
The immediate neighbourhood as indicated by idealista was Sitges' Old Town, right by the water and a marina (I think), not very large but very dense as you can imagine - narrow streets and alleys. I used Street view to wander around for a while, trying to think of a way to find this place. Eventually I hit on the idea that the only thing I knew for sure faced the street was the front door and window, as seen on the inside wall of the first photo above. That gave me a configuration and, possibly, a colour to proceed with. There's no guarantee that the door and window are painted the same colour on the outside, but they usually are. Armed with this knowledge, I returned to Street View and looked around. It soon became apparent that the colour in question, a particular shade between indigo and blue, is the signature colour of the area. It is used for trim and details frequently. Furthermore, the arched door shape is also very common, and an arched door with a window to the left almost as common. Finally, I focused on the shape of the windows in the doorway, the placement of the mail slot, and the shape of the grill work over the window. Bingo! Welcome to Carrer de la Carreta, 13, Sitges, Spain.
When I examined the street from above, looking for nearby businesses and whatnot, I noticed that the hotel shares a wall with "Zona X cruising bar." Not exactly a peaceful haven of tranquility, and definitely something I would want to know about if I was interested in buying this place."
That anecdote perfectly encapsulates the process I go through and charge I get from finding these places, with the weirder and more obscure the information I use the better. I once found a fairly generic-looking property (from above, anyway) in a dense suburban neighbourhood because the description of the property mentioned a particular bus route, i.e, "On the 128 bus route." I entered Street View at the terminus, the bus station, and walked the route up into the hills north of Barcelona. The house itself was set too far back from the road to see it very well from there, but the fence and gate were a little unusual. The route was long and twisty, but eventually I spotted that gate, and when I did I got a little thrill, a wee blast of dopamine. For me, there is something inherently satisfying about the chase and the catch.
Of course, I'm not using this information for any nefarious purpose. Quite the opposite. I want to understand property in the Algarve, what the options are, possible features, possible limitations, the complexities of location, and the relationships among all these factors and many more. On this subject I am information hungry, the more the better. I can't be there in person, so these are the tools at my disposal. By using them and posting about it, I enrich my own knowledge and that of anyone else interested in reading what I have discovered.
Also keeping in mind that many real estate agencies in other contexts show exact location data on their listings. I was puttering around Vancouver listings the other day, and every single listing I saw across multiple websites showed you on a map exactly where the property is. Often with handy tidbits like how far to the nearest school, the nearest grocery store, etc. Exactly the kind of information I like to have. It's not a problem in Vancouver, why might it be one in Portugal?
Which is all very well. Except that it looks like it is a problem in Portugal, given that so many of the advertisers on idealista opt for the "it's around here" option. Just enough advertisers show exact location to make it clear that it is an option and it is a choice not to show it.
As to why it might be (or is) a problem, I have a pretty good guess, and it has already been alluded to earlier - crime. I recently heard on a podcast (Portugal - The Simple Life, "Corona Virus in Portugal") that the Algarve experienced a wave of robberies and burglaries a number of years ago. Criminals were targeting luxury villas, many of them isolated out in the countryside, and breaking in to them. I will dedicate a blog entry to safety and crime in the Algarve soon, but I will summarize this issue here by quoting from a 2005 story in the Portugal Resident, "Crime wave leaves public in a state of panic":
"Mark Stephens is the managing director of Vilalgarve, a property management company based in Almancil, that is responsible for properties in that area, both inside resorts and out. The company also looks after properties in Vilamoura, Santa Bárbara de Nêxe and other areas – all of which come under the borough of Loulé.
Mark has been a business owner in the Almancil area for 20 years and declares: “This is the worst three or four months of crime I’ve ever seen.” He has first-hand knowledge of several incidents that have happened at properties his company is responsible for: “There have been five robberies over the past three or four months and we don’t normally encounter that many in a whole year,” he says. “I am also aware of another five or six robberies that have taken place at the homes of my clients’ friends and neighbours.” He went on to say that he feels the criminals involved are no longer opportunists. “We seem to be dealing with a group of professionals who use disguises, specialist tools and a great deal of force.”"
Many steps have been taken to address this problem and the situation has improved immensely since then, due in no small part to Safe Communities Portugal and its subsidiary, Safe Communities Algarve. See, for example, the "Portugal 2020 Crime & Safety Report" (OSAC - U.S. Department of State, Overseas Security Advisory Council) for information about current trends.
It seems likely that this history has made a significant psychological impact on long-time residents of the Algarve and that this is at least part of the reason that property owners and their representatives in the Algarve prefer not to specify their exact location. I would welcome input from local residents about this. Please let me know if I am wildly off-base, or if there are other more important factors at play. The best answer, as far as I'm concerned, is that this whole thing is no big deal and I (or anyone else) can post property coordinates until the cows come home and nobody will be the least bit put out by it. Something tells me that wish will not be granted.
*The location of the photo that heads this article can be found here.