Mapping Programs for Every Budget

Finally, you can cancel that National Geographic subscription. Gone are the days of unfolding a paper map on top of the Xerox and making copies. Now you can buy mapping programs with features ranging from simply identifying a property's location to including demographic and satellite-linked data for the surrounding neighborhood, city, or county. If you use a photocopier, you can certainly afford one of the less-expensive mapping programs currently available—and the cheapest ones are free. The question is, Which program best suits your specific needs?

"Most of the time, I find people who use mapping programs use them for site selection—printing out a basic map of it," says Don Huddleston, CCIM, of Village Square Realty in Spokane, Washington. "It's nice to have demographic data keyed to that."

At the high end of the scale is Creigh A. Bogart, CCIM, of ComVest Realty in Tampa, Florida, who is "looking at something around $8,000 to $10,000" to meet his mapping needs. His company serves as a broker representative for national restaurant chains with sites throughout Florida; it needs the software for client presentations in which "we'll be doing a lot of market/trade-area analysis," Bogart says. After inquiring about other CCIMs' mapping software over the private CCIM broadcast e-mail service, he realized that his needs went further than most of his fellow practitioners. "We don't want census-tract data. We want someone who's already taken that data and interpreted it" and extrapolated from the most recent census figures to the present. His choices are limited—and his costs inflated—by his need to have a high-end program that offers extensive data and maps for the entire state of Florida.

Bogart's office currently makes do with a demo program that prints out text copy of demographics; it does not integrate it with maps. "Mapping not only will give you that kind of report," he says, "but it will give you a map showing you all the data in relation to each other."

What programs can meet Huddleston's and Bogart's needs?

How Cheap Can You Get?
First, check out the free stuff.

MapBlast is a free service available at http://maps.yahoo.com/. This Vicinity product is a no-frills plot-it-and-link-it (or print-it) mapping service that exists to help sell other Vicinity mapping products. Nonetheless, it is simple to use and, if you just want a quick map of your property and the surrounding area, this will do the trick. The maps can be scaled from the surrounding streets up to the national level. One drawback is that at some levels, the map labels overlap or are unreadable. On at least one national view, Chicago was so obscured by highways and text that the Windy City wasn't even labeled.

MapQuest (http://www.mapquest.com/) is another free Internet mapping service, though it is less intuitive to use than MapBlast and requires registration to use the service. While you can master the basics of mapping a site on MapBlast within seconds, MapQuest deftly avoids such simplicity.

If MapQuest frustrates you, as it did me, try Big Book (http://www.bigbook.com/). As simple as MapBlast, Big Book also loaded maps more quickly than the other two free services, and it didn't suffer from the text-crowding of MapBlast.

The Low End
Maptitude, from Caliper (http://www.caliper. com/), retails for about $395; its international version sells for $495. With Maptitude, you can customize maps with integrated graphic charts and adjustable levels of detail. It works on a network, and it works with your database, spreadsheet package, or census CDs.

Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com/automap/) offers its basic Automap StreetsPlus and StreetsPlus Deluxe—including a business phone and address directory—for about $55 and $75, respectively. Huddleston uses Rand McNally's Streetfinder (http://www.randmcnally.com/home/) and DeLorme's Street Atlas (http://www.delorme.com/), each of which costs about $50. Though he admits to looking for anything that might work better, he is happy with what he has for the price he's paid. "They're really easy," he reports. "I haven't needed any technical support. You just throw them in, load them, and use them."

Another "load and use" program is Earthvisions' G-Ref U.S. Terrain Series (http://www.earthvisions.com/), a basic mapping program that offers state-by-state CDs ranging from $99 to $199 per state. Currently, fewer than a dozen states are available, but more will follow. G-Ref is a very intuitive program to learn, with a search function that quickly calls up maps displaying the selected sites. You can search for buildings, communities, latitude and longitude, even "places" (airports, bridges, valleys, etc.), and you can cruise across the entire state by clicking on a thumbnail state map.

There are also mapping services—no programs to buy or install—you purchase each map individually. For example, Express Maps (http://www.thomas.com/prod/xmaps/xmaps.html/) delivers custom maps within three to five working days for between $25 and $125. But when you can buy a reusable mapping program for less than $100, why look elsewhere?

The High End
If you need lots of demographic data—especially current and interpreted data—look at the more expensive programs available.

MapX, in the words of MapInfo (http://www.mapinfo.com/), is "value-priced," which means that the $4,960 price could be worse. It is not a program for the one- or two-person office, and it does not even have a user interface; you have to program that yourself. What MapX does do is allow developers to embed mapping services into software applications that use programming languages such as Visual Basic, Visual C++, Delphi, or PowerBuilder. The resulting mapping capabilities include image handling for displaying satellite and scanned images as a map layer, multiple layers of geographic information, support for popular databases, and much more. (MapX also only maps data to the zip-code level; to map to the street-address level, you need MapMarker, which is available for beta-testing at the MapInfo Web site.) If that sounds like a lot of money for a complicated program you might not even be able to operate, you should be heartened to learn that MapInfo touts its customer training and support—always a good sign.

For only $2,995, Caliper's GisPlus, version 3.0, creates multilayered maps, geographic data management, data analysis, and application development. Version 3.0 includes interfaces with the Global Positioning System, improved tools for working with three-dimensional databases, and more.

Hunting for a Program
Of course, many other programs are available that are not mentioned in this column. In your search for the best product, research the programs directly and contact other commercial investment real estate professionals to learn what they use. Your first stop should be the CCIM forums (http://www.ccim.com/entryway.html), where you can read past discussions on technology issues and post your own questions. In addition, check out the software companies listed on various link pages, including http://www.ccim.com/links/info.html and http://nris.msl.mt.gov/gis/other.html. Do your homework before you break out the checkbook.

John Zipperer

Tech Links is written by John Zipperer, new-media editor of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute. Contact him at (312) 321-4466 or jzipperer@cirei.com.