Glenn Thede lives a two-minute walk from a "walker's paradise," but somehow his house has been deemed "car-dependent," according to a widely referenced database that measures the walkability of cities.
Walk Score is a publicly searchable rating system generated by Seattle-based Redfin Corp., an online real estate company that is used across Canada and the United States by independent realtors. Many researchers believe it not just helps to set property values, but may hold vital clues for urban planners and even mortgage approvals.
But as Mr. Thede discovered, it's very difficult to understand how that score is arrived at – and almost impossible to change it if you think there's been an error.
The score ranges from 0 to 100, with five basic tiers: 90-100 is a walker's paradise (daily errands do not require a car); 70-89 is very walkable (most errands can be accomplished on foot), 50-69 is somewhat walkable (some errands can be accomplished on foot); 25-49 is car-dependent (most errands require a car), and 0-24 is also car-dependent (almost all errands require a car). The simple way to describe the methodology is to look at how close your house is to popular amenities (shopping, transit and services).
Mr. Thede's home on 9 Durie St., a cross street that connects to Bloor Street in the Swansea area of West Toronto, has a Wall Score of 38. According to Google Maps, he's just a seven minute walk from Bloor (about 550 metres). Needless to say, Mr. Thede strongly disagrees that this makes his home car-dependent.
"It's almost like a defamation of character on a house level," says Mr. Thede, 60, a retired human resources professional. "The value of my home is in being in a highly desirable neighbourhood. They are promoting themselves as an authority on the walkability of neighbourhoods … I don't know what's going on. I'm perplexed."
Curiously, Mr. Thede's house is only three doors down from a very good Walk Score: 15 Durie gets a 79 or "very walkable" rating. A little further up, houses such as 45 Durie, start getting 93 ratings, a "walker's paradise."
"Upon first glance it seems like a bug," says Jon Whitely, spokesman for Redfin. He says there hasn't been a major update to the way Walk Score works since at least 2013, although there are plans for another overhaul in 2018.
When Mr. Thede contacted Redfin's customer support he was told it could take up to six months to get a fix to the algorithm, if it was warranted.
"You can't really correct one address," Mr. Whitely says. "At the end of the day, I do think Walk Score is a great tool that's accurate, and we stand behind it."
Walk Score's accuracy is about more than bragging rights: it can be an indicator to buyers about the value of a house.
Redfin has published articles suggesting each Walk Score point might be worth as much as US$3,250, or equal to an increase of 0.9 per cent of the home's value, according to a 2016 study of its data for 14 large U.S. cities.
And the higher you go, the more each Walk Score point is worth: according to Redfin's own analysis, a property with a Walk Score of 79 might be worth US$7,000 less than one with a score of 80. That said, there's a wide variance of Walk Score values in different cities, driven in part by that market's underlying property valuations. For example, a jump from 60 points to 80 points was worth an additional US$188,000 in red-hot San Francisco, while in more moderately priced Atlanta that point difference would only increase the home's value by US$84,000.
Over all, the city of Toronto has a Walk Score of 71, making it the most walkable of the 81 cities Walk Score tracks in Ontario.
Mr. Thede says his house is valued at more than $1.5-million, but he's concerned the low Walk Score could knock as much as a $100,000 off a potential sale. He only began to look at valuations as he was crunching the numbers about whether he could help his son (who has a partner and a new baby) afford to live in the neighbourhood he grew up in. The family had discussed buying out a duplex and sharing the building's two units.
Mr. Thede wishes there was a way to opt out of the system and delist his house from the score, but Mr. Whitely says he's never heard of anyone else making such a request.
Walk Score results are not merely an indicator of property value: Research from the University of Arizona in partnership with U.S. mortgage company Fannie Mae found that high Walk Score's correlate with lower default rates on home loans. In other words: "Walk Score could be used to help evaluate and underwrite properties and investment risk," the study found.
If your mortgage approval could be impacted by Walk Score, then it's critical the score be accurate.
"I haven't heard many planners complain about the private, opaque nature of the data. But this should be a concern, in my opinion," says Rob Steuteville, an editor and communications adviser for the Congress for the New Urbanism, an activist organization with 18 chapters in the United States focused on making communities more walkable. "When Walk Score began, it felt more like a mission-driven project that was interested in promoting walkable neighbourhoods. Since the purchase by Redfin, however, it just seems like another real estate product."