Information can be incredibly powerful in the world of commercial real estate — and Amber Surrency and her crew from CoStar Group are in Utah to collect mountains of it.
Flying low over the Wasatch Front with a military-grade reconnaissance plane, employees with the global real estate information firm are scouring for new construction projects, capturing coordinates and high-resolution images in the midst of a building boom throughout the metro area.
CoStar Group’s data, maps and analytics are used by brokers, developers, investors, property managers and others to help make business decisions — from where to locate a new shopping mall to how much to charge for rent.
The Washington, D.C.-based company maps everything except for schools and single-family homes as it works to survey what is now a record-breaking commercial real estate market in Utah, with $2.2 billion in sales in 2017.
“CoStar has a lot of points of data,” said Surrency, an aerial research photographer, as she and other CoStar experts debriefed Friday after a flight over Ogden and Salt Lake City. “But we want to make sure we get them all.”
The company once sent hundreds of researchers out by car to crisscross more than 135 U.S. cities and scope out new apartment, retail, industrial and other commercial projects.
What once took months or more to complete is now a four-day project for the greater Salt Lake City area. In summer 2015, CoStar switched to a turboprop Cessna C208 “Grand Caravan” EX equipped with about $500,000 in advanced computers and a sophisticated high-resolution camera mounted beneath the plane.
The gyroscopic Cineflex camera vacuums up visual data as the plane makes concentric orbits over its urban targets, locking in geo-coordinates along with highly detailed still images and videos. Surrency said the images are so granular, the company’s analysts can often read phone numbers off “for lease” signs on the street.
Surrency, a former Marine, starts with a digital map filled with red dots, each one a hot prospect as a new construction project. She and pilots Rob Parks and Ben Hursa then navigate over each to gather data, while also watching keenly for previously unknown building sites.
“That U-shaped building … the white one … I’m seeing a crane in the courtyard,” Surrency tells Parks via her headphone microphone as they fly over downtown Salt Lake City.
“OK,” replies Parks. “I’ll head that way as soon as you get your eyes on.”
The Cessna then banks gently to the left as Surrency works a joystick to aim the camera. They hover briefly while she scoops up images, and they’re off again.
All the data — sometimes more than a terabyte per day — are then uploaded to the firm’s analysts, who research and add detailed information on all the projects before they are included in subscriber databases.
As with most other cities it covers, CoStar freshens its data over the Ogden-Salt Lake City-Provo area about once a year. Having just come from Seattle last week, the crew was on a regional sweep to cover Yakima and Spokane in Washington, and Boise, Idaho, along the way.
Even at one time a year, CoStar’s reconnaissance gathers data more frequently than online mapping services such as Google, Surrency noted.
According to CoStar Group CEO Andrew Florance, the airborne system is yielding more accurate data than traditional government and private collection systems, which are often based on pulling building permits at City Hall and driving city streets.
“This technology,” Florance said in 2016, “allows us to track construction activity in the United States in a way that no one has ever been able to do.”
Surrency said CoStar’s analysts had instructed the crew to gather data on about 130 construction sites from Ogden to Salt Lake City and Provo. But, after several days in the air, the crew already had detected and photographed 156 locations.
And Surrency said as she and the crew prepared to take off again, “we’ll probably find more.”