The team at Chicago-based Waterton Associates was considering a note purchase in the Ft. Worth, Texas, area earlier this year. The firm’s initial review of the property took place on Google Maps, which showed a lot of land in the area, begging the question, was the price inflated? But after culling through a variety of online data sources, the cost seemed to fit with recent market sales and replacement costs.

Like many multifamily firms, Waterton is relying on a number of different tools to make the due diligence process faster and more thorough and cost effective (and, in some cases, greener). And as many apartment operators are finding, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the information you need. In fact, all you really have to do to get prepared for an acquisition is get online. Still, as the Waterton deal demonstrates, you can’t rely on any single technology to underwrite a deal.

Scouting the Neighborhood

When Waterton considers a deal, the first place executives go is exactly the same as the rest of Americans looking for information: Google.

“We’ll start out by looking at the deal on Google Maps and studying the location,” says Greg Lozinak, COO for Waterton, which closed nine loan transactions (worth $400 million) in 2010. “You’ll get to the point where you can get a street view to understand the immediate area surrounding the property.”

The company uses Google technology to evaluate both its loan transactions and debt pool purchases. Google Maps, with its 360-degree photo views of the streets and buildings surrounding an address, can help a buyer figure out whether a potential target is across the street from a fire house or a crack house. The value in this, of course, is that it provides a buyer with basic information without paying for the manpower, money, and time that it would take to fly—or even drive—to the site itself. “You can do almost a full neighborhood tour on Google Earth now to get a feel for a neighborhood, quality of construction, and all of the things you’d have to travel there to do in person,” says Mark Stern, senior vice president of multifamily investments for Waterton. “Of course we still see it in person, but you don’t have to have 15 people jump on the plane. The rest of the people can look through Google Earth.”