There are few actions in life more humbling than buying a home. Not the signing--that’s easy--but everything before. Digging through AOL-era websites while punching hypothetical salaries into mortgage calculators, injecting your poor Macbook with another fat syringe of Russian spyware at every click of the “OK” button. You’re capable--incredible, even--at every part of your professional life. Then you go to do this thing that everyone else does, and you’re starting from zero.
SmartAsset is a Y-Combinator-backed personal finance startup that’s trying to make your biggest financial decisions as simple to make as possible. Launching today, their first feature is called the Homebuyer Decision Engine, and in the coming year, it will be complemented by two to three other unannounced categories (likely things like buying a car and saving for retirement).
“The vision is to build a company that helps reduce the anxiety people have when they make these big decisions. Right now, people work with spreadsheets and try to muddle through these things,” explains CEO Michael Carvin. “We want to be your first point of reference for all these big financial decisions.”
It’s not a new idea per se, online financial planning. But using SmartAsset for five minutes shows just how dated our current generation of tools has become. You enter basic information like income and savings, and SmartAsset generates customized, graphic-laden pages chock-full of information. And it has an answer for you: First and foremost, what they show you is what you can afford.
Clear graphs and large typography spell out otherwise esoteric financial projections. They’re like customized infographics, softening the blow of hard numbers and astronomical figures. Then sliders make changing SmartAsset’s recommendation easy. What if you had more for a downpayment? What if you wanted to buy a more expensive home? Just drag the mouse, and you can see what else is possible.
It’s in this tweaking--this financial fudging that we’re all prone to do--that SmartAsset’s engine reveals its muscle under the hood. You see, SmartAsset is showing you one possible outcome at all times, but its backend has already crunched a huge spreadsheet of various financial outcomes, digging through census information, tax codes, and mortgage rates with every possible variable you could enter.
So if you, say, want to increase the price of your recommended home, SmartAsset already knows how that will play out in its database. For the user, the mortgage figure itself will start at green, then become yellow as it goes higher and then even red if it goes dangerously high. Why is SmartAsset getting nervous? They tell you exactly why in a sidebar, generally spelling out logic far more specific than “we don’t think you can afford it.” And then a larger paragraph, filled with customized values unique to your buy, will explain even more below. Needless to say, I’ll take a red font and few-sentence explanation over a 30-columned spreadsheet any day, but this balance of simplification without dumbing down has been very difficult for the company to strike.
“The tendency is to try to show as much as you can, because we’ve built this thing that can power so much data--and you always want to share everything that you can,” Carvin says. “It’s been an iterative process to help us boil back to the barebones.”
For SmartAsset, that iteration has been a lot of user testing. Roughly a thousand people have been using the product before today’s release, giving feedback while the company attenuates their monstrous backend data for mental chewability. The result is a set of pages that, admittedly, have a veneer of engineer-influenced dullness rather than a high gloss designer sheen. SmartAsset isn’t quite as beautiful as Mint.com just yet, but with some of Mint’s early employees acting as advisors, it won’t be hard for SmartAsset to change some kerning once they pin down exactly what we need to know when signing a mortgage.
If you’re interested in trying SmartAsset, you can take it for a spin here--their rent vs. buy calculator is a particularly impressive example of their tech firing on all cylinders. We were assured that they will neither share nor sell user data. Instead, they intend to profit by linking users to low-rate mortgages.
[Image: Viktor Gladkov/Shutterstock]