- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

Throughout landmark-rich Washington are hundreds of office buildings that never will make the National Register of Historic Places but still must have their pictures taken.

Lisa Ruggles is happy to oblige.

Ms. Ruggles, 37, is a field researcher for CoStar Group Inc., a Bethesda-based company that maintains a massive database of commercial real estate information. Her job is to help make sure the database is up to date by collecting the most recent information on locations, tenants and vacancies, and, of course, taking a good photo.

The database is a vital tool for real estate executives, brokers and landlords, who require the most current information when seeking office space or looking to sell or buy a building.

On one recent workday, Ms. Ruggles was on her way to Fairfax County to search for several buildings listed in CoStar’s database that lacked photographs. On the side of her company-owned Chevrolet Suburban is CoStar’s logo with the words “field research.”

The Suburban is stacked with tools. A Dell Latitude laptop with a Pentium 4 processor is mounted conveniently to the right of the driver’s seat. The computer is loaded with sophisticated mapping software, including a program created by CoStar called Rover.

This particular truck also is equipped with a wireless network that allows Ms. Ruggles to access the Internet and get specific directions to buildings using the Global Positioning System.

“This new technology is fun,” Ms. Ruggles says. “It’s always keeping you thinking about what is possible.”

The GPS technology also helps keep Ms. Ruggles and the other CoStar field researchers productive. Managers in the company’s home office can track the vehicles’ every turn, and can tell when they have gone off course or stopped for an unusually long period.

Ms. Ruggles works only as far south as Manassas and as far north as Laurel. More than 50 field researchers work in major cities across the country, and one in London.

CoStar has never been afraid to experiment with technology. The company has upgraded its database system so that it is available to customers via the Web, and has purchased a two-wheeled Segway transporter to determine whether it could save researchers time in dense urban areas.

Ms. Ruggles will stick with the large truck for now. Using a few back roads and shortcuts, she finds her way to McLean in 15 minutes, and begins searching for buildings along Old Dominion Drive. After accidentally passing the address, she makes a U-turn and finds a small cluster of office space and retail shops. The buildings are listed on the CoStar database, but no photographs are included. A new sign indicates the buildings may have space for lease. She makes a note of this, promising to tell researchers back in the home office to double-check leasing information with the property’s landlord.

Ms. Ruggles parks the car along the curb (flashing lights atop the car alert other motorists) and gets out with a digital Nikon camera in hand. She takes several photographs, including one with a card in front outlining the location, date and time. After the photos are saved, she will take them home and use Photoshop to erase any obtrusive objects and remove any distortion.

The photography work is Ms. Ruggles’ specialty; she came to CoStar after taking pictures for a resort in South Carolina, and graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design.

During the winter, Ms. Ruggles often must deal with sloppy weather that makes photography difficult or cold temperatures that can be unpleasant. On this day, though, it’s sunny and mild, allowing Ms, Ruggles to work outside in a short-sleeve polo shirt.

“It’s a great position to have because you’re outside all day,” she says.

“It’s nice because it’s a position where you can be independent.”

After taking photos on Old Dominion Drive, Ms. Ruggles makes her way through Tyson’s Corner to International Drive, looking for buildings on a square grid outlined on her laptop.

As she drives, pictures of nearby properties appear on the screen, as the GPS system is in sync with her location.

Ms. Ruggles finds two large, shiny office buildings that lack photos, and notes that one of the buildings has nine stories instead of eight, as is listed in the database.

One of the buildings has space for lease advertised, but Ms. Ruggles said that may be a ploy by the landlord to generate calls and potential interest in his other properties.

It’s one of many things she has learned in her four years on the job.

Ms. Ruggles marvels at the amount of development that has taken place, even in Northern Virginia, where the number of tenants in need of office space has declined after the collapse of the technology sector.

“It’s amazing to me how many things are still built, regardless of vacancy rates,” she says. “There’s been pretty much nonstop building where there used to be farmland.”

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