It's no longer a question of whether but rather when the real estate industry will be disrupted.
Our way of selling and buying houses remains a pain point
California-based investment advisor Ross Gerber summed up what lots of us think when he said, "The real estate industry desperately needs ... a transparent, predictable and liquid market that not only captures supply and demand dynamics but allows for expeditious, low-cost and hassle-free transactions. Such a market would increase activity, lower broker fees and make it easier for homeowners to unload properties.
A 2013 study by Oxford University estimated AI has a 98 per cent chance of replacing estate agents.
In the US alone, by late 2016 US$1.8 billion had been invested in real estate tech start-ups, and it hasn't slowed up since.
That said, not everyone is convinced human sales agents are on the way out.
Some analysts argue that most people don't buy or sell a house very often, so even though it doesn't seem that hard, when push comes to shove we aren't that confident of selling or buying our own houses on good terms when the stakes are so high.
It's an emotional experience too, sometimes wrenching, and it's comforting to have someone guiding us through the process. It can be a bit scary, with lots of legal documents, and this is getting worse with high-profile failures like leaky buildings, and the increased complexities of apartment living with bodies corporate and the like.
For most people, it's by far the biggest financial transaction they'll make in their lives.
Put all this together, the argument goes, and it comes down to trust.
We want to be able to look a human in the eye and judge whether we trust them to help us make such a big decision.
One way that technology could potentially be used to develop this trust is by letting customers rate agents via an online service (think Uber). This is already being done UK firms such as Purplebricks, but blogger Andrew Duncan thinks it could go even further, with the ratings aggregated across all available services and platforms to give customers a clear glimpse at whether or not to trust an agent.
It all sounds a little Black Mirror, but an industry trading on trust needs a way to show that it can be trusted.
Even if human real estate agents do hang around, the way they do their jobs isn't likely to stay the same.
One thing technology does very well is streamline processes and thereby improve customer experience.
Online listings have already made it easier for customers to find their dream homes, and there is now also a growing movement focused on making it as easy as possible for customers to sign a deal.
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In Singapore , start-up Averspace stores digital contracts on the blockchain, so sellers and buyers can deal directly, with no need to sign a physical contract i.e. they cut out the lawyers. The government has introduced an Industry Transformation Map focused on using automation, digital contracts, and predictive systems to streamline property transactions.
Ikea takes the AI in a different direction, letting agents superimpose images of their furniture onto actual sites allowing potential purchasers to visualise what might become their future home.
More "out there" are lots of blockchain start-ups which are starting to blur the very concept of ownership vs mortgages vs investment property. SmartRe allows homeowners to tokenise their home equity and trade it in a worldwide market. Atlant is a decentralised Ethereum-based platform that provides for transparent and liquid trading of residential real estate i.e. also tokenising ownership. There aren't any real estate agents involved in those transactions.
Let the avatar show your around
While it looks like agents may be redundant for some sales, a lot of the disruption is not about eliminating agents at all.
Like with travel agents, or even lawyers, technology is taking away the mundane tasks and allowing agents to focus on adding value.
Digital platforms with no offices do raise an important question though: agents still need to be trained and kept up-to-date with legislation and best practice and so on. A focus on the customer requires collegiality within an agency. A recent new entrant has taken this challenge head-on.
Singularityhub recently featured an exponentially-growing online real estate agency called eXp Realty that is threatening to dominate the North American market.
It started after the GFC, but has really taken off since October 2017 and is now a US billion dollar business. Since then its stock price has jumped 300 per cent, and its brokers have increased from 6,500 to over 12,000 in seven months across 300 markets in the US and Canada. This is unprecedented growth, especially given it's not a franchise operation.
eXp helps people buy and sell homes just like any traditional brokerage, but it's almost entirely online. It's not just a digital view/buy/sell platform though, this is next level because the thousands of employees and agents on-board, train and meet inside a virtual reality campus.
Download the software, and your real estate agent avatar enters a virtual reception and starts engaging with others in the digital realm.
You can use VR headsets, but apparently even in 2D the experience is "like a far more immersive phone conversation. It felt like I was physically there". So far, about 75 per cent of employees use the campus every month. That's a lot of travel and carbon saved.
Kevin Jenkins is managing director of professional services firm MartinJenkins, and a Director of digital automation firm Quanton among other roles. (Kevin.Jenkins@martinjenkins.co.nz)