Robots and the real estate industry

Private Property South Africa
Kerry Dimmer

“Good morning, my name is Sharon. I’ll be showing you this spectacular house today,” says the agent. “If you’d like to follow me, I think we’ll start with the kitchen.”

What Sharon knows as they step into the foyer is that the couple who are viewing the house, has a love of food and cooking, so the kitchen is for them, the most important room in the house. Sharon also knows that they have two children, aged 5 and 9. She knows what coffee brand the family prefers, their daily schedule down to the last minute, their suburb requirements, income, medical needs, favourite tv programmes, even the toppings they prefer on their pizza’s. Sharon knows everything … because Sharon is a robot.

As the world embraces automation, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is entirely possible that estate agents in the future will be robotic. It may be that in the world of technology everything possible is being done to ensure the human element prevails in all aspects of life, yet we are also striving for perfection; a mistake-free world that gives us exactly what we want, as quickly as possible.

Last year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) presented a brief claiming that automated advances will challenge 14 percent of human roles in its member countries, and the jobs that are most at risk are those that have low skill requirements. That is not to suggest that estate agents are under threat, rather such takeovers will impact on those jobs that require no cognitive thinking, emotional or social intelligence, which we know are imperative traits for those in the business of selling properties.

What is likely to impact on estate agents however, and positively so, is the introduction of AI personal assistants. Rita is one such. Developed by AIRE in Australia, Rita is a virtual employee in the guise of an AI-powered platform that analyses data and applies AI techniques using algorithms to generate opportunities. Rita, among other things, can make recommendations related to who estate agents should be talking to, be that potential buyers or sellers, by analyzing, among other things, the prospecting potential of individuals in the database.

Virtual employees have the potential to completely transform an agent’s effectiveness, not only by generating leads, but also by coordinating and managing communications and appointments, sending reminders, even managing rental inspections.

If you think the Sharon scenario is decades away, consider that Zenplace, a rental management company in San Francisco that was named one of the ‘Top Disruptors in Real Estate’ in 2017, already uses robots as tour guides in rental properties.

The Zenplace ‘robots’ are movable video monitors featuring the ‘real’ and live face of the rental agent, who guides a prospective tenant through the home. Real-time data about the suburb and its local amenities, and trends such as pricing is presented along with a lease application should the potential renter wish to apply immediately.

Lease agreements are one of those backroom tasks which can be somewhat time-consuming, as is the case with other administrative duties like bookkeeping, property appraisals and budget analysis, that, because of the human element, increases the potential of error. The cognitive ability of robotics has the ability to eliminate such associated inefficiencies and can easily accomplish mundane background tasks in a fraction of the time, likely with big cost savings.

The industry is in effect already adopting technologies that are transformational if only with the use of video. Virtual property tours have proven a huge convenience for prospective buyers who are unable to visit a site or just don’t have the time. Elevating the use of video in the industry is the Sanborn Platform, which introduces mapping technology, known as SPIN, a semi-autonomous robot that through the use of laser scanning creates detailed three dimensional interior and exterior maps.

For those focused on smart properties, Max, from AtSite based in Washington, collects readings related to the environment, such as CO2 levels, humidity, temperature, light, and sound. Max was introduced five years ago and although piloted by people, it works in tandem with AtSite’s cloud platform, tapping into technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT).

Estate agents are being impacting by robotics in California, where brokerage firm REX is placing a robot in seller’s homes to collect data from potential buyers. It only charges a 2% commission versus the 5-6% that agents in the region usually charge sellers.

For now, at least, the South African property environment doesn’t appear to be as progressive as American, Australian and Euro markets. What we can be assured of however, is that the sector, as with all industries, must and will embrace AI if it is to remain relevant and on par with how the future world will perform. We can take some relief in that although technology replaces jobs, it also has the ability to create new ones.

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