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Op/Ed

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in real estate: Negating or monetizing an agent’s experience?

There is a growing interest and concern regarding the role of artificial intelligence in real estate, but most arguments miss the core of what makes an agent appealing.

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Have you ever emailed or texted someone, and subsequently opened Facebook on your phone to immediately see that person in your news feed?

You read the entire terms of service when you downloaded that app, right? So you remember agreeing to every bit of your phone’s hardware and software recording and interpreting the signals that your everyday actions are creating (just nod your head yes—it’s watching you right now).

Artificial Intelligence is seeing tremendous growth in consumer-driven industries. It is the ability for software to learn and adapt to consumer behavior via live feedback. Cars, websites, wearables, and apps are becoming more intelligent and adaptable.

We’re seeing huge advances in the affordability of AI software that match the exponential growth of hardware’s computing power.

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Simultaneously, human labor in developed countries is increasing in cost. Minimum wage laws, increasing liability, and rising health care costs are pushing employers to replace labor with technology. McDonald’s employees become kiosks that order Big Macs. Chase Bank tellers are replaced by apps that scan and deposit checks. Companies like Circuit City and Borders Books shutter their stores as websites more efficiently serve their customers.

How AI intersects with RE

Intelligent software has massive potential for creating technology that changes labor markets. Real estate labor is a natural target, and a couple of recent pieces got the ball rolling this past week. Russ Cofano penned a broker outlook that viewed “cognitive computing” not as a threat to labor, but an asset to the baseline of real estate’s agent intelligence:

“So here’s the question. What if cognitive computing enables agents to be better professionals and make better recommendations to their clients? What if access to cognitive computing power, and the data necessary to power it, becomes the 21st century equivalent of the MLS utility?”

Further, Cofano states, “Cognitive computing has the potential to add massive value to the real estate brokerage value proposition and do for agent professionalism what no other initiative could touch.”

While the piece focused on the superior delivery mechanism (Upstream vs. the MLS), it provided support to the idea that brokers could adopt intelligent data systems to improve agent capabilities industry-wide.

Not surprisingly, a different take came from Rob Hahn, focused on the costs of repetitive labor and the likely evolution:

“The $6 billion question is where real estate brokerage services fit in the spectrum of services if we put McDonald’s order-taker on the one extreme and the Chief Engineer of Nuclear Fusion Reactors on the other extreme in terms of specialized skill and knowledge.

I think most of my readers know the answer. Real estate is far, far closer to McDonald’s than it is to McDonnell-Douglas.

…rote procedures and manual inputs are being displaced by technology. Why would it be any different for the rote procedures and manual inputs in the real estate business?

Answer: it won’t.

Those real estate agents who survive will have to be ‘upskilled’ and focus on niche areas or ‘be equipped to handle smart systems.'”

Comparing two views on AI

So we have two very different views of software intelligence’s effect on real estate agents. In one, brokers might adopt cognitive computing measures to improve agents’ core capabilities to serve consumers. They improve and survive as a unified group of forward-thinking adopters.

In another, AI wipes away the entire foundation of repetitive services performed in real estate. This debases the masses of agents and eliminates the need for their services. It leaves only the specialized practitioners above water when it’s done.

It would be remiss of me to gloss over the McDonald’s analogy. The skills that allow agents to survive in their occupation can’t be crammed into a single linear comparison. It seems prudent to point out that the comparison of rocket scientists, real estate agents, and Egg McMuffin order takers should be complex.

In recent real estate history, replacing a repetitive procedure in the sales process with software has simply changed the sales process. It hasn’t removed the sales person. There are graveyards full of real estate labor would-be disruptors who have a poignant understanding of that history.

artificial-intelligence-REAL-ESTATE

The intrinsic skills that keep real estate agents strongly entrenched in the industry seem to center on two things:

  • Personalized intelligence (unique local knowledge, negotiation, transactional experience)
  • Personal relationships (emotional IQ and sphere building)

The latter is almost invariably ignored in real estate labor disruption conversations, yet it’s probably the single greatest barrier to disruption. People list with people. Sellers’ top three requirements for a listing agent are reputation, honesty, and trustworthiness.

AI is the intrusive stalker in your phone. Thelma is the amazing woman who comes to book club and walks with you on weekends. H.A.L. 2000 can’t touch her in terms of trust. This should be the overriding theme of every disruption conversation.

On to bottling knowledge

In the future, personalized intelligence might be a different story. If part of the value of exceptional agents comes from what they know from experience, the way they negotiate, and how they interact with clients, how much of that could be learned by an exceptional AI platform?

Could exceptional agents allow themselves to be profiled by their devices and capture that intelligence to monetize it? Would brokers be able to conglomerate the practices and intelligence of their best agents to provide a unique set of processes for their agents and answers for their clients that aren’t available to the general public?

It might not be as crazy as it sounds. Think about the vast amount of information that could be gleaned from one agent over a single year with all of his/her devices in “AI learn mode.” Spoken word, tone, movement, visual cues, timing, location data, digital communication, social engagement, contract negotiation—all of these and more could be processed into a database describing when, where, and how top agents interact with their environments to close more sales transactions.

Who owns the AI?

While the aforementioned could be done on an industry-wide basis to inform brokers as a whole, it might also be led by savvy top producing agents or brokers who would profit from it as a differentiator. Melded with predictive analytics on consumer behavior and market statistics, the right set of personalized intelligence could tell an agent when and where to meet a consumer, and how to begin interacting with that person to provide a greater likelihood of a client and a sale.

Of course, until personality can be direct-ported into the agent’s brain, we still need a human with emotional IQ to show up and close the deal. The creation of a relationship might be initiated by data, but it’s going to be sealed with emotion.

ThelmaRealtor software version 2.5 could be an AI profile that’s sold to brokers or new agents as a foundational of intelligence for their careers. Whether these benefits and profits go to the real Thelma, her brokerage, or the industry depends on who adopts the technology first.

Back to the people

If that’s all a bit too much sci-fi, let’s get back to the basics. There are huge opportunities for the brokerage community to leverage greater technology and AI to improve how they do business. Those that do will have valuable differentiating tools and skills.

Still, Thelma v. 2.5 isn’t going to wipe out the physical agents on the ground. Technologists with armies of software agents will continue to stare at screens, while real life agents are cementing unbreakable relationships with real people. Consumers will work with agents they view as trustworthy, no matter what amazing intelligence is dangled in front of them by H.A.L. 2000 Realty.

It’s true that consumers want more intelligent real estate transactions. Before that, though, they want trust. AI has great prospects for helping brokers and agents improve their business intelligence, but it’s not going to take the human element out of the transaction any time soon. The real Thelma’s role may change, but she still owns the most valuable, subjective, and defensible portion of the real estate transaction: the relationship.

#AIinRE

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Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King Country REALTORS®. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and BellevueHomes.com.

Op/Ed

Why you should lose the sweat pants if you work from home

(EDITORIAL) While it’s tempting to cozy up and work in your most comfortable sweatpants or yoga pants, there are a number of reasons that dressing up to go to work can help increase work from home productivity.

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There are many often discussed benefits to working from home. If you’re not spending time on a daily commute, that means you have more time to work on personal projects and share with your family and friends. Plus it saves you gas and/or fare money.

While it’s tempting to cozy up and work in your most comfortable sweatpants or yoga pants, there are a number of reasons that dressing up to go to work can help increase work from home productivity — even if you’re just commuting to your couch!

You should wear pants (yes, everyday).

When you look your best, you feel your best, and arguably work your best.

It’s pretty hard to resist the temptation of vegging out a bit if you’ve rolled out of bed and headed to your desk while still wearing pajamas. If you have no plan to get dressed for the day, the temptation to hit the snooze button until the moment you need to be present and accounted for will really work against you.

Your computer will say work, but your favorite oversized t-shirt says go back to bed.

When you’re working from home, planning to get up early and prepare for your day allows you to create a transitional space that will help distinguish your home life from your work life. Dressing for success, even if you don’t see anyone during your office hours, will drive your sense of purpose and help you carve out a more productive space. It will also signify to any family members or roommates that you’ve entered the workspace and shouldn’t be bothered.

If you work from a restaurant, coffee shop, or workspaces, it can make you more approachable.

If you’re not dressed for the part, those around you may assume that you’re spending your time recreationally. Even if you are constantly answering your phone, drafting emails, or working on a project. It’s deceptively easy to look like you’re simply browsing the internet or socializing in casual attire.

There are plenty of opportunities to network and meet new people, even when you work from home. You never know who you may end up connecting with, and dressing appropriately to your profession can send the message that you’re an expert and take what you do seriously.

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Op/Ed

Why the hell don’t real estate search sites have a “roulette” option yet!?

(EDITORIAL) House hunters start searching a year in advance, and a roulette search option would keep them engaged during the early phases of their search, so why isn’t it a common feature!?

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real estate roulette

It’s no secret that our attention spans have gotten shorter in the last few decades, and some forms of marketing are still scrambling to keep up—one of them being real estate. While looking through photo after photo of specific homes provides the necessary level of focus for devoted home-hunters, having the option to randomize your search on a photo-to-photo basis might prove more interesting for casual lurkers.

Theoretically, having a “roulette” or “randomize” option could lead to some interesting finds: you could plug in your ZIP code, click a button, and start viewing specific shots from homes in your area. You might even expand your search to contain houses from the whole country or look at entire property pages in a random order; either way, by taking the specific search parameters out of the equation, users would have significantly fewer limitations on the content they see.

Once a potential customer found an interesting property, they could open the property’s full page and view its listing info. Sites could even implement a “swipe” feature so that users could add their favorite properties to a list for concentrated viewing later, making the roulette feature akin to house-themed speed dating.

Think of it as Tinder for houses.

What is so appealing about this notion is that it would give everyone from casual real estate enthusiasts to third-time homeowners the chance to step outside of the structures imposed by their search preferences (and browser cookies) in order to view properties at which they might never look in any other context. It can be liberating to have choice specificity removed from the equation, and the real estate market is no exception.

There’s a simple reason that sites like Chat Roulette and apps like Tinder are so popular: they capitalize on our newfound need to be exposed to new information whenever we feel like a change. Real estate sites – especially those with large amounts of traffic – could see a huge upswing in both on-site traffic and conversions by fulfilling this need. Given that most home buyers start casually searching up to a year in advance, this could be a pretty interesting conversion tool in that process.

It has been tried before (and failed) at smaller startups, but house roulette still isn’t a feature on sites like Realtor.com, Zillow, or Trulia as of now, but they should be, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for more dynamic, fast-paced solutions in the future.

This editorial was first published in May 2018.

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Op/Ed

Your MLS system is ugly and boring – how you can impact change

Many in the real estate industry complain about their MLS, but why is that the case and what can be done about it?

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meh

When I perform surveys of real estate brokers and agents, I see the following two complaints about MLS systems all the time: “Why doesn’t the MLS have [this cool feature]?” and “Why can’t the MLS system be easier to use?”

The first question – “Why isn’t the MLS system isn’t as full featured as some would like?” – comes down to two things: money and politics.

Let’s talk about money

Some people might think that MLS software providers are making a huge amount of money, and that the providers can put more resources into adding software features. That’s just not the case. The money isn’t there. Think about it: MLS vendors have had to put resources into making their systems work cross-browser and on an expanding number of tablets and phones.

They have added increasingly more sophisticated prospecting and client collaboration features, numerous local information and mapping layers, and so much more over the past decade. All this while, the wholesale cost for MLS systems has not increased, and in many cases has trended lower due to fierce competition for strategic accounts.

The political push and pull

As for the politics, there is a constant push and pull over the future of MLS systems. For every professional that wants the MLS system to evolve and improve, there is one that doesn’t want the system to change. I often hear, “What we have now works fine.”

If MLS staff and software providers only listened to those latter voices, we’d still be using “the MLS book” instead of electronic tools. But even when an MLS is selecting a brand new system and options are being compared, committee members will often say something like, “We should choose this system because it is the most like our current one and so will be easier to learn.” What that means is that the most innovative system is penalized for being different!

Sometimes subscribers who sit on an MLS board of directors or committee don’t want the MLS to improve its functionality. Quite often, an MLS system will be deployed with some features disabled. During a recent demonstration of system features by an MLS vendor, visitors from the neighboring MLS (which used that vendor) commented, “Is this the same system as what we have?”

Even when the features are enabled, sometimes professionals don’t know what they have.

I see this in surveys all the time – an agent will ask, “Why doesn’t the system do this?” where this is a feature the system already has.

Why is the MLS so difficult to use?

Looking at the second question — “Why can’t the MLS system be easier to use?” — the answer is a lot simpler: the more features a system has and the more ways there are to customize it, the harder the system will be to use.

Since the MLS is a business system with significant complexity, and since subscribers often want it to be customizable to fit their business needs, preferences, branding, and so forth, ease of use can suffer.

For example, it’s easier to enter a listing when there are few required fields, but the fewer required fields there are, the more agents will complain about data inaccuracy and missing data. Likewise, an MLS-generated report with fewer fields on it is easier to read and more attractive.

However, without all the fields accessible, the agent can’t fine-tune the search on behalf of his or her client and must call the listing agent for the information—which is, in actuality, more difficult.

Also, it’s easier to click once to download a pre-built statistical report. Despite this, in order to make the reports more useful to many users, the reports need to be customizable based on the part of the market the user specializes in (i.e., by area, price range, and property type), and need to be styled so the chart can be downloaded and embedded in a newsletter. That means more complexity and a system that is more difficult to use.

MLS software providers try to make good choices when designing the MLS system, balancing out the need for robust features and customization with the desire for an easy-to-use system, but it’s impossible to please everybody.

What you can do about all of this

What this all comes down to is that, if you as a subscriber want to shape how full-featured and easy-to-use tomorrow’s MLS system is going to be, there’s a way for you to do it. Get involved with your local MLS leadership, including with the system evaluation, selection, and implementation processes.

I work with many local MLSs to make sure their leadership is aware of innovation going on in the MLS technology space so they can be smarter shoppers when looking at MLS software providers. When it comes to ease of use, while there sometimes are usability gaffes on the part of the software provider, it is more often the case that system complexity simply reflects the complex needs of active real estate professionals.

Expecting a professional-grade MLS system to be as clean and easy-looking as a consumer-grade real estate search site like Zillow or Trulia is simply unrealistic. Now that you know why your MLS system is so “Meh,” you don’t have to sit back and complain about it. Get involved in your local MLS organization and help take charge of your future!

This editorial was first published here in May of 2014.

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