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Op/Ed

Algorithm predicts uncertain future for real estate professionals, now what?

A new study predicts that real estate professionals are at risk of being replaced by machines, but is that possible, and if so, how can the industry circumvent this?

uncertainty ahead

Is it War of the Worlds all over again? I’m probably dating myself when I tell you that on the night before Halloween in 1938, millions of radio listeners were shocked when radio news alerts announced the arrival of space aliens. At that time, listeners panicked when they learned of the Martians’ attack on Earth. Many listeners ran out of their homes screaming, and others were said to have packed up and fled.

What radio listeners actually heard on this day was a portion of Orson Welles’ adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. And despite the fact that this was fiction, many listeners believed what they heard was real.

The concept of machines replacing up to 50 percent of the U.S. workforce may incite a level of panic not much different from that which occurred on Halloween day in 1938. Unlike the publicity stunt however, the mechanization of America may, in fact, be true.

Will Machines Take Over the Work Force?

Just last month, Bloomberg reported that 50 percent of the U.S. workforce would be at risk of being replaced by machines. In a study entitled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?”, Frey and Osborne shared what happened when they created an algorithm that analyzed the types of jobs subject to automation and predicted the probabilities of future automation for 702 different occupations.

The results were particularly favorable for those working as recreational therapists, since this field was the least likely to be automated with the probability of automation listed at 1/20 of 1 percent. If you believe that an algorithm can predict your future, this study does not bode well for telemarketers (automation probability of 99 percent). Loan officers came in at 98 percent and real estate professionals came in at 86 percent.

Will a Machine Replace the Real Estate Agent?

It’s true that a lot of what real estate professionals do every day can be automated or perhaps handled via computer by the consumer without need for an intermediary. That’s probably what resulted in the Frey and Osborne automation probability of 86 percent.

In 2013, Seth Godin wrote about this very issue. Godin stated, “If your project or organization depends on knowing things that other people don’t know (but could find out if they wanted to), your days are probably numbered. Ask a travel agent.” What Godin is referring to is the fact that years ago, we phoned a travel agent to make flight and hotel reservations. Now we can search locations, and make our own reservations online.

Not unlike the travel agent, real estate professionals have previously provided information that the consumer didn’t have: information about properties available for sale. Now, of course, much of that information is available online free of charge.

So, what can be done to avoid the potentially numbered days of the real estate professional? The solution “is obvious,” Godin says, “provide…non-commodity service and customization.”

How to Provide Non-Commodity Service and Customization

Real estate professionals must think long and hard about how they provide a unique value in the marketplace, and they must market that value to their current and future clients in order to assure that the machine does not wipe them out. And it’s a good idea to start on that now before “the war of the worlds” becomes a reality.

Here are four ways that a real estate professional can provide value in the current and future marketplace.

  1. Process navigation. Individuals who only buy and sell a few homes in their lifetime will need assistance in navigating an extremely challenging process. Real estate professionals know what to expect, how to avoid legal issues, and how to make the process of selling what is possibly the most valuable item in an individual’s portfolio as easy as humanly possible. Consumers may believe that they understand the process. But, will they know how to respond correctly when the seller takes the bathroom fixtures or if there is a rat infestation prior to closing?
  2. Paperwork preparation. Depending upon the state in which you reside, the paperwork required for state compliance can be upwards of fifty different documents or contract addenda. While a computer program may be able to spit out a list of documents, will that list be correct in each situation? Will the consumer know how to complete them? Will the consumer understand the legal ramifications of each document?
  3. Transactional Nuances. Lots of real estate transactions have very subtle nuances—little issues that are hanging out on the sidelines that need to be resolved prior to closing. These may include clouds on the title, financing limitations, encroachment or boundary issues, and zoning and permit issues. Only an experienced real estate professional would be attuned to these nuances in a way that can get the deal to the closing table the very first time. No computer can do that.
  4. Personalized Customer Service. While the Internet is great for getting the word out about a property or getting a document signed at record speed, there is no replacement for face-to-face communication. Personal consultations, as opposed to quick text messages, provide clients with the detailed information that they need in order to understand the scope of the real estate process. Additionally, busy real estate professionals have long lists of homebuyers who may be looking for a home that meets specific criteria. Agents can leverage personal connections to put a strong, solid deal together in no time flat.

What’s Next for the Field of Real Estate?

When asked about whether the future of the real estate professional will be mechanized anytime soon, Michael McClure, COO of T3Experts, stated, “I do think there will be a more-rapid-than-most-expect concentration of power in which those who leverage technology and other large societal trends most effectively will gain real competitive advantage and differentiation.” McClure also asserts is that it does not necessarily matter whether the information provided is accurate; those professionals who leverage technologies will have the upper hand.

Consumers will become increasingly reliant on the Internet as a research tool before selecting an agent to use in their next real estate transaction. McClure points out that previously “lots of agents have been able to hide behind the ‘ambiguity of information.’ That is, sometimes people don’t ask a lot of questions because they are simply not comfortable asking them.” McClure goes on to say, “I believe that’s a reason why the agent that does one or two deals a year can do one or two deals a year: because people often don’t dig very deep in researching agents.”

What McClure recommends is that agents “leverage things like advanced search technologies and the next generations of review sites.” It will be more important than ever, McClure states, “to actively manage your online reputation.”

How to Ensure That You Are Not Replaced by a Machine

There are actually some things that real estate professionals can do right now to attempt to protect themselves from the mechanization of their profession.

First and foremost, put a process in place to manage your online reputation. Set up Google Alerts for your name and the name of your company, if applicable.

Next, develop strategies to increase your online reviews. Utilizing the large syndication sites, Google, and Yelp, continue to build your online reviews. You can even install WP Customer Reviews, a plug-in for WordPress.

One final—and perhaps obvious—suggestion would be to continue to develop professionally. You need to be constantly reassessing your business model to be sure that what you are offering the public is “non-commodity service and customization” and not just Swiss cheese. (The profession of cheese sales, by the way, has an automation probability of 96 percent.)

Melissa is an in-demand business success speaker and author, as well as a real estate broker with thousands of short sale transactions under her belt. She leverages her experience as a short sale insider to motivate thousands of business professionals to plan their careers better, execute more effectively on their plan, and earn more because of it.

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