Over the last two decades, a wave of internet-driven technological advances has steadily disrupted industry after industry. Media, retail, and entertainment especially have seen the potential of technological innovation. Now, new ideas are pushing real estate, an industry that has until now largely escaped heavy tech integration, into new territory.
The most obvious step in optimizing the way the real estate industry works is to simply reduce the transaction costs. Like any entrenched industry, replete with unwritten rules and handshake deals, real estate has a lot of fat that could be trimmed.
Commission fees, closing costs, moving, and other expenses make real estate a costly endeavor. Low commission options for sellers are emerging that shatter the traditional 3% listing fee, offering similar services at a discount rate. Many services will negotiate on behalf of the seller for a small fee, or for a percentage of the commission. These services have emerged from the internet, investing in search engine marketing and social media to attract potential home buyers and sellers.
But that’s just the tip of the innovation iceberg. Discount brokerages operate more or less like a traditional brokerage, except they charge lower fees and commission. But there are other applications of technology that are starting to change the fundamental operation of the industry.
The proliferation of fast-moving, cash-in-hand iBuyers have driven up turnover and uncovered a whole new market of potential sellers. Services like Zillow’s iBuyer program will buy property for cash and flip it for profit, while developing their mortgage programs.
Crowdfunded real estate investing is one of the most promising innovations. Where discount brokerages reduced transaction costs, crowdfunding is improving accessibility. Let’s say an individual has $1,000 they want to invest. In the past, there were very few options, if any, that would help this person put that money into real estate.
But with crowdfunding, companies like Fundrise and Realtyshares are enabling small individual investors buy into multimillion-dollar projects. In the past, these big ticket projects would have been funded by big, institutional investors, but now an apartment building in Manhattan, for example, could be funded by hundreds or thousands of small individual investors, each contributing their own small sum and receiving a proportional stake in the project.
Of course, there are downsides to this system. Being accountable to a few large investors is already stressful for developers; to be accountable to thousands of smaller, but just as demanding ones can be a nightmare. And using crowdfunding to fund real estate developments is still a new phenomena; it only received the regulatory green light in 2016, so there isn’t a lot of data yet showing how effective or profitable it is. There’s certainly risk here, on both sides of the equation.
Still, crowdfunding eliminates one of the main barriers standing between individual investors and the real estate market which, when all is said and done, is still the most powerful wealth generator in the world. After all, 9 out of 10 millionaires made their fortunes in real estate. And let’s not forget that it opens up a new and potentially unlimited source of money for developers. In the future, getting the funds to build an eight-figure high rise could be as simple as setting up the equivalent to a Gofundme page.
Blockchain takes this innovation of accessibility and increases it exponentially. In fact, blockchain has such potential to fundamentally change the way we do business that some experts are saying it’s one of the five transformative human inventions, along with the printing press, electricity, the radio, and the internet. So what is it? Explaining that would take an entire article by itself, but what really matters is what it does. Blockchain enables users to “tokenize” investments, making them instantly liquid, anonymous, and borderless. Let that sink in: soon, an investor’s stake in, say, an office building will be able to be traded instantly, untraceably, and without the use of any intermediaries like banks, governments, or stock exchanges. The implications for not only the real estate industry but the entire financial system are staggering.
Some forward-thinking institutions are already getting in on the blockchain wave. The world-class St. Regis Aspen Resort in Aspen, Colorado took in $18 million late last year by selling off just under 20% of the hotel as digital tokens. According to ownership, the resort is now among the first trophy real estate assets to be tokenized in this way. And it almost certainly won’t be the last.
Disruption can sound scary, but it ends up vitalizing as often as it destroys. Overall, technological advances are making real estate investment cheaper, more accessible, and more efficient; unlike so many industries which had their business models broken or destroyed by the internet, the real estate industry is set up to flourish.
Ben Mizes is the CEO of Clever Real Estate, an online platform that connects home buyers and sellers with a top-rated, full-service agent at a discount rate. A serial entrepreneur, Ben ran several successful startups before Clever. Ben’s writing has been featured in Yahoo Finance, Realtor News, CNBC, and BiggerPockets.
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