Supporting the adoption of technology does not mean we have to stop protecting the core values of the property industry. In America, agents are in uproar, so why are we all being so quiet?
I am guilty of it myself. I spend too much time evangelising the potential of technology and trying to be rational about reported threats to our industry, and it’s easy to overlook the protection of our values.
The rate at which technology is arriving in the property sphere is, I have no doubt, a wonderful thing. And yes, it’s vital that we are all keeping ourselves up to date with whatever is being offered. But it would be naive to think that everything that is happening is good news, and I for one can think of a few aspects of PropTech that don’t make me entirely comfortable.
But putting personal concerns aside, there’s a story that has recently broken in the US which has the potential to impact the UK market. Strangely, nobody here seems too worried.
Instant offers and American fury
Zillow have announced that they are to start providing instant offers in what is being read as an attempt to capture more and more sale leads, often regarded as more valuable than search leads.
This is something that Zoopla or Rightmove could very easily introduce, radically disrupting the current methods of lead generation. However, instant offers are not the entire focus of this important issue.
What’s more prevalent is the fact that Zillow has suggested that this may be just one of a line of new services that it intends to provide, services which would normally be provided by a broker or agent.
The backlash from US agents has been ferocious. Agents across the country petitioned the National Association of Realtors (NAR), to ‘come out swinging’ against Zillow’s instant offers.
The NAR then published a report disparaging the use of Zillow’s new service. Twitter has also been alight where, with a much more prickly discourse than that found in the NAR’s report, agents have encouraged their peers to support an embargo on the Zillow platform and its leads.
On top of that, Greg Hague, US property attorney and Huffington Post writer, has created StopZillow.com to try and carry the message further up the ladder. On the homepage, you are greeted with this message:
Homeowners will lose millions in equity. Realtors will lose millions in commission. Wall Street investors are the winners with Zillow’s new Instant Offers.
The website’s petition has been signed over 30,000 times by ‘concerned homeowners, appraisers, attorneys and Realtors’, each one of them registering their support for the following:
1. Recognize Zillow's Instant Offers as an intrusion into real estate brokerage by an unlicensed firm.
2. Recognize that Zillow's Instant Offers damages homeowners who may unknowingly sell to sophisticated investors for less than full value and without advice from an attorney, Realtor or appraiser.
3. Recognize that Zillow's Instant Offers demeans the role of a Realtor by encouraging home sellers to deal directly with buyers.
4. Demand that Zillow discontinue Instant Offers or risk losing Realtor listings and advertising.
Note the language; words such as ‘intrusion’, ‘unlicensed’, ‘damages’ and ‘demeans’. The anger is salient, the voices are loud, and it is becoming clear that Zillow is losing industry support by the hour.
Meanwhile, here in the UK, you can almost hear the whispers from Zoopla’s boardroom as they plan for slightly grander things. And yet, there are very few voices actively encouraging a rebellion against it, rarely event a hint of embargo.
British reservedness, or too much trust?
I am by no means saying that I think a revolt is the necessary, nor correct, course of action, but what does it say about our collective attitude that we are yet to see any real form of protest against some of the unfavourable endeavours of property giants?
I believe in innovation more than disruption. The people in this industry, the core champions, have worked too long and too hard, gaining too much experience to be completely disrupted by a full service technology giant.
The domination that we have seen in other markets, cannot be mirrored in property. Taxis, for example. Uber may have stripped away the need for London cabbies to pass The Knowledge, in favour of customer friendly, and customer first, technology, but a taxi fare does not compare to a lease negotiation. And it certainly doesn’t compare to dealing with one of the most important decisions of our client’s life; their home.
But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t try and assert this brand of domination on property, and I think it’s important to realise that just because something is faster and easier, it doesn’t necessarily make it better. There is a genuine risk of this going overlooked in the our industry.
Perhaps it’s the fault of people like me, waxing lyrical about the fact that professionals need to let tech into their lives, warning of dire consequences if they fail to do so. Has all of PropTech’s support created a shift in the industry from not being trusting enough to being too trusting, forcing a loss of rational suspicion? I hope not.
Maybe we’re just responding as the British always do; keep it to yourself until you’re in the private company of trusted peers? Or maybe there genuinely is no collective concern, although I know that isn’t true; I speak to people all the time, from all areas of the property world, who vocalise their distaste, all aware that their opinions are widely shared.
Zoopla are yet to go as far as Zillow, but they have announced a forthcoming tenancy deposit alternative. To me, it is clear that they have no intention of stopping there. This is likely to be the first in a series of new features and products. I wonder if any of them will stoke the sort of reaction we’re seeing in America?
Or maybe it will be the online agency websites that inspire a stand to be taken. They are increasing in number and receiving huge amounts of investment on both sides of the Atlantic. How will the industry react when over half of property sales are done online? Will it get that far?
All I know is that this is all going to happen before we even know it - the digital transformation of the built environment. And while I am a great supporter of it, there are, inevitably, going to be some elements which go against the wider interests of the industry’s professionals.
I hope that, when those elements occasionally appear, there will be enough voices to make sure they don’t go unchallenged and slip, irreversibly, into our daily norm.