For a number of years now, predictions have been made that one of the major tech giants will eventually enter the UK property market to grab their slice of a very lucrative pie.
However, such a move has yet to materialise, with property so far remaining out of the clutches of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google – known as the Tech Giants or The Four Horsemen, worth $5 trillion combined and owners of little-known companies such as Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Nest, Whole Foods Market and Twitch.
The four tech giants, along with Microsoft, are the five most valuable publicly traded companies on the S&P 500 - a stock market index that measures the stock performance of 500 large companies listed on stock exchanges in the US. Apple was recently revealed to be the world’s most valuable company, surpassing state oil giant Saudi Aramco thanks to strong third quarter earnings in spite of coronavirus.
It has a current market value of $1.84 trillion – a lotta, lotta zeros! – and has witnessed 11% year-on-year growth, with a considerable stake in both the smartphone and PC markets, as well as the music industry.
Facebook has cornered the social media market, with 1.79 billion daily active users and 2.7 billion active monthly users, while canny acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram have helped to keep the company relevant with a younger audience.
Amazon has well and truly monopolised the online retail sector, with nearly 90% of UK shoppers using the site and 40% having access to its Prime subscription service. Covid-19 accelerated its power and influence as people had no choice but to rely on online shopping. It has, more recently, branched into offering a food delivery service and has led the challenge to the humble book with products like Kindle and Audible.
Meanwhile, Google – which was only founded in 1998 but is now something most of us can’t imagine living without – has a UK market share of more than 86%, light years ahead of rivals Bing and Yahoo. The company, which is owned by the much less-known parent organisation Alphabet, also owns Android, the operating system which has a huge share of the smartphone market.
Despite all being US companies, their dominance of UK life – when it comes to shopping, video streaming, social media, instant messaging, texts, video calls, browsing, searching and music listening – hasn’t yet extended to major UK industries like the property sector.
At least not in obvious ways.
A marketplace, ads and live viewings
Of all the major tech giants, Facebook has the most obvious role to play in the property industry. The vast majority of agents these days have a Facebook page, while many of them also make use of Facebook ads (it’s something we encourage at The ValPal Network, with expert help from Facebook ads guru Paul Long) to generate new leads and business.
The exposure offered by Facebook is massive, but attempts to use it as a platform to advertise, sell or market a home directly have proved less successful. There was a brief trend a few years ago for people selling homes via Facebook Live – often desperate sellers who weren’t managing it through traditional avenues.
We also reported on the attempts of online agency Housesimple to get homes sold through Facebook Live, with the first ever home to have a viewing staged on the platform selling in July 2017 after it received three offers as a result of the experiment. The owner staged the Facebook Live viewing herself, and viewers were encouraged to make an offer on the home via the Facebook Messenger app during and following the streaming, with some 20,000 people viewing the home through Housesimple’s Facebook page.
In July this year, an EAT story revealed that an agent in Hertfordshire routinely secures 5,000 visits to ‘live open houses’ on Facebook Live, and on one occasion secured 45,000 visits. But it’s still not really caught on in a big way, despite the pandemic providing the perfect conditions for this type of online/video viewing process to thrive.
Meanwhile, Zoopla had a brief flirtation with Facebook Marketplace a few years back when it announced, in September 2018, that nearly 300,000 lettings listings from its Zoopla and PrimeLocation portals would go on to Facebook. However, only three months later, these were withdrawn to protect the interests of letting agents.
The Marketplace service enables consumers to search for properties via Facebook and has been successful as a property sales and rentals forum in the US.
At the exact same time as Zoopla, OnTheMarket put listings on Facebook Marketplace and still automatically puts its members’ properties on the forum. Meanwhile, fast-growing free-to-list portal OneDome is a listing partner of the Marketplace and a keen advocate of its value to estate agents.
Last year, an agent claimed it could become a genuine rival to Rightmove – with the added incentive of being free to use. But, in reality, it is not quite at that stage yet.
In less obvious ways, Facebook has a key role to play in our industry, with Instagram now an increasingly important marketing tool for agents – particularly among the younger generations. That is only likely to increase as Generations Y, Z and Alpha become the dominant parties in the market.
Equally, WhatsApp – purchased by Facebook for $19 billion in October 2014 – plays an increasingly important role in the communication between sellers, buyers, agents, conveyancers, landlords, tenants and others involved in the property process, with its end-to-end encryption service an attractive thing from a security/privacy point of view, while its cross-platform nature means it has more than two billion users across 180 countries worldwide.
The smartphone revolution
The role Google and Apple have to play is more subtle still – but, when you think about it, still highly significant. After all, what do many of us use to browse for properties if not our Apple and Android devices? Where do we go to find the PropTech apps that help us to move in a smoother fashion if not Google Play and the App Store?
Which search engine do we turn to in order to start our property search or to find furniture, agents, removals firms, tradespeople and suitable mortgage products? Where do we go to watch promotional videos of homes if not YouTube?
And how many of us now use Nest products to ensure our homes are super smart and connected?
The truth is, Apple and Google do play an integral role in the day-to-day working of the property industry, but not in an obvious way. The choice not to get more involved in the industry may be deliberate, aware of the issues faced by established brands such as the easyGroup, which has failed to succeed in the property industry in the way it has in the airline sector.
The lack of influence from Amazon is slightly harder to get one’s head around, given it would seem to be the most set-up for a takeover of the UK property sector if it wanted to. It is, after all, a marketplace where people go to buy, and where companies sell a vast array of products. It has the infrastructure, brand recognition and power to dwarf the property market’s biggest players combined.
However, other than very tenuous links between Alexa and people’s homes, there are no direct or indirect connections between Amazon and the UK property sector, other than the various books sold on the subject via the site. There’s been talk of Amazon entering the UK convenience store, cinema and pharmacy markets, but no speculation about property. Maybe that will change, but for now there seems no imminent threat of an Amazon takeover.
How will our homes look in 2050?
Staying with tech, and a personal favourite topic of mine – how will our homes look in the future? More specifically, how will they look in the year 2050 (when I’ll be in my eighties!). My Tool Shed has been delving into reports and mocking up what our future property could actually feature by then.
The living area could include interchangeable fabrics, allowing us to change colour, pattern and texture of certain fabrics if we get bored of them suddenly. There might also be furniture profiles to adapt furniture to different requirements, floating sofas (technology is being worked on to help give us a feel of weightlessness) and robots to help with everyday chores. Homes could have tech helpers like “Carl the robot”, to help tidy up after us.
Elsewhere, there could be cook-free kitchens, designed to reorder food and do the dishes, climate-controlled gardens (perfect for plant and veg growers), and power tracking and energy efficient technology, enabling you to track and manage your home’s energy consumption, keeping an eye on your carbon footprint.
In the bathroom, we could have disinfecting towel rails, which would kill bacteria after you’ve finished using it (vital in these post-Covid times). There might also be smart toilets assessing your bodily functions to check they’re healthy, and toothbrushes that talk to your doctor/dentist.
Lastly, in the bedroom, there could be sleeping environment enhancements, with tech that can remove unwanted noise and pollen, as well as virus filters. Mood/sleep-boosting lighting may also be commonplace, with the bedroom changing the lighting to help you get a better night’s sleep. And a wardrobe that acts as a washing machine!
Plenty to look forward to there. It might sound a bit far off and futuristic, but this Tomorrow's World clip from 1989 - outlining predictions for 2020 - proved scarily accurate and prophetic, so who's to say the same won't be the case for predictions made now.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.