Guest column

Houston expert: How COVID-19 fast-tracked real estate technology

For better or for worse, COVID-19 has increased the need for technology in real estate. Getty Images

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives, and the housing market is no exception. The majority of real estate, for better or worse, relies on in-person interactions.

Things like wet signatures, home tours, inspections, and appraisals all require physical attendance — making it difficult to create digital alternatives.

Although many of these disruptions are a hindrance this unique time also presents an opportunity for the real estate industry to showcase its ability to grow and adapt to the digital age.

Technology's grand entrance into real estate

As a people-first business, real estate has always been based on relationships and face to face interactions which make transactions amid a pandemic excruciatingly difficult. Although technology and real estate are not completely foreign with companies such as Zillow and OpenDoor having established their niche, many of the more traditional real estate companies had yet to fully embrace the reality of technology's arrival. The thought was a real estate transaction must be sealed with a handshake, a wet signature, and a bottle of champagne.

Upon the onset of COVID-19, many quickly realized that technology was no longer an option but in order to endure this crisis adoption of disruptive innovations was a necessity. Moreover, with millennial homebuyers being the most active clientele the industry needed to meet them where they are — online.

Although there is nothing like the personal touch of a guided tour, home showings had to adjust to adapt to COVID-19 by embracing and utilizing 21st century technology. This was achieved through videos, high quality images, and innovative staging posted online for potential buyers to take 360-degree tours. Rather than sacrificing nuances such as a well-staged home, which has shown to have the potential to increase a home's sale price by up to 6 percent, real estate agents crafted innovative ways to digitally put a home's possibilities on display for buyers to see.

Another impediment created by COVID-19 was the way people close. Many documents require wet signatures. Fortunately, remote closing technology has improved over the last decade and COVID-19 increased the adoption rate of these platforms by individual states and lending institutions at a much quicker rate than would have been otherwise.

Some examples of these useful tools are remote online notarizations (RONS), mobile closings, and electronic signatures. While these tools are extremely helpful there is still much in the way of mass adoption before the industry can be as nimble and adaptive to not experience large stalls in the face of this sort of unprecedented pandemic. In time, as we dive deeper into the digital age, it would seem that these options would become more widely accepted throughout the industry.

The dangers of tech and real estate

As new digital adaptations increase, so do the risks. Although the introduction of new technology has enabled the industry to continue operating, it also increases the already prevalent risk of cyber security threats.

Phishing attempts and cyber-attacks are on the rise. Hackers are trying to capitalize on increased exposure from employees connecting on home devices. Simply educating employees and clients of the dangers associated is the first line of defense. Internally and throughout the industry, we have seen companies who are committed to ensuring each transaction is done safely and securely through VPNs, and other programs that guarantee the protected transfer of funds.

As a company, we have made cyber security a top priority by requiring multi-factor authentications, third party wire verification services through a company named CertifID and implementing consistent training on how to spot malicious phishing attempts.

What's next for the Houston housing market?

Consumer confidence is key to the success of the housing market. As Houston's economy begins to reopen, we have seen a substantial increase in transactions being finalized and consummated through closings. Both refinances and purchase transactions are on the uptick at the moment and that is encouraging. However, as new waves of the virus roll in there is always the chance that business slows, and the idea of buying a house fades.

As we wait for consumer behaviors to stabilize to the new normal, savvy buyers and borrowers have the opportunity to capitalize on a unique opportunity by taking advantage of low mortgage rates for increased buying power or to lower payments on existing mortgages. Transactions beget transactions and the more movement there is the better for the industry.

Lastly, as with all disruption comes opportunity and opportunity abounds because of COVID-19. With so many companies being forced to adopt new ways of operating due to the pandemic the real estate industry has a chance to adopt a more advanced foundation based on available technology which will help insulate it from future disruptions. With some innovation, a simpler, more efficient overall experience can be created for customers.

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Eric Fontanot is president of Patten Title a full-service closing company with locations in Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Patten Title's technology-enabled team of title and escrow professionals continue to provide real title solutions for customers in Texas.

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Building Houston

 
 

Juliana Garaizar is now the chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs, as well as continuing to be head of the Houston incubator. Image courtesy of Greentown

The new year has brought some big news from Greentown Labs.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based climatetech incubator with its second location at Greentown Houston named a new member to its C-suite, is seeking new Houston team members, and has officially finished its transition into a nonprofit.

Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate.

"Now that we are more than 80 members, we need more internal coordination," she explains. "Considering that the goal for Greentown is to grow to more locations, there's going to be more coordination and, I'd say, more autonomy for the Houston campus."

The promotion follows a recent announcement that Emily Reichert, who served as CEO for the company for a decade, has stepped back to become CEO emeritus. Greentown is searching for its next leader and CFO Kevin Taylor is currently serving as interim CEO. Garaizar says the transition is representative of Greentown's future as it grows to more locations and a larger organization.

"Emily's transition was planned — but, of course, in stealth mode," Garaizar says, adding that Reichert is on the committee that's finding the new CEO. "She thinks scaling is a different animal from putting (Greentown) together, which she did really beautifully."

Garaizar says her new role will include overseeing Greentown's new nonprofit status. She tells InnovationMap that the organization originally was founded as a nonprofit, but converted to a for-profit in order to receive a loan at its first location. Now, with the mission focus Greentown has and the opportunities for grants and funding, it was time to convert back to a nonprofit, Garaizar says.

"When we started fundraising for Houston, everyone was asking why we weren't a nonprofit. That opened the discussion again," she says. "The past year we have been going through that process and we can finally say it has been completed.

"I think it's going to open the door to a lot more collaboration and potential grants," she adds.

Greentown is continuing to grow its team ahead of planned expansion. The organization hasn't yet announced its next location — Garaizar says the primary focus is filling the CEO position first. In Houston, the hub is also looking for an events manager to ensure the incubator is providing key programming for its members, as well as the Houston innovation community as a whole.

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