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

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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