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.

Millennials have brought in new, game-changing technologies into the housing market — for better or for worse. Photo courtesy of HAR

Houston expert: Millennials are entering the housing market and they’re bringing tech with them

Guest column

It's official – Millennials have arrived in the housing market, and they're expected to take it by storm. After spending the earlier part of the decade preferring to rent in hip urban areas, the entry of older Millennials now in their 30s is already impacting how tech and the real estate market coexist.

Like many industries that are traditionally people-facing, real estate has been slowly digitizing for many years. Most of the general public has used a variety of apps that help them search for available properties to buy or rent without talking to an agent. However, within the real estate industry itself, technology has expanded like wildfire in the past few years.

We see these changes most acutely in the services that influence our day-to-day operations:

  • Digital applications
  • Electronic documentation
  • Online income verification
  • Automated notaries
  • iBuyer
  • VR / AR home tours
  • Smart security services

These digital transformations have altered the way agents, title companies, and lenders conduct business. Real estate professionals have varying sentiments regarding the efficacy and role of technology in our industry. Recognizing the importance of erring on the side of caution is key, especially with the rise of wire fraud targeting the real estate sector, robo-signing, and the creation of questionable title transfers.

But these new technologies aren't going away. It's important to choose to focus your energy on recognizing and implementing key precautions regarding how technology is used, especially with the new buyer's processes.

For example, when it comes to wire fraud, we deploy simulated phishing tests to ensure that our employees are alert and aware to the new nefarious activities targeting our sector. Additionally, title agents hold the singular obligation to discover and evaluate faulty proceedings before a closing. This is why we take our duties seriously and meticulously research any unclear title issues that need resolution.

Millennials + Technology = Game-Changing Access to Knowledge

In the past, the title industry has operated mostly for realtors, lenders, and other real estate specialists. In fact, traditional homebuyers were unaware of the importance of their title insurance and property/ownership rights. However, the real estate industry has shifted with millennials entering the housing market. These consumers are more engaged with the ins and outs of the homebuying process because they're using technology as an opportunity to learn.

Thanks to these new plugged-in homebuyers, title agents must use technology to communicate with, educate, and simply keep up with their clients. The current state of the closing process is a cross between electronic and wet signatures. However, as homebuyers demand more digitization and states pass bills permitting cyber notarizations, title agents must actively adapt by building the groundwork to address those tech needs.

Millennials in the marketplace also demand more of the life-simplifying tech they use in the rest of their lives. While technology does streamline the process and allow clients access to more information (and on their terms), it should not take the "personal touch" out of the equation. This is why title agents and other members of the real estate community must pursue the happy medium between digitalization and personalization.

For most millennials, this is their first time buying a house, and many of them want someone by their side to walk them through the process. At Patten Title, our goal is to make the process clear, transparent, and convenient for people making one of the biggest financial decisions of their life.

The short-sighted among us will claim that technology will definitely sap that "personal touch" from the real estate relationship. We believe the opposite is true. Technology enhances the entire homebuying experience because it gives people-first agents the power to build strong relationships with truly engaged buyers.

The experienced title professionals at Patten Title couldn't be more excited by the promise of 2020. We are big fans of facing challenges head-on, from housing rates to technology, property developments, and more. This is a time when a forward-thinking real estate agent will thrive: by combining their willingness to adapt to change while ensuring standards are still met, they can strike the right balance of products, services, and skills that are both personable and tech-centric.

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Eric Fontanot is president at Houston-based Patten Title Co.

It's National Customer Service Week, but celebrate it by putting both customers and employees first. Photo by Hero Images

Houston expert: Put people first during customer service week

Guest column

National Customer Service Week is an annual event when companies and business leaders shower their customers with deals and discounts to show their appreciation. While that method is great for a quick win, we'd like to recommend a more unconventional approach to this week:

Take care of your employees first.

In fact, when President George H. W. Bush created National Customer Service Week in 1992, he specifically mentioned that "A business will do a better job of providing high-quality goods and services by listening to its employees and by empowering them with opportunities to make a difference."

At Patten Title, we take this idea to heart. By making it a fundamental aspect of our company's culture, we have experienced increased employee engagement, lower turnover, and higher customer satisfaction. And not just this week, but every week.

We've assembled three of our favorite team-building ideas for your company to try out this National Customer Service Week. By putting just one of them into action on a regular basis for your employees, you can set your business on the path for long-term success with your customers. But before you try anything, your first step should always be getting to know your personnel to find out what they value.

One-on-one time with leadership

Whether it's a standing quick meeting to touch base or a more involved coffee or lunch outing, sitting down with your staff can go a long way. This is your opportunity as upper management to gauge how your employees are doing. It also gives your employees a voice to provide feedback and suggestions, as well as the chance to develop a personal relationship that goes beyond the workplace. Such opportunities can foster a more relaxed work environment where employees feel comfortable expressing ideas.

Employee events

From a simple after work happy hour to a more formal offsite exercise, leaving the office to interact away of the desk goes a long way toward boosting employee morale and cohesion. For example, Patten Title will venture out of our offices this month to send everyone to a haunted house. Fun events allow employees to feel more comfortable around each other, which means they'll be more at ease when tackling problems as a team.

Customer events

We can't leave all the fun just for our employees. One valuable way to increase employee engagement and productivity is to give them opportunities to interact with clients outside of the workday. By creating the space where customers and employees can let loose, mix, and mingle, it establishes a healthy relationship and enables better client relations through the development of personal connections.

One timely idea from our playbook is a Halloween bowling tournament. We gather staff and clients to dress up in their best costume for an evening of bowling and socializing. By seeing one another out of the office – especially in a ridiculous outfit – it creates camaraderie between both parties that helps everyone communicate more effectively when doing actual business.

Any industry and workplace can generate some stressful situations with plenty of ebbs and flows in both energy and activity. When your employees build relationships that go beyond the workplace, they can collaborate more efficiently and effectively when an issue arises, which creating a strong service mindset for your customers.

Investing in your employees is investing in your clients. Put your people first, and the rest will come. By helping employees engage with each other and management, they can perform at their maximum potential and find value in the work they do. As a result, your customers will know they're appreciated all year long – not just during National Customer Service Week.

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Eric Fontanot is president at Houston-based Patten Title Co.

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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

As the pandemic took its hold on the economy and the energy industry's commodity crisis did its damage, Patrick Lewis understandably assumed that maybe sustainability initiatives might be on the back burner for his network of energy companies.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges.

"We're not fundamentally changing our business model or investment strategy, but we just wanted to make sure our messaging was crystal clear," Lewis tells InnovationMap.

Lewis says he and his team really thought through the definition of sustainability, and he specifies that, "we're not doing this to go chase solar or wind power — those are on the table — but we think there are two primary opportunities: Digital transformation and emerging technologies in the existing fossil fuel industry," Lewis says.

He adds that oil and gas is going to be around for a long time still, and he cites that by 2040, it's predicted that 40 percent of energy will still come from fossil fuels. It's the big energy companies and providers — which he's working with — that have the power to move the needle on these changes.

"We think there's a real opportunity to pursue efficiencies and reduce emissions and footprint in that existing traditional oil and gas sector," he says.

Earlier this year, Lewis was addressing these concerns by working on standing up a group of industry experts for regular meetings to discuss innovation needs. What started as a call with a handful of people, now hosts 40 people across 14 energy operator and major tech platforms.

"The whole purpose of this group is to share best practices, collaborate on common pain points, risk manage pilots," Lewis says. "We continue to build that group — it's going to be a nonprofit governed by a steering committee."

While SVG has held off on its reverse pitch events, the organization along with the University of Houston Center for Carbon Management submitted a proposal to host the National Science Foundation's Convergence Acceleratoronvergence Accelerator virtual conference at the end of September.

"The goal is to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders — industry, nonprofit, academics, NGOs, public policy experts — to solve big problems," Lewis says. "Sustainability is a problem they really want to address."

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab a Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and staff work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."

UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

Houston voices

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.