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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3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries recently making headlines — all three focusing on investing in innovation from B2B software to energy tech.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

When Samantha Lewis started her new principal role at Houston-based Mercury Fund, she hit the ground running. Top priority for Lewis is building out procedure for the venture capital firm as well as finding and investing in game-changing fintech.

"(I'm focused on) the democratization of financial services," Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's recently announced $300 million Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. Click here to read more.

Lauren Bahorich, CEO and founder of Cloudbreak Enterprises

Cloudbreak Enterprises, founded by Lauren Bahorich is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Lauren Bahorich wanted to stand up a venture studio that really focused on growing and scaling B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage technology. She founded Cloudbreak Enterprises last year and already has three growing portfolio companies.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

This year, Bahorich is focused on onboarding a few new disruptive Houston startups. Click here to read more.

Sustainable plastics manufacturing company expands in Houston and beyond

Growing green

An under-the-radar company in Houston has ramped up its manufacturing capacity as it seeks to seize upon rising interest in sustainable plastics.

Houston-based Inhance Technologies, a sustainable manufacturer that transforms conventional plastics into high-performance materials, has a new site in St. Louis that comprises 75,000 square feet — more than double the size of the company's old facility there. As a result of the expansion, Inhance Technologies' headcount in St. Louis will rise to about 40. The size of the company's entire workforce wasn't available.

"The expansion in St. Louis is a great moment for the company and a sign of the organization's ambition in sustainable solutions for plastics," Patricia van Ee, chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release. "We know consumers are favoring more recyclable plastics, especially in packaging … ."

In January, the company promoted van Ee to her current role. She joined Inhance Technologies in 2019 as senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Patricia van Ee was recently named chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies. Photo via inhancetechnologies.com

The announcement of van Ee's elevation to chief commercial officer came on the heels of Inhance Technologies occupying its new global headquarters at 22008 N. Berwick Dr. in northwest Houston. The company was founded in 1983, and about 75 people work at the Houston headquarters, which includes a science and technology center. That location is adjacent to one of its Texas manufacturing plants.

Among other products, the new plant in St. Louis makes Enkase, which transforms conventional plastics into fully recyclable packaging, and DuraBloc, which prevents fuel from seeping through plastic tanks on gas-powered equipment like motorcycles and personal watercraft. Customers include original equipment manufacturers, molders, and retailers in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, health care, and transportation.

"With a large expansion of warehouse space, a doubling of our manufacturing capacity, and new rapid-response lead times, our expanded St. Louis operation is equipped to meet new levels of demand as product brands, retailers, and consumers make a conscious choice to [purchase] more sustainable plastics," Michael Koma, chief operating officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release.

ResearchAndMarkets.com predicts the global market for sustainable plastic packaging will jump from $89 billion in 2020 to $117.3 billion by 2025.

"The sustainable plastic packaging industry has been growing as a result of stringent laws and regulations levied by governments and governing bodies, as well as a shift in consumer preference toward recyclable and eco-friendly packaging materials," the research firm says.

Inhance Technologies' global presence should put it in a good position to capitalize on that market. The Houston and St. Louis sites are among more than 20 Inhance Technologies locations around the world, including offices in Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Los Angeles-based private equity firm Aurora Capital Partners bought Inhance Technologies from New York City-based private equity firm Arsenal Capital Partners in 2018 for an undisclosed amount. Arsenal bought Inhance Technologies from founders Monty Ballard and Bill Brown in 2012.

"Inhance fits seamlessly into our strategy of partnering with a market leader to support their vision and accelerate both organic and acquisition-driven growth," Michael Marino, a partner at Aurora Capital Partners, said in 2018.

A year after its acquisition by Aurora, Inhance Technologies bought Germany's Fluor Technik System for an undisclosed amount.

"Over the course of its history, Inhance has continually sought to expand both its breadth of technical capabilities and its geographical reach," said Andy Thompson, the company's president and CEO.