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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Space City News: Houston Spaceport receives grant, unicorn hires architecture firm

rocketing roundup

The Space City is starting 2022 off strong with news launching out of the Houston Spaceport — a TK-acre space in TK Houston.

The two big headlines include a unicorn company releasing the latest details of its earthbound project and fresh funds from the state to support the space ecosystem in Texas.

Governor Abbott doles out $10M in spaceport grants

Texas has launched fresh funding into two spaceport projects. Image via fly2houston.com

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced $10 million in funding to two Texas spaceports as a part of the state's Spaceport Trust Fund. The Houston Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million and the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million.

The fund is administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Tourism and was created to support the development of spaceport infrastructure, create quality jobs, and attract continuing investments that will strengthen the economic future of the state, according to a news release.

"For decades, Texas has been a trailblazer in space technology and we are proud to help cultivate more innovation and development in this growing industry in Cameron and Harris County," says Abbott in the release. "This investment in the Cameron County and Houston Spaceport Development Corporations will create even more economic opportunities for Texans across the state and continue our legacy as a leader in space technology."

Axiom Space hires Dallas-based architecture and engineering firm

Axiom Space has made progress on developing its 14-acre headquarters. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston-based unicorn Axiom Space has announced that it awarded Dallas-based Jacobs the architecture and engineering phase one design contract. The firm will be working on the 100,000-square-foot facility planned for the 400-acre Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport.

Axiom Space's plans are ro build the first commercial space station that will provide a central hub for research, to support microgravity experiments, manufacturing, and commerce in low Earth orbit missions, according to a news release.

"This is an exciting and historic moment for Axiom and the greater Houston area," says Axiom CTO Matt Ondler in the release. "For the first time, spacecraft will be built and outfitted right here in Houston, Texas. This facility will provide us with the infrastructure necessary to scale up operations and bring more aerospace jobs to the area. With this new facility, we are not only building next generation spacecraft, but also solidifying Houston as the U.S. commercial industry's gateway to space."

Axiom Space, which raised $130M in venture capital last year, is building out its 14-acre headquarters to accommodate the creation of more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"Houston is a city built on innovation and is becoming a next-generation tech hub in the United States," says Ron Williams, senior vice president at Jacobs. "Privately funded infrastructure will drive U.S. leadership in space. Jacobs is committed to providing integrated solutions to accelerate the future of commercial space operations."

Houston food charity scores prestigious Amazon tech grant

high tech gift

One of Houston’s most cherished food charities has been recognized for its tech prowess. Houston Food Bank has been awarded the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Imagine Grant.

The endowment honors “the vision and work of nonprofit organizations as they seek to improve their communities and the world with the help of cloud technology,” per a press release.

Specifically, the food bank was recognized in the Go Further, Faster category for the launching of a cloud-native digital logistics platform to better serve vulnerable populations facing food insecurity (that insecurity was greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank notes.

Each winner in this category receives up to $150,000 in unrestricted funding, up to $100,000 in AWS Promotional Credit, and essential engagement with AWS technical specialists.

The challenges of COVID and the pandemic forced the food bank to get creative — and it responded. The food bank began delivering meals in March 2020 as part of its COVID-19 response through partnerships with volunteers, staff, corporate donors, and organizations such as CrowdSource Rescue, Task Rabbit, and Amazon.

This pilot has been a success: to date, more than 2.3 million meals have been delivered to those in need, the food bank notes in press materials.

Tech-wise, the food bank’s Home Delivery Platform operates using a cloud-native serverless architecture which includes heavy use of AWS services (AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon API Gateway, AWS Amplify, and more), with a mobile web responsive front-end written in React/Typescript.

The client side is split across four responsive web applications, each with a different function: Home Delivery management, pantry management, client orders, and driver deliveries. All of these apps utilize shared components and APIs that communicate with each other based on the different user personas.

Pariveda Solutions serves as the technology partner for the implementation of this platform. The project is a capability expansion on top of an existing manual process to deliver food to clients.

Houston Food Bank applied for the Imagine Grant in order to enhance their process digitally, connect submitted orders to the client’s nearest pantry, and manage delivery operations more effectively, with an emphasis on time management and delivery logistics, the organization notes in a release.

“With the success of our home delivery operations, Houston Food Bank’s goal now is to scale operations to expand home delivery for greater reach and impact,” said HFB president/CEO Brian Greene in a statement. “Additionally, with the proposed improvements, we hope to shift to utilizing volunteers for this important service instead of third-party delivery providers, and to deliver food using the client choice model, where clients may select foods based on personal preference, cultural and dietary needs. We are thankful to AWS and Pariveda Solutions for providing their support and expertise as we continue to find new ways to solve the age-old problem of hunger and work towards our ultimate vision of a world that no longer needs food banks.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New Ion exec focuses on building density, bridging the gaps within Houston innovation

houston innovator podcast episode 117

After years of being in the works, The Ion Houston opened last year — but not in the way it was always hoping to. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the 300,000-square-foot space in the renovated historic Sears building in Midtown slowly opened its doors to the Houston innovation community and brought back in-person programming as safely as it could.

Despite the challenges the pandemic posed, The Ion, which is owned and operated by Rice Management Company, had a lot to show for 2021 — 95 events on and offline, new coworking space opened, corporate partners built out their offices, and more. And, among the additions to The Ion, was Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential. Sanchez has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez says The Ion, and the surrounding Innovation District, is building out to be that convening space for this density of innovation and tech activity.

This month, The Ion is set to deliver on a few of the amenities that have been in the works. First, the investor studio, a place for venture capital investors to meet with local businesses, will open next week. Later this month a high-tech prototyping lab will be unveiled as well as Common Bond, which Sanchez describes as a must-visit coffee shop for Houston's innovators.

"That's going to be the hottest coffee shop in Houston to run into a co-founder, tech talent, an investor — it really is exciting," Sanchez says. "Bridging these connections has been made easier now that I have a home that's as large as this."

Sanchez is familiar with connecting over coffee. He launched a weekly coffee meet up for Houston innovators. He hosts Cup of Joey every Friday morning at Finn Hall in downtown Houston to give everyone in Houston — new or old to the tech ecosystem — a chance to connect. He says he's excited to keep this up throughout 2022 too.

As for taking initial steps into Houston innovation, Sanchez advises attending any of the 400 to 500 events — virtual and in person — that happen in Houston.

"Just show up," Sanchez says. "It's so underrated, and through a pandemic it was obviously tough to do, but just showing up is the first step."

Sanchez shares more about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes