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.

Houston rents actually rose in May. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

Houston rent prices rise as COVID-19 impacts local housing market

Housting report

The impact of COVID-19 has not been lost on the Houston housing market, with home sales dipping and rents rising. Here's a look at the current landscape.

Rising rents

In May, single-family home leases were up a solid 12 percent, notes the Houston Board of Realtors. This coincided with rising Houston rents.

According to Abodo's report, the median rent for a one-bedroom unit rose 0.51 percent month-over-month to $1,179, while two-bedroom rents gained 1.24 percent to a median $1,466. While one month's numbers don't necessarily mean a rental price spike, instead of Houston experiencing a COVID-19 price recession, we are currently seeing the opposite.

There are a number of reasons that trend could change, however. First, like potential homebuyers, would-be renters may want to stay safe and out of unfamiliar buildings. There is also anecdotal evidence that some apartment shoppers are worried about COVID-19 spreading in big complexes, and therefore the sprawling apartment complex market may be more negatively impacted than duplexes or other small housing uniques.

Dipping sales

"Houston home sales fell for a second straight month in May as the impact of COVID-19 and related stay-at-home orders continued to play out throughout the market," said the Houston Association of Realtors in its May report. "Homes in every pricing category suffered losses, with the steepest declines at the low and high ends of the market. Homes priced below $100,000 dropped more than 37 percent while those priced above $750,000 plunged more than 56 percent. Year-to-date sales are now running 4.3 percent behind 2019's record pace."

That's grim news, and even though mortgage rates are at record lows — good credit can get you a 15-year loan at 2.94 percent — many potential buyers are staying put. Conversely, some sellers are taking their homes off the market because of COVID-19 concerns.

Going virtual

While virtual tours and property management scheduling and showing tools are helping stay-at-home buyers make some purchasing decisions, very few will make a major home purchase without a careful in-person viewing. In addition, many sellers might struggle with the concept of selling their homes online.

However, renters are open to finding a new place virtually. Research from Abodo shows that "more than 60 percent of renters said that coronavirus has negatively impacted their apartment search. Additionally, 30 percent of renters surveyed stated they'd prefer photos and floorplans in a virtual manner, while pre-recorded videos of units (27 percent), and live personalized unit tours (21 percent) rounded out the pressing desires of renters."

Advances made now in virtual apartment shopping will have a market effect long past the current pandemic, and landlords would be well advised to adding virtual tour capabilities now.

Looking ahead

Some buyers and renters are staying on the sidelines waiting for a market crash, while others are gearing up for a steady recovery. As the pandemic continues, however, Abodo expects the Houston real estate and apartment rental economic activity to be stagnate at best.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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.

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.