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 family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.