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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup founded by former NASA architect moves into new space amid booming business

go outside

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

This is how much credit card debt the average Houstonian carries, says report

MONETARY MISFORTUNE

Residents of Houston are nursing New Year's hangovers of another kind — credit card debt.

According to a LendingTree study of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, Houston consumers rank fourth for the highest median amount of credit card debt to ring in the new year: $3,720. In second place is Austin ($3,911), with Dallas at No. 7 ($3,560). San Antonio holds down the No. 14 spot ($3,414).

Hartford, Connecticut, claims the dubious distinction of ranking first in this category, with median credit card debt of $3,994.

Matt Schulz, LendingTree's chief credit analyst, says people with good credit and high income typically are more inclined to carry bigger credit card balances, since they usually have access to higher credit limits. But he notes that a significant number of younger consumers carry a high amount of credit card debt.

"When you're young and don't have a lot of financial experience, that scary combination can lead to more debt, especially for those living in big, expensive cities," according to LendingTree.

By another yardstick, Texas' four major metros fare much better in the LendingTree study.

Houston ranks 38th for the share of credit card users with debt (81.1 percent). Austin ranks No. 21 (84.7 percent), followed by Dallas at No. 37 (81.2 percent), and San Antonio at No. 48 (75.7 percent).

LendingTree researchers used an anonymized sample of more than 40,000 My LendingTree users from the first 15 days of December 2020 to estimate the percentage of credit card users carrying debt into 2021. They also relied on that data to compile median credit card debts.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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 innovators who have tons to share — from recent venture capital data and observations to public relations and marketing tips for startups.

Kathryn Worsham Humphries, co-founder of All You Need

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

It's a new year — and it's time for a new marketing and public relations plan for your startup. Thankfully, that's exactly what Houstonian Kathryn Worsham Humphries and her New York-based business partner Carla M. Nikitaidis specialize in with their new company, All You Need. The duo penned a guest column for InnovationMap last week with tips for refocusing on your target audience and prioritizing authenticity.

"Remember, these challenging times will pass," they write. "There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future." Read more.

Heath Butler, network partner at Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

After 14 years at human resources company Insperity, Heath Butler has a specialty when it comes to thinking about the future of work. Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on — something Butler discusses on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work." Read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

HX has released a report on Houston venture capital. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential have crunched the numbers again to look at what sort of venture capital deals Houston startups brought in last year.

According to her report based on Pitch Book data, the Bayou City dredged up $715 million across 117 VC deals in 2020 — a year marked by challenges and opportunities from the pandemic and the oil price drop.

In the report, Lalany found that 2020 VC trends in Houston included fewer, larger deals and a rise in angel investment. Read more.