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The coronavirus pandemic has made some day-to-day tasks far more difficult than usual as people have to take safety precautions into consideration.
Even where life has returned to “normal”, people are still being encouraged to stay two metres apart if possible, to regularly wash their hands and to wear face masks in some public places, with rules ever changing as infection rates fluctuate. But life can’t be put on hold forever, and there are still people who are having to move house during the pandemic.
For estate agent Douglas and Gordon (D&G), new technological advancements had been on the horizon long before the pandemic hit.
“I’ve thought for an awfully long time that the estate agent sector needs to innovate and evolve – it’s quite an old-fashioned business,” says James Evans, CEO of D&G. “So many of the things we do on a day-to-day basis have evolved so fast – even ordering a taxi.”
As the pandemic started to grow in intensity, D&G decided to video all of the properties it had on the books.
“Some we did very professionally, and some we didn’t have so much time with and did in an authentic, almost quite amateur way so as we at least we had the videos,” says Evans. “When we did go into lockdown, that enabled us to show prospective buyers and tenants properties online.”
This meant those looking to buy and rent could request videos of the properties via WhatsApp or other online channels to see before they decided what to do next.
Digital viewings just as effective
D&G found when it came to renting, tenants were just as likely to take a property after digitally viewing it as they were having seen it physically.
“The video viewings, the video tours, that extra marketing material will certainly in the long-term aid the ability for people to transact in the marketplace,” says Evans. “When you’re making a transaction, you want as much information as you can before you go out and look at something.”
With sales, getting people to agree to purchase without physically seeing a property was slightly more challenging, which is one of the reasons Evans believes face-to-face meetings will always be an important part of the property market.
“Estate agency still needs a human intervention, or property brokering does. If you’re renting at the moment you’re taking up 50%+ of your net income, and if you’re buying, unless you’re an investor, you’re probably buying the most expensive asset you’re ever likely to do, so there’s a huge amount of emotion, trust and experience that needs to go with that.”
Pointing out floor plans, which were once a rare occurrence, are now a must-have when viewing a property, Evans says videos may well become the “norm” when looking for properties to rent or buy.
Since lockdown has lifted, people have gone back to wanting to view properties in person, so Evans argues buyers, sellers, renters and landlords will need the face-to-face interaction with an agent, but not necessarily in the setting of an office.
No need for offices?
Footfall in estate agent offices has been on the decline for a while, according to Evans, who says most enquiries come through platforms such as Zoopla, Rightmove or On The Market, meaning offices either act as “billboards” for properties in the local area, or a place for estate agents to work.
The estate agency market is already saturated, so in order to operate in an area, Evans believes what is needed is not an office, but a highly skilled individual with the right technology at their disposal.
“[After the pandemic ends] I think the world of offices is certainly going to change I think a huge proportion of what people can do can be done remotely,” says Evans.
“I think there are moments in time when discussion is important, and it’s easier just to do it in a room across a desk. But I think 80% of what we need to be doing on the tech side and many other parts can be done remotely now, and I think that’s been the case for a long time. One of the challenges is really understanding the culture of the business and getting that into the technology platform that you’re using.”
The firm has been working on building a bespoke back-end technology to make the entire process of purchasing a property more seamless, reducing the time it takes to have paperwork signed and making the customer experience more efficient.
The web-based cloud application D&G is developing gives agents access to what they need to do the fundamental parts of their jobs, and soon they’ll be able to do everything online.
“In terms of the value for the customer, [estate agency offices] don’t really hold much value anymore,” says Evans. In fact, the end goal is to develop technology allowing D&G workers to “work seamlessly and completely mobile to actually negate the need for an office”.
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Hiring has been a mixed bag for many during the pandemic, but where others have tightened belts, Evans has looked for a business analyst, and project manager and developers through LinkedIn and using recruitment firm Spinks to work on its technology strategy.
“I think one of the challenges around lockdown is that a lot of people are cutting back on their spend, and that can sometimes fall into marketing budgets and technology budgets. We haven’t,” says Evans
The firm decided to build this technology in-house, with the help of tech expert Larry Shapiro, as third-party or off-the-shelf software wasn’t fit-for-purpose for what the estate agency wanted.
D&G already had an in-house system, but while it was good for what the firm wanted around 10 years ago, it doesn’t really work for what the firm wants now.
The aim of the firm’s new internal platform is to speed up the time it takes “for someone to go from a viewing through to a completion”, as well as make it easier for customers such as renters or landlords to keep track of properties they manage or are interested in.
There are a number of steps people have to go through when buying a house – it can take up to 12 weeks for a sales transaction to be processed for a property, as well as a lot of paperwork, and Evans describes the process as “clunky” and “lengthily”.
Evans says this process could be smoothed out for both buyers and agents using technology. “You as a would be buyer should be able to do that entire journey with a handful of clicks on your iPhone, that’s how easy and simple the journey should be and that’s what we’re looking to develop,” he says.
Tech for now, tech for the future
The answer to these problems lies in technologies such as automation and digitisation.
While Evans explains there’s “no reason” the buying process couldn’t be reduced to a number of days using technology, there are barriers to achieving this speed, including difficulty accessing data and information about properties or people.
The industry has a lot of catching up to do before it’s possible to use tech to reduce the time it takes to buy a property, because processes such as applying for mortgages are still lengthily.
Alongside adoption of technology such as open banking, according to Evans, there would also need to be a huge amount of societal change before the house buying process can be reduced to days.
“Even though the tech is in place, it’s actually getting the public to want it and need it, and I don’t think that’s just an estate agency thing,” says Evans.
In the meantime, D&G’s own in-house technology is focused on what the firm can change while waiting for the rest of the sector to adapt.
For example, D&G is now a largely paperless company, with agents having access to forms and paperwork online – the process in the past would have been paper-based with extra steps such as writing notes when visiting a property, then taking the notes away to fill out paperwork which needs to be sent back to the client, then waiting for a reply.
“Now, we could meet [a buyer], you can agree the price, agree the instructions, and [the agent] will click a button on their iPhone,” says Evans. “That can be done in a matter of seconds because we’ve automated out all the administrative process from that part of the deal.”
“The platform we’re building is to enable to speed up transaction time, to speed up the time it actually takes for someone to go from a viewing through to a completion, speed up and make a better experience of when someone is buying a property or renting that they can see where the process is going.”
The goal for D&G is to move most processes online, enabling customers and clients to make payments online, sign contracts online, and even order a “for sale” sign through the click of a button rather than having to call a company to put up a board, making the admin that comes with renting and home ownership less stressful for everyone involved.