Proptech, a mainstay in future real estate transactions

Advances in proptech, accelerated by the pandemic, point to a near future where the whole buying process may be completed digitally—without buyers needing to be a physical presence

Virtual viewings and calls—necessities during the pandemic—have dramatically increased. Archi_Viz/Shutterstock

At a recent residential sales launch in Singapore, the city’s traditional and often chaotic balloting system used to allocate units to buyers had all but disappeared from physical view.

Apartments were fully digitised on an inventory management system by PropertyGuru Group called FastKey and its associated feature StoryTeller, a three-dimensional tool that immerses the would-be buyer in a cityscape of fully rendered listings.

This is a tool that has brought timely functionality since its launch in May last year in the teeth of the ongoing global pandemic.

From the end of September, Singapore permitted just one client per day to visit a property, down from four previously. During certain periods of the pandemic in 2020, property viewings were barred altogether.

“If you can’t visit the sales gallery in person, what do you do?” says Jason Gregory, managing director of FastKey.

Instead of crowds gathering at the sales studio, ballot in hand, some 1,500 lots were drawn digitally in minutes across multiple locations, and 450 units sold in a day. The only part of the process conducted manually were payments, says Gregory: “It remains an online-to-offline world, but things are changing quickly.”

Investment data so far this year suggests that the global pandemic is causing the proptech industry to explode. Venture capital-backed real estate companies raised USD10.6 billion by July, a nearly 28 percent surge on the same period a year earlier and the largest spend on record, according to data compiled by Crunchbase which tracks deals across sectors.

“While real estate technology adoption was on the rise before the pandemic, it has become essential for today’s leading real estate players,” says Ben Breslau, chief research officer at JLL.

While in-person dealings for property transactions are still important, there’s little doubt that the role of the agent or broker has changed in recent times. CatBox/Shutterstock

Property management led investment in the wider real estate sector, swallowing up USD2 billion or nearly 20 percent of every dollar spent, followed by construction. North America continues to lead, followed by Europe and then Asia, but there are signs that this region is catching up.

When the Hong Kong property intelligence service Mingtiandi and Yardi, a real estate software company based in California, polled hundreds of Asian real estate executives on their adoption of technology at the end of last year, the results pointed to a seismic shift.

In an industry dominated by wealthy, multi-generational families who had been slow to take up data analytics and artificial intelligence, suddenly 70 percent said they were adopting more technology.

The current state of play in proptech across Asia highlights the technology differences at play between countries, and how quickly technology adoption can change the market landscape.

Still, 35 percent of respondents said Asia was trailing North America and Europe, but that was down from 56 percent in 2017, while just 6% of those surveyed in China believed the east was now behind the west. “There’s a growing perception that Asia is closing the gap,” says Bernie Devine, Yardi’s Asia regional director in Hong Kong.

India leads the region by the number of proptech companies with 170 such firms recorded by late August, according to London-based proptech data and research firm Unissu, followed by China with 144 such businesses but still by far the largest in level of investment.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore leads with 84 proptech companies—more than the rest of the region combined—while Vietnam has become the most dynamic recent market with a host of new players and outside companies pouring in.

The current state of play in proptech across Asia highlights the technology differences at play between countries, and how quickly technology adoption can change the market landscape.

When democratic and economic reforms in Myanmar led to the rolling back of economic sanctions and a surge in foreign investment in 2012, there had been only a couple of websites listing properties, according to Stuart Deed, executive director of Picon-Deed Property Consultants in Yangon.

With physical viewings all but impossible during the pandemic, virtual walkarounds of properties have become an essential tool for agents. Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

“Many people were still using real estate papers and journals to find properties, while foreigners engaged a broker who usually worked alone or in a loose clique,” he says.

Ordeoo of Qatar and Telenor of Norway soon won licenses to build out Myanmar’s mobile phone infrastructure, at the time the least developed and populated in the region, and state restrictions on social media eased.

“The game-changer was Facebook and the various [international] real estate groups [coming in],” adds Deed.

Fast forward to this year, and the influx of foreign firms has turned into an exodus following a military coup in February, meaning the use of technology in the real estate sector has stalled and focused on survival rather than the adoption of cutting-edge technology.

Virtual private networks have become ubiquitous among property agents in Myanmar in recent months to circumvent government blocks against Facebook. But western technology and property firms including Telenor and Colliers have exited the country amid political uncertainty and a severe economic downturn.

Although Myanmar and Laos are yet to register a single Proptech company, according to Unissu, Thailand and Vietnam are booming.

Vietnam has become another major regional proptech player in recent times. SeanHsu/Shutterstock

In Singapore, real estate firms and agents are now receiving grants to pay for the adoption of newly digitised services.

The problem is not how quickly technology is being adopted, but that companies and agents are left behind.

The Council of Estate Agents in Singapore forecasted its membership will decline as a direct result of technology uptake. PropertyGuru Group has begun funding courses to help retrain older property agents more used to taking would-be buyers to the “real world” viewings.

“The role of the agent is certainly changing towards that of a consultant,” says Joe Thor, managing director of MyProperty Data now rebranded as Datasense, Malaysia’s largest online property data company which was purchased by PropertyGuru Group in November last year.

Virtual viewings and calls—necessities during the pandemic—have dramatically increased but it remains to be seen to what extent this upwards trend will continue in many markets in Asia when things return to how they were before the pandemic.

“The slow adoption of virtual viewings is largely down to the same reason why technology hasn’t wiped out the real estate agent like the travel agent,” says Thor. “Real estate is a major and often emotional decision.”

Many agents interviewed for this article said most buyers continue to want to see a property in person before completion. But there are signs that key groups of Asian buyers—Chinese in particular—have already crossed this key threshold. The type of property—notably new versus previously owned—and the country market remains key.

In Myanmar, buying a property without seeing it in person remains almost unheard of, even for new, high-end listings, says Deed of Picon-Deed Property Consultants. But signs are that in China in particular the pandemic has shifted perceptions when it comes to buying sight unseen.

During the first three months of 2021, the Chinese overseas property buying firm Juwai IQI estimates that as many as 60 percent of its new home sales were completed sight unseen.

“When buyers are purchasing new homes that are not yet built, they have to purchase sight unseen,” says Georg Chmiel, co-founder, and group executive of Juwai IQI. “They can typically visit the sales office to get a firsthand look at the model and finishes and fixtures, but during the pandemic even this was impossible.”

The aim of the Proptech sector, however far in the future, has come more sharply into focus amid the global pandemic: to minimize the difference between physical and virtual viewings to such an extent that the average buyer no longer cares whether they see the property in person or not.

“We want the process to be just as easy for the buyer who lives in Shanghai and is purchasing in London as it is for the buyer who is purchasing in their hometown,” concludes Chmiel.

The original version of this article appeared in Issue No. 169 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine.
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