Could this be the first significant indication of a worldwide shift in the way properties are bought and sold?
With the click of a mouse, an apartment unit in the Ukrainian capital may have become the axis of a forthcoming revolution in real estate. In less than 20 seconds, without the stroke of a pen or even a handshake, roughly USD60,000 worth of the cryptocurrency Ethereum was zapped into the virtual wallet of a seller some 6,100 miles across the globe to complete the first-ever online real estate deal using blockchain technology.
This transaction could have a ripple effect not only on the housing market in the former Soviet state, which is slowly recovering from a staggering slump coinciding with the war on its eastern frontier, but also on how investors think about property worldwide. Besides offering quick, secure, remote transactions for ordinary consumers, proponents of blockchain have long envisioned a future where even hard assets like real estate could be tokenized and swapped with the ease of stocks and bonds.
“The buyers don’t even need to visit the country where they would like to buy property,” says Alexander Voloshyn, the chief technical officer of San Francisco-based start-up Propy, which facilitated the sale to TechCrunch founder and erstwhile consultant to the company Michael Arrington. Ukraine, which in a bid to lure investors has recently amended regulations on foreign ownership, seemed like an ideal testing ground for a decentralized online property market. “It’s like Amazon,” Voloshyn explains, “but for real estate.”
Blockchain-based real estate sales have been in trial stages for years in several countries including Honduras, the United Arab Emirates, Sweden, the U.S. and the U.K., but Ukraine was the first to seal a deal. The country is among the world’s top four exporters of IT products and services, according to the IT Ukraine Association, and produces some of the sector’s most sophisticated developers. Voloshyn, who studied in Kiev, and Propy CEO Natalia Karayaneva saw an opportunity early on when they founded Propy as an electronic title registry, and partnered with the Ministry of Justice in 2017 to explore introducing blockchain to the country’s land reform agenda.
THE BUYERS DON’T EVEN NEED TO VISIT THE COUNTRY WHERE THEY WOULD LIKE TO BUY PROPERTY. IT’S LIKE AMAZON, BUT FOR REAL ESTATE
“Here you’ve got a system that’s more secure, more transparent, and in emerging parts of the world, provides more stable ownership titles than the existing systems in some countries,” says Tom Bill, head of London residential research at Knight Frank. Like many in the industry, he says there are a few clear reasons blockchain is appealing to governments such as Ukraine’s. “In theory it is tamper-proof, and yes, it is a more secure way of trading assets.”
Conditions are perfect for experimentation in Ukraine, as the new government seated in 2016 has undertaken bold reforms; the administration sees new tech as both enticing to foreign investors and conducive to its sweeping anti-corruption drive. Years of political unrest are beginning to stabilize following a popular uprising in 2014 that saw a pro-Western government replace an administration closely aligned with Russia. Both land ownership and information technology play central roles in the country’s economic renaissance.
Ukraine suffered a serious blow after the global financial crisis, when its property market was at its peak. The years since saw a steady return to normalcy, only to take a nosedive in 2014 amid political instability that led to the ousting of pro-Kremlin former president Viktor Yanukovych and the War in Donbass between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists. In the wake of the conflict, devaluation of the country’s hryvnia currency led to a 68.8 percent drop in housing prices from their 2008 zenith. In the current government’s view, things can only improve.
The country is also riddled with corruption, an area where blockchain could, in theory, be immensely helpful because all transactions are public. Ukraine ranked 130 out of 180 countries in the latest annual corruption perceptions index by Transparency International—putting it on even footing with Iran, Myanmar, and Sierra Leone. Viktor Nestulia, director of the Innovation Projects Program at TI Ukraine, says blockchain use for real estate “has great potential, but in the future,” when financial reforms are more advanced and incomes elevated. “For the moment, in most cases [blockchain] will not bring any additional value,” he says. “Rather the opposite: it just increases the cost of ownership.”
But Voloshyn says the blockchain model is “suitable for the progress of developing countries,” where industrial leapfrogging can catapult new generations to the frontline of innovation. “Bringing financial opportunity to deserving but underserved parts of the world is one of the motivating factors behind Propy’s stated strategy,” he says. In Ukraine, where the IT sector is highly sophisticated despite the country’s economic strain, blockchain could lure more foreign capital. Globally, mainstreaming the process could also fundamentally change investment strategy and allow money to move more freely.
Many real estate professionals see the transition to blockchain transactions as inevitable, if perhaps not imminent, because it advances the industry on two fronts. On the one hand, it makes buying and selling faster and more transparent for conventional transactions (Arrington’s purchase in Kiev took less than 48 hours to complete all seven steps from the creation of a “property object” to a successful payment). These simple and speedy transactions would benefit consumers who could afford to buy property and have access to the technology.
But the big-picture goal, experts say, is using blockchain to liquefy property. The ease of transactions would make it possible for investors to seamlessly buy and sell units, or tokenized property assets, at lightning speed—just as they would with stocks. While the use of blockchain to streamline small transactions could become ubiquitous in the not-too-distant future, Bill, of Knight Frank, says the idea of tokenizing property “would require changing the mindsets of investors everywhere.” Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but it is a generally agreed upon forecast.
“It’s not only possible, but likely,” says Mark Zilbert, executive vice president of the real estate firm Brown Harris Stevens. “But I predict that real estate brokers will both collectively and individually resist the blockchain,” he surmises, “fearing that it will make them irrelevant.”
This article originally appeared in Issue No. 150 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine
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