Real to virtual: Buying and selling property online

Real estate is one sector that appears to have resisted the indelible disruption that has redefined other, traditional sectors like mobility and food and beverage. The process of buying, renting or selling property is still largely conducted offline, but as the coronavirus pandemic has restricted movement, demand for a distanced approach to finding property is on the rise, paving the way for greater digitisation in the sector.

“There’s a big movement happening globally for real estate portals,” says Amad Almsaodi founder and chief executive officer (CEO) at Egypt-based Aqarmap. 

These portals have slowly developed from the classified advertising business model, purely listing property available to rent or sell, to a marketplace where users can conduct various transactions online. Both models are still successful, in fact UAE-based Emerging Markets Property Group, which owns Bayut, Mubawab and Zameen emerged as the region’s latest unicorn and merged earlier this year with the OLX group, owners of Dubizzle, to lead the classifieds sector in a region where the aggregated value of properties sold is estimated at $90 billion.

Around the world, different models have emerged to buy and sell property online. In the UK, Purple Bricks has digitised the real estate agent, in the US, Zillow has the country’s largest database of property for sale and rent and most recently launched Zillow Offers, buying homes directly from owners to resell on its own platform. In Pakistan, Zameen started off by advertising and selling property exclusively for a few developers and taking a 5-6 per cent commission on all transactions. Its model proved so successful that the company has now itself become a property developer.

Selling Online

Traditionally, new projects tend to be sold at lavish events, or impressive offices that have small models and renderings of the houses and flats to lure customers to buy. With Covid-19 and the restrictions on movement and travel, an alternative is still necessary.

For Aqarmap, the solution is its online expo, an event that connects buyers from all around the world with developers in Egypt that have off-plan properties. Aqarmap reaches out to the developers, promotes the event to the 2.5 million buyers on its database and hosts a three-hour online event to sell their property.

“Because of corona, you can see how much people need something like this. It is about doing transactions without meeting developers and completing the whole transaction online,” says Almsaodi.

Developers who wish to take part are required to give a 5-10 per cent discount on their price, anything above 10 per cent is considered “too good to be real” he says. Customers willing to purchase a property and gain access to the discount are required to pay a $100 upfront fee which is fully refundable if the transaction is nullified.

“If they buy the property, we take the success fee from the developer and if it doesn’t then we give the $100 back to the customer,” says Almsaodi.

The next expo is scheduled for 24 July and will be Aqarmap’s third. Almsaodi says the developer spots sold out in four days.  

“[We] believe that this trend will continue to grow moving forward, and many companies will be willing to experiment with such new technologies given the new circumstances,” he says.

Coronavirus Impact

But while Aqarmap’s online expo works well for real estate that has yet to be built, buying or renting a property to move into immediately is an entirely different matter.

There is a strong physical element to real estate and property, not only with regards to visitation, but in signing the paperwork and making payments. During the lockdown period, the entire industry had two options – either delay everything until lockdown restrictions were lifted, or go digital.

“In real estate, physical operations are a main characteristic of the industry,” says Sahar Abdulrasoul, growth manager at Kuwait-based property management platform Ajar, which recently raised $7.5 million in a pre-Series A round. “One positive side to it is the faster adoption for online solutions. It has been a wakeup call for the whole industry that you have to have an alternative for when such crises happen.”

Prior to the pandemic, clients would take at least a week to onboard their data according to Abdulrasoul, the process now takes “a day or two. This is truly a testament to the fact that technology is the way forward, even for an industry that is considered very traditional…It is something that cannot be overlooked anymore”, she says. 

Search

Over the past few years, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region has become exceedingly comfortable with conducting their search for properties online.

“People have now become experts because of the internet,” says Kevin Gormand, co-founder of Morocco-based Mubawab. “You get a lot of information much more than before, you get virtual visits, real 5-10 minute videos on exactly what it looks like, the location, where are the hospitals, schools in the area, the local transportation, you can get all the documents. If you want to see the property deed, construction authorisation, masterplan of architecture.”

Gormand argues that much of the technological evolutions in terms of search will come from technologies that are already available today. The use of these sorts of technologies and the desire to prevent too much exposure to other people will allow users to shortlist the places they want to see down to one or two, rather than six or 10.

“We understand that there is a growing demand for simple, virtual experiences that can elevate the entire property search experience,” says Haider Ali Khan, CEO at UAE-based Bayut. “We plan to release more innovative new products and solutions to bring greater coherence to the virtual property search experience. We are looking at interactive ways in which we can use technologies such as machine learning and AI to enhance the customer experience.”

Sign

Once the online search is completed and users have a shortlist of properties, the next step typically moves offline in Mena. Phone calls, Whatsapp messages are exchanged with the agent to arrange a viewing and if successful, contracts are drawn up, cheques are signed and the keys handed over.

It is this process that can be incredibly tedious and the majority of property technology (proptech) startups in the region are attempting to tackle this challenge. 

Cafu founder Rashid Al Ghurair launched Urban this year, a platform that digitises the entire process of searching for and renting a property in Dubai to alleviate the problems of this stage.

“We took the entire rental experience and moved it online,” says Tala Nsouli, general manager at Urban. “The rental journey is painful in Dubai from search to transaction to move in, we reimagined that whole journey and brought it online.”

The company removes duplicate and inaccurate listings, allows users to book a viewing time, offers 3D virtual tours of every room in the property and allows users to contact landlords directly, bid on the property and negotiate a suitable rent term.

“We do 150 points of inspection, you see the exact condition down to things like the hinge on this closet isn’t working. Every apartment has a digital lock installed, users can open the door with their phone,” says Nsouli. “We had a few examples of people renting their homes without visiting the apartment beforehand.”

Users can get access to information, reports and details on a property and all paperwork is conducted digitally, without the need to meet any agents or landlords. Urban effectively behaves as the virtual agent to communicate between tenant and landlord.

So, with so much digitisation, does this mean the end of the real estate agent?

“Agents will always have a role to play, but there is room for efficiencies,” says Nsouli. “There are a lot of inefficiencies that can be digitised and allow agents to focus on what they do best – that relationship and people part of bringing together two parties [landlord and tenant]”.

It is a sentiment that both Almsaodi and Gormand agree with.

“We’ve thought about removing agents for a long time, every portal worldwide has attempted to do this, but in reality it is not possible. It is very hard to remove agents completely out of the game,” he says. “If I build a marketplace built on doing one transaction with you, I cannot build a repeatable business, agents on the other hand are a repeat client.”

For Aqarmap, bringing agents on board for its online expo resulted in a 400 per cent increase in the number of people taking part.

“If the middle man is only opening the door, then they will disappear in Dubai, but frankly I don’t think the middle men will disappear, you want to make the right choice because it is such a big choice,” says Gormand.

Pay

The next step after discovering and selecting a property is the payment, usually made in cheques or cash in the region and so it is at this stage where most of the disruption is innovation is likely to occur.

“Innovation will not only come in the search process, but on the transaction process. It’s not only about moving the process online, but the fintech portion which is something we’re looking into as well,” says Helen Chen, co-founder at UAE-based Nomad Homes which recently raised $4 million in seed funding.

Urban already allow payments to be made on its platform, including the ability to set up a direct debt and pay in 12 instalments instead of one or two lump sums as is typical in Dubai.

“There is an Emirates-wide vision to become completely paperless by 2021, I personally believe cheques will go away by then. Customers love not paying by cheques, especially younger people moving to cities,” say Nsouli.

The vast majority of people across the region however, still do not feel comfortable making such large transactions online, but with the coronavirus lockdown, it seems attitudes are beginning to shift.

“From the tenant perspective, a lot of people were not able to pay their rent purely because they were not given the means to, most rent collection in Kuwait and UAE happen via cash or cheques, this has interestingly changed,” says Abdulrasoul. “The appetite for online collections has spiked, this was the first time we saw the demand increase from both the landlord and tenant’s side.”

Innovation in the financial technology (fintech) aspect of real estate however, requires regulatory approvals.

“What we’re shooting for is that the disruption will be in the financing. Down the road what we see is being able to plug in financing with purchasing and selling,” says Saoud AlHumaidhi, founder and CEO of SBX Capital, a Kuwait-based investment company which invested in Ajar. “The real estate market will be completely digitised and as the barriers to entry go down, I will be able to invest $100 a week in a property on an autopilot function.”

It might be a while before the regional regulators enable such an “autopilot” function to purchase property, but things are moving in the right direction. Wamda X graduate Holo, the UAE’s first digital application and tracking platform specialising in home loans, has seen rapid growth in applications as a result of the pandemic, cutting out the need to go physically into banks to apply for a mortgage.  

“We had a concept we believed would work, when we did launch mid-Feb it was with an element of hesitance,” says Arran Summerhill, co-founder at Holo. “With the website figures we were getting and tracking people’s journey we were surprised with the number of people comfortable with using the site and completing an application online. The number of [visitors] has been growing month on month by 100 per cent.”

As the region’s biggest asset class, any shift in real estate will have a wider economic impact. Simplifying the process of buying and selling and cutting out the efficiencies will only be a boost for the sector and might attract higher numbers of foreign buyers. 

Triska Hamid

Wamda.com

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