This week on the CRT Labs blog, Jacob Knabb from NAR’s Commercial division writes about some much-needed advancements in commercial real estate technology.
For years the commercial real estate sector has been allergic to technological advances. Data-sharing and easy access to listing information made no sense in a business where proprietary information, in-house data, and brokers who are hush-hush about who might be in their rolodex were the norm. This reputation for lagging behind the field is fast becoming obsolete, however, as commercial real estate has proven ripe for disruption. Over the past few years tech startups have been breaking into this market, changing the status quo and capitalizing on weaknesses in protocol and needlessly opaque communications between investors, brokers, and client reps. It’s suddenly fun to follow the commercial real estate tech market.
Today I want to look at three of the more exciting, noteworthy commercial real estate tech companies that have come onto my radar recently: VTS, WeWork, and CommissionTrac. The common theme for each of these products is a dynamic ability to leverage technology to speed up traditionally time-consuming, costly processes and to facilitate connections.
Let’s start with VTS, a platform Forbes touted for its ability to enable “real estate professionals [to] track deals and manage space in real-time, and collaboratively.” VTS is made for property managers, brokers, and tenant reps. This is what makes it revolutionary: VTS centralizes property portfolios, making them accessible to all of the key players in real time. “High quality, visual, actionable data gold,” as Duke Long called it in NAR’s magazine Commercial Connections earlier this year. Leasing data is delivered in an intuitive, visually pleasing display. Even for massive portfolios or team members spread around the globe.
WeWork excels because it can “[b]uild, acquire, and manage assets with technology” by streamlining construction, acquisition, and asset management. I attended a panel discussion on technologies serving the built environment at DisruptCRE in Chicago this May that featured Megan Dodds, WeWork’s Midwest director of community. Dodds was able to convey WeWork’s focus on maximizing square footage by creating shared office scenarios that are proving to be quite appealing to millennials eager for community and companies hungry for space to house their untethered workforce. In other words: they create killer office environments that hum along at maximum occupancy, generating strong ROI for investors. WeWork will be exhibiting in the Commercial Marketplace at NAR’s REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Chicago and I can’t wait to learn more about them in November.
I’m going to end this with a bang by taking a quick jaunt into bookkeeping technology. Almost lost you there, didn’t I? Most commercial practitioners detest this part of the job for a reason. It’s complicated to do and expansive to pay to have done. Atlanta-based ComissionTrac is disrupting accounting by providing a platform able to handle invoicing, deposits, commission distributions, and general ledger reports. You send them copies of all the paperwork, or your Quickbooks files, and they do all the heavy-lifting. You can run reports on any device from any location with a signal. CommissionTrac is customizable for agents, ‘back office,’ and principals and the full-service package is $9.99 a head (aka: affordable).
Commercial real estate pros love monitoring trends and here the lines are fairly straightforward: technology will only continue to blossom and grow. Baby Boomers are aging out of the workforce and notions of proprietary data and technology are becoming increasingly obsolete. With IoT establishing a firm foothold in commercial real estate, the next round of breakthroughs are likely to address security solutions. But for the time being connectivity is the word of the hour, and just like with other industries, the commercial real estate industry will thrive as it keeps that connectivity at the forefront of its technological advances.
Jacob S. Knabb is Commercial Communications & Member Services Associate for the National Association of REALTORS®. He works frequently with CRT Labs, keeping us informed of the latest and greatest in commercial real estate technology trends.
Our next guest blogger is Jessica Edgerton, associate counsel at the National Association of REALTORS®. Following Lee Adkins’ post about voice assistant hubs, we wanted to share a look at the legality of having cameras and microphones in homes for sale.
Real estate agents and sellers sometimes use video recording devices to monitor open houses and walk-throughs. The motivations for surveillance are varied, and can be compelling. Video recording can offer an added layer of security for real estate agents conducting solo showings or open houses in remote areas. A prominently posted notice that security cameras are in place may act as a deterrent for physical attacks, theft, and vandalism. Some sellers and real estate agents may even use recordings to gain insight into a home’s marketability.
Canary Camera set up in CRT Labs
While surveillance technology can offer many benefits during the home-selling process, it is important to consider the possible legal implications. In general, individuals have the right to control legal activities within their own home. However, every state has privacy laws addressing the ways in which people may be permissibly recorded, and these laws vary widely. In addition, the laws governing audio surveillance versus video surveillance are not the same. It is therefore essential that homeowners and real estate professionals consult with an attorney prior to setting up any surveillance as part of a sales plan.
Video surveillance is generally permissible in any situation where an individual does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Because it would be unreasonable to expect privacy while one is in public, the ubiquitous presence of video cameras on street corners, at banks, and in public transportation is entirely within the bounds of the law. Similarly, if a video camera records a prospective buyer walking into a home’s entryway with her real estate agent during an open house, she would have a difficult time claiming that she had had a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, if the buyer steps into a bathroom to use the facilities, she would almost certainly – and reasonably – expect privacy. Therefore, homeowners should avoid installing cameras in bathrooms, even if the homeowner’s intent in doing so is both reasonable and innocent – for example, as an effort to prevent the theft of prescription drugs. (Instead, sellers should always make sure that medicines, weapons, and valuables are securely locked up or taken off-site during showings.)
With very limited exceptions, audio surveillance laws in every state require the consent of one or all parties to a recorded conversation. Know your state laws prior to utilizing any recording device that captures audio.
In addition to legal considerations, sellers and real estate agents should consider the ethical and reputational implications of making surreptitious recordings. The following best practices can help avoid reputational debacles involving recording devices:
- Provide Notice. Consider providing prior notice when recordings may be made during a showing. You can post the notice in the MLS or on the property, or send notification via email prior to showings and open houses. In addition, if any cameras have an audio recording function, be sure to disable the audio function or get all necessary consents pursuant to your state’s laws.
- Keep Recordings To Yourself. Never publish or share any recording you make of other people without their consent. The only exception to this is if you happen to record possible criminal activity – in that case, you should discuss the incident with the police, and provide them with the recording upon their request.
A Note to Buyers’ Agents: Don’t Take Privacy For Granted
Buyers and their agents should keep in mind that nanny-cams, surveillance cameras, mobile phones, laptops, and tablets are all capable of recording video and, in many cases, audio. Prior to any walk-through or open house, buyers’ agents should consider advising their clients of the possibility of hidden recording devices. A good practice is to simply save all thoughts on a house until everyone is back on the sidewalk.
Jessica Edgerton is associate counsel at NAR. Her work includes extensive membership education and outreach. She is a regular speaker on the subjects of cyber fraud, cybersecurity, and legal risk mitigation for real estate professionals. She contributes to REALTOR® Magazine, AE Magazine, and RIS Media on a wide range of risk management topics.
CRT Labs was launched in August 2015 with the purpose of educating the REALTOR® membership about emerging technologies that could have a potential impact on the real estate industry. Since then, we have strongly advocated for proper security and privacy in today’s smart home, developed fantastic educational material for REALTORS®, and designed innovative and affordable solutions for monitoring indoor air quality.
Today, we are excited to be discussing blockchains, which we feel have countless applications for use in our industry. The purpose of this blog post is to give a basic explanation of what blockchains are, how they differ from traditional database models, and to provide an update on NAR’s research.
What Are Blockchains?
Blockchains are digital ledgers that are shared among a distributed network of computers and interested parties. These digital ledgers are permanent and tamper-proof because the underlying technology allows each participant on the network to interact with the ledger in a secure way without the need for a central administrator.
While that might sound complex and a bit difficult to understand, the basic idea behind blockchains is actually pretty straight forward.
This digital record of events, or ledger, maintains a continuing growing list of ordered entries called blocks. Each block is linked to the next in chronological order and contains cryptographically secured information that links it to the previous block (like a chain). This allows for information to be added to the ledger in a manner that is impossible to alter retroactively.
What Are the Benefits to Blockchains?
Beyond the fact that they are tamper-proof by design, there are many other advantages to using blockchains instead of traditional databases in your applications.
Some of the key benefits:
- Each participant retains its own copy of transactions, as ledgers are not centralized and can not be controlled or altered by a single party.
- Blockchains allow for smart contracts, meaning the ledger itself can be programmed to trigger transactions automatically based on predefined, software-based clauses.
- Decentralization of the data removes any single point of failure.
These benefits are often overlooked due to skepticism surrounding early blockchain applications involving digital currencies like Bitcoin. Although Bitcoin is the most successful example of a blockchain application, it is important to not equate the two.
Bitcoin uses blockchain technology, but Blockchains ≠ Bitcoin.
Why Is NAR Focusing on Blockchain Research?
Personally, I believe blockchain has the potential to be one the most impactful technologies of the next few decades. I also predict we will begin to see more and more blockchain-based applications enter the mainstream real estate industry in next few years. After financial tech and supply chain management, the real estate market will be the target for entrepreneurs trying to disrupt traditional business models.
CRT Labs believes that smart contracts could greatly reduce the cost of doing business. The automated checks and balances these smart contracts provide will help REALTORS® and their clients get to the closing table faster and with less risk involved. We are also beginning to see the public sector getting involved. Chicago’s Cook County is testing Blockchain-Based Property Title Transfer which could help protect rights to property ownership records.
NAR’s short term goals are to create practical, open source blockchain applications that highlight the positive aspects of the technology that can also be used as case studies by our industry partners. Our first project uses blockchain to provide an improved method of sharing membership engagement levels (committee service, education history, CE Tracking) across all local, state, and national levels of the association. We are hoping that this initial work will help lay the groundwork for adoption of more high-impact projects in the future.
NAR’s Progress To Date
Since September 2015, NAR and CRT labs have:
- met with NAR committees, advisory boards, and industry partners on over twenty occasions to discuss the potential of this new technology
- published two white papers ( 1, 2 )
- released the source code for the prototype that what will soon become our membership engagement tracker.
Over the next few months, I will be speaking at three conferences on this topic:
CRT Labs and NAR also plan to continue developing and sharing practical blockchain solutions.
This video is from the Workplace of the Future Event hosted by EX3 Labs.
The program included individual learning stations showcasing how augmented reality is changing digital experiences in real estate, architecture, and building inspections.
These specific videos show the Microsoft HoloLens can be used to enhance interior and exterior design.
EX3Labs Demo at 1871 from CRTLabs on Vimeo.
The year is 2013, I’ve bought a small vacation house in western Michigan, in the country, way out in the country. Western Michigan gets a lot of snow in the winter, or at least it used to. We haven’t had much snow the last 2 years, but that’s not the point. Weather can make or break a weekend away, so knowing what’s going on in the area, weather wise, is really helpful.
Being an engineer and programmer I really wanted to be able to automate systems around the house and track the weather patterns over time. There are certain websites that will give you access to this data, some charge a nominal fee, others not so nominal, and others offer that data for free with limited access. Free sounded really good, especially after buying a house, but limited access wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted access to the data as often as I needed, and near real-time. Also, for a reliable system, this would require extremely reliable internet, and my internet connection at the house is anything but reliable.
This led me down a very long path to finding reliable sensors that allowed local access to the data, outside of a simple display. After a few searches on the internet I found myself at Ambient Weather. This is a great site for everything weather related, most of their offerings are around a basic weather display, but they also sell some kits that are WiFi enabled. In general the the WiFi systems use their connectivity to send data to Weather Underground, which is one of those free but limited sites I mentioned before. Wunderground is a great community of weather enthusiasts who install their own sensor arrays and push data to “the cloud” aka Wunderground’s servers. Developers can get access to this data using the Wunderground API, which I’ve used many time before on less intensive projects.
This is great, but again my access would be limited. I needed reliable real-time data if I wanted to integrate it into an automation system. I knew the sensor arrays had radios to transmit their data to the base stations, but intercepting and decoding that data was a bit beyond my skillset at the time. Although I did pick up a SDR to attempt it, with little success.
Long story short, I ended up purchasing this system WS-1001 WiFi Observer. It has a decent sensor array and is very reliable, but I was stuck with using the Wunderground API for data access. It worked great for tracking weather patterns, but the automation system would have to wait.
Fast-forward almost 3 years, I started working at NAR in the R&D Lab. We have a mission to improve quality of life for homeowners and educate our membership on the coming technology shifts in real estate. Smart Homes and home automation were on the rise, and members wanted and needed to know more about the benefits and pitfalls of a connected home. My previous work on local automation really shined when it came to the security concerns of a connected home. With little to no internet required, the attack vector was extremely small, someone would need physical access to the network to do any real damage. The search began again, with vigor, for local weather data. Luckily other people with far more skills in reverse engineering RF had been busy building software and hardware to address my concerns.
Ambient Weather had sold a device to do exactly what I needed, the Airbridge Receiver, it was out-of-stock and pretty expensive, but it actually works with the exact sensor array I have and the more expensive Davis Instruments systems. I was eventually able to track down the producer of the receiver, SmartBedded, they market the receiver as the MeteoStick. I went ahead and purchased a few sticks as well as the individual sensor arrays that I’d had great success with over the last 3 years. A few weeks later all the components had arrived, I put together the sensor array and plugged in the meteostick, and holy crap, I had real-time weather data streaming into my laptop with no internet required!
Grafana Weather Dashboard
We’ve since gone on to build out a whole system for monitoring the health of buildings, including our own IEQ sensors as well integration with smart meters for monitoring energy consumption. We call the system Rosetta Home. I’ll be giving a talk about the system at a technical conference at the end of March. We’re also working with several non-profit organizations that are doing work with residential energy retrofits.