Property tech sector is battling inertia to shake up Britain’s housing industry

 
Will Gibbs
Terms likes “property tech” have never been mentioned so often (Source: Getty)
The UK property technology sector has undeniably seen substantial growth over the past 18 months. In June last year, the property portal Zoopla listed for approximately £1bn. Since then we have seen the launch of a startup accelerator dedicated to early stage property businesses and a large amount of capital invested into young companies which directly or indirectly relate to the property market.

Terms likes “property tech” have never been mentioned so often. Seedcamp, which provides startups with seed money, mentorship, office space and support, welcomed a host of new businesses to its programme in September, including property tech startups GetAgent, Splittable and Trussle. There are many other interesting businesses in this space. Homeshift is a workflow tool which allows the estate agent and home mover to track and manage a transaction, for example, and Property Partner is an online property investment platform.

There are a few macro trends that are worth exploring in more detail.

The first is the challenge to estate agents, led by online property marketplaces like Purplebricks (which is set to float on Aim this month) and eMoov. These businesses differentiate by challenging the estate agents’ commission of approximately 3 per cent and by playing on the very different role estate agents have today compared to a decade ago. Allaying customer trust issues and the economics of customer acquisition is a problem for online estate agents. Yet it’s telling that eMoov has sold over £1bn in properties and saves its customers on average £4,200 per transaction.

The second key trend is around the automation of previously offline and labour intensive services, such as home removals. Businesses such as Homeshift and Buzzmove are disrupting a sector which has been slow to embrace technology, serviced by a raft of middle-men and agents. When you consider the operational side of removals and the necessity for in-person visits (to identify complications such as the width of doorways, and the number of boxes needed to be moved, for example), it becomes apparent that there are significant operational efficiencies to be realised.

The same is true for tools enabling landlords to manage their inventory in a more frictionless manner. Businesses such as Fixflo streamline the communication process between landlord, tenant, agent and tradesmen. So where, for example, fixing faulty wiring in a flat previously required multiple steps – receiving quotations, informing agents and complaining to landlords – they can now be consolidated. The question is whether this is a sector where the importance of personal relationships is such that face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced.

Probably one of the most interesting trends within property tech is the emergence of platforms which enable access to property as an investment asset class. While crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending platforms like Crowdcube and Funding Circle have allowed investors to incorporate higher-risk equity and debt assets into their portfolio, there has not been a way to gain exposure to the property market without a substantial capital outlay.

Now, businesses such as Property Partner (an Octopus portfolio company), which provides a platform for the crowd to fund property development opportunities, are opening up previously inaccessible asset classes to smaller retail investors who lack the amounts of capital necessary to purchase property directly.

Other characteristics of the property industry are driving the growth of property tech. With the exception of fashion retailers and fishmongers, for example, there aren’t many industries where shop-front advertising is still a way of acquiring customers.

The size of the prize for a successful business in this space is also large. In 2014, 1.219m properties were sold in the UK at an average sale price of £248,000. Assuming an average estate agency fee of 1.6 per cent of the total sale price, this would value the UK estate agency market at over £3bn per annum. Then consider that the average removals service costs from £500 for a small flat to £2,000 for a five bedroomed house, and there are verticals within the market where there is an opportunity for consumers and agents to make significant savings. Equally, given the pressure that “old world” businesses in property will most likely experience, there is an equally exciting opportunity to facilitate their transition into the new landscape – one with lower fees but more significant use of technology and the internet to acquire customers and manage workflow.

That said, this is an industry where emotion does come into the equation. Unlike many continental European countries, the UK’s view of property ownership is closely aligned with social status – Brits are more likely to talk about “homes” rather than just property. This is most relevant when considering whether the value chain can be completely digitised in the same way as booking a holiday has been. In many ways, inertia and the fact that property is a “special case” are perhaps the largest challenges to property tech firms.

This inertia is less strongly felt, however, in the rental market. When looking at the growth of Uniplaces (an Octopus portfolio company), Rentify or even Airbnb, it would seem that many of these services have not been held back by the challenges that the freehold market seems to be affected by. This could be due to the higher turnover of residents, the more limited downside of a poor deal, the average age of tenants, or the fact that the landlord and tenant model has always involved outsourcing to an intermediary.

In many ways, it does not matter if you disagree with the drivers behind the growth of property tech, as the outputs are currently pretty obvious. This is an interesting area of development, and one that touches many people, even outside the usual realm of technology, and is certainly one to watch.

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