Tech makes things easier, but relationships still matter

Where we choose to live is an emotional matter, so real estate will remain a largely human enterprise.

Tom Hoban

Tom Hoban

In his book “Sapiens,” author Yuval Noah Harari argues that much of how we operate as humans today is tied to our long hunter-forager evolutionary history. The agricultural and industrial revolutions are so recent, he explains, that human evolution hasn’t caught up.

More recently, the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence is adding a new dimension to this phenomenon in nearly every area of our lives. The real estate industry is not immune to this sea change. Experts predict that over the next decade many as 20% to 30% of today’s commercial real estate agents will not be needed. The remaining 70% to 80% will have to reinvent themselves as strategic advisors. Robotics and artificial intelligence will also significantly redefine the role of property managers as technology reduces demand for office and retail space — as well as the need for people to sell, lease and manage those.

There is a lot of optimism that workers and the industry will adjust and avoid any major pain. Property management, sales and leasing are still, at some level, a people-to-people domain. Automation and artificial intelligence may take some of the cumbersome elements out, but it is hard to imagine the renting public trusting machine landlords anytime soon.

Most of the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence so far is on in-home technology. Examples include tools that use embedded chips to signal appliance failures, systems that trigger alerts for plumbing leaks, and solutions to leasing apartments that improve the process of finding a good match. Zillow, Co-Star and other services support the sales and leasing industry with data and tools that are transforming agents into advisors, as well.

Buying or renting a home or apartment remains at its core an emotional experience. We seek safety and access to community when we put a roof over our heads. Determining what features we like in a home or apartment is very much about what feels good and feels right. Most of the time, we can’t really articulate why we like or don’t like a certain home or apartment, we just sense it.

Given those subtleties, the likelihood that machines will replace real estate professionals in helping people through such a process seems unlikely. Efficiencies will be created, to be sure, but agents and property managers can feel secure that their role in the middle is likely always going to need a human touch.

Columnist Tom Hoban is chairman and co-founder of Hoban Family Office, a real estate investment and services enterprise in Everett.

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