The Tech Disruption Series: PropTech

By Vicky Spratt

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When was the last time you reached into the junk drawer in your kitchen for a takeaway menu? What about the last time you set foot in a travel agent? Booked a taxi over the phone? Sent a letter?

Tech innovation has transformed the way we live our lives. Often, it has improved the services we can access like holidays, taxis and takeaways but, occasionally, it has solved our problems.

Last week, at the live recording of The Tech Disruption Series podcast at co-working space Fora Central Street, just a stone’s throw away from East London’s Silicon Roundabout, an expert panel of disruptors discussed how tech is trying to change the way we interact with housing.

All of the panellists in discussion at Fora – Gemma Young of Settled, Eliza Eddison of Rentify, Colby Short of GetAgent and Ishaan Malhi of Trussle – agreed on one thing: when it comes to housing there are too many stakeholders, and this has created huge margins for error. We need to innovate – partly through tech – so that we can disrupt the market as it currently exists, locking down processes and closing loopholes.

This hits the nail on the head. Housing – whether renting or home ownership – relies on so many parties, many of whom are focussed on making a profit above the needs of others. From letting agencies to landlords, inventory clerks to referencing agencies, sales agents to solicitors and developers, it is complex, muddled and often unnecessarily stressful.

Home – whether you rent or own – is the centre of your life. And yet, unlike other sectors, the way housing transactions and interactions has, up until very recently, remained, frankly, old fashioned.

 

This country is currently experiencing what has tipped from being a ‘housing crisis’ into the realm of housing disaster. The cost of housing has spiralled over the last two decades, meaning that all over the country a growing number of renters are increasingly stretched.

A recent report from the Resolution Foundation has predicted that half of all millennials will still be renting in their 40s, while a third will never own their own home. In England, a house typically costs eight times average earnings, in London that rises to 15 times.

The only real solution to this disaster in affordability and availability is for us to build more houses. However, to reach the government’s (very conservative, with a small c) target of 300,000 new houses in England by 2025, completions must rise no less than 38 per cent from last year’s reasonably respectable 217,000.

We have to face facts: renting has increasingly become the new norm for an entire generation. And, for this generation, who expect systems and processes to be easy, quick to navigate and logical because that’s what they experience in every other area of their life at the click of a button, housing is found wanting.

 

Ever since I appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme alongside Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi I have been clear that I am very sceptical that the housing market can sort itself out. He said to me that ‘all we need is the Uber of renting’. I do not agree, in fact I think what we need is more regulation in favour of renters alongside ambitious housebuilding.

That said, I do think that proptech holds some of the answers. Think of it this way: your online banking may be imperfect, but it’s made it a hell of a lot easier to access and keep track of your finances, right? Proptech may not be the perfect answer to a mammoth problem, but, perhaps, it can alleviate some of our suffering.

Whether you rent, own or are trying to buy you have inevitably encountered a problem. Whether it’s having to take a wad of cash across town to put down a deposit on a place you want to rent, filling out zillions of forms which you have to return via post to a solicitor, not being able to get your tenancy deposit back when you move or paying through the nose for an agent to sell your home only to find they don’t really measure up…the odds are, you’ve had a less than optimum experience.

 

 

This is where tech can help us. I know this because I have personal experience of it. One of the best renting experiences I’ve ever had came through online only, no fee agency OpenRent. Because they had cut out the middle man, the letting agent, and could connect users directly with landlords there was red less tape, less hassle and, in all honesty, less racketeering.

Digital hybrid sale agency, PurpleBricks, have seen similar success for the same reason. It’s all about streamlining processes.

During the recording of the Tech Disruption Series at Fora I think Gemma Young, co-founder and CEO of Settled (a service which sets out to simplify the process of buying and selling a home) put it best.

 

 

‘The problem with housing’ Gemma said, ‘is that there is so much margin for error’. And while she doesn’t know if the answer necessarily lies in something like Blockchain, she does think that ‘the principals that Blockchain offers us which is that things should just happen…that they should be immutable…they should be certain…absolutely belong in property, perhaps even more so than in other sectors’.

If you think about it, home is everything. It’s where you wake up every morning, go to sleep every night. It’s where you are at your most vulnerable and in need of certainty. And yet, particularly if you are renting, it can be where you feel least secure.

Change will take time and there may be trial and error along the way. However, this may not be a bad thing. As Ishaan of Trussle noted during the discussion: before the financial crash ‘anyone could call themselves a mortgage broker…and look what happened’. He says there are now fewer brokers (a stat which I can’t verify) and, certainly, it’s a lot harder to get a mortgage than it was, and people shop around for the best possible deal using online comparison sites – like Trussle.

 

 

Will the growth in the number of millennial renters – a demographic cohort who are known to be demanding consumers who do not accept the status quo – mean that, as with mortgages, those providing renting services will have to step up?

I think so, I know this first hand from my successful campaign to get letting agency fees banned. Hundreds of thousands of people signed my petition and shared my articles which, in the end, forced the government to pay attention and take action.

Because of the rental boom, the letting agency market has become saturated but as the number of renters grows so too, in theory, does their consumer power. If we see more online letting agencies, founded by disruptive millennials who have experience of renting and know its pitfalls then that can only be good for housing.

Indeed, as Eliza of Rentify asked during the panel: what if Blockchain could, one day, provide an international, universal referencing database for tenants? No letting agent could ever try and charge you a referencing fee again. I’d actually go a step further than Eliza…what about a universal, international referencing database of landlords and agents (something Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London is currently working on) so that renters can spot rogues by their bad reviews. This would certainly make the housing market fairer. I’m imagining a sort of housing Trustpilot.

 

Proptech can change housing for the better, but I don’t think it will solve the housing disaster we face as a nation. Tech innovation can help to streamline our processes and interactions but for us to truly optimise housing, we also need government regulation and, occasionally, intervention because the market is fundamentally broken and skewed in favour of a few stakeholders. If longer tenancies were enshrined in law, for instance, tenants would have more power. When we talk about innovation, we must not forget who the majority of stake holders in housing are: ordinary people, renters and home owners. Not buy to let landlords, letting agency honchos, app developers or property developers.  Whoever can create an app or a service to suit the needs of the millions of renters in this country will truly be onto something. Anyone who has ever tried and failed to get a deposit back will concur. So, in answer to Zahawi’s point and the interesting questions posed by the panel at Fora, my answer remains the same: I don’t think we need ‘the Uber of housing with its zero hours contracts and added carbon emissions but I do think we need something ambitious, an innovation that can do for housing what Monzo has done for banking. Vicky Spratt is a journalist, documentary maker, and housing rights campaigner. Her 2016 campaign Make Renting Fair highlighted the plight of ‘Generation Rent‘ and succeeded in getting letting fees for tenants in England banned. She speaks at political conferences about the need for security in renting. Spratt’s first book Tenants will be published by Profile in 2019.