"The pandemic has forced agents to digitise work processes and practise remote working"
A report into transparency in the lettings sector has claimed that the pandemic has been a catalyst in the widespread adoption of property technology, or proptech.
The report, by PayProp, The pandemic has forced agents to digitise work processes and practise remote working to enable social distancing.
The need for virtual viewings and online self-service around move-in processes are among the most visible examples of COVID-19’s seismic role in this shift, roundtable participants claimed.
The benefits of teching up
Sally Lawson, founder of Agent Rainmaker, is quoted as saying technology ultimately helps agents to build well-run businesses by reducing human error and easing the compliance burden.
“For example, it allows agencies to put mechanisms in place to prevent a tenancy from being activated until certain conditions are met, so it plays a big role in helping to keep us compliant,” she said.
James Munro, senior manager at the National Trading Standards Estate and Letting Agency Team (NTSELAT), explained technology also makes a great deal of information available to the public.
“Tenants and buyers can find out an awful lot of stuff online before contacting the agent – crime levels, EPC certificates, and so much else.”
Will agents be cut out of the equation?
In general, the property sector has been slow to adopt technology, fearing its ability to perform certain tasks much better and faster than any human, and therefore remove the middleman.
Kate Gregory, sales director at Agent Rainmaker, believes this way of thinking is mistaken. “For years, the lettings industry has worried about doing itself out of a job. Ten or 15 years ago, buying cars through Auto Trader would have been unthinkable. Now we buy high-value products online all the time.”
But, she adds there is an essential role for the agent. “During the pandemic there’s been a move to virtual viewings and so on, while at the same time there’s been this voice of reason throughout, that of the agent keeping everyone calm and safe.”
Admittedly, there is an increasing number of PropTech solutions that allow tenants and landlords to do much of the admin themselves online. Actions including reporting maintenance issues, checking statements and getting deposits back can all be self-service, so how can agents avoid being left redundant?
Paul Shamplina, founder of Landlord Action, presenter of Channel 5’s Evicted! Nightmare Tenants and a keen advocate for the role of agents, admits that while technology can save time, landlords want more than efficiency from their agents.
“The landlord wants technology to save time through efficiencies and create consistency of outcomes, so they can get on with their business. But from the agent they want expertise and experience.”
While consumer tech can enable self-service by tenants and landlords, Kristjan Byfield, co-founder of base property specialists and The Depositary, says more complex agent-operated technology could help to persuade landlords back into the managed sector.
“I haven’t seen a tool for private landlords that matches the full spectrum of what the professional letting managing agent does, in terms of the hours saved.”
Find your level
Despite this, Munro believes the pressure is on for agents to find their proper level. “Many buyers or tenants know a lot about valuations and everything else that factors into their decision-making. Agents must therefore reassess their place in that journey while still maintaining the standards they’ve been setting.”
The panel argued that agents can also provide a high-value service, handle complex issues well, offer a human touch, as well as convenience, to make themselves relevant and valuable.
Neil Cobbold, PayProp’s chief sales officer, says it also needs to be acknowledged that every landlord and tenant may have different expectations.
“A lot of agents take on new tech and don't realise that, actually, the landlord or tenant liked things the way they were. They may not appreciate the benefits as explained to them by the agent, for example if it simply makes the estate agent's job easier. They want to know how it’s influencing the convenience fees they’ve been paying.”