In an era where sales centres are closed and public open houses are banned, technology has played an instrumental role in keeping real estate businesses running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Once daily life begins to return to normal, however, many of the tools and platforms that grew exponentially in use during the pandemic are likely to become permanent fixtures in the industry.
With Ontario currently under its third lockdown, digital tools like DocuSign or Matterport have been essential during a time when social distancing restrictions limit many of the in-person interactions that realtors and new construction salespeople are accustomed to. In place of physical showings, some real estate sales reps have hosted virtual home tours on live streams, while developers have experimented with online auction systems to sell new properties.
Although many of the online tools that realty professionals use today have existed for years, some areas of the real estate industry have been long overdue for a technological update, particularly the new construction segment.
“One hundred percent it was the pre-construction real estate industry [that needed an upgrade],” said Tim Ng, Principal at ADHOC Studio, a digital products and visualizations firm based in Toronto. “The majority of the entire sales process from reserving a suite to going to a firm deal has always been a very manual process and the pandemic forced the technology [to] switch into high gear.”
Traditionally, a new home buyer would visit a sales centre where they could flip through floorplan booklets, tour model suites and sit down with sales representatives to chat about their purchase. COVID-19 eliminated the majority of these buyer-focused interactions, forcing sales and marketing experts to reproduce the same experiences in the digital realm.
For Onkar Dhillon, Vice President of Operations at TCS Marketing Systems, it has been a challenge to create the same trusting customer-centric atmosphere.
“We have had to develop new ways to build that trust and give our customers a sense of comfort while they peruse the information of their potential future home or condo,” explained Dhillon.
“The relationship that is built through the multiple visits to a sales centre has been a challenging one to recreate digitally, but we feel that by staying true to our principles and treating people with respect through the process we have made headway with this obstacle,” he added.
Automation technology has been one of the biggest contributors to reducing friction during a transaction during the pandemic. The ability to process paperwork more efficiently and liaise through video conferencing has been a help in the sales process, said Dhillon. However, automation is relatively new in the industry, explained Ng, and didn’t really exist until ADHOC launched its BLACKLINE APP two years ago. The web-based sales and marketing product allows sales teams to remotely present real estate from anywhere and lets buyers reserve units in real-time.
“Up until then, everything was very manual and old school,” said Ng. “Through the pandemic, we have really seen an uptick of developers buying into the technology and we expect that trend to continue.”
Beyond the digital sales centre experience, buyers may also develop a preference for new construction buildings that offer technological features post-pandemic. We’ve already started to see these elements in new condo buildings in recent years in the form of touchless entry, elevator calling apps and digital concierges. Dhillon says that the way we are living is evolving at the fastest rate in history, so future-proofing new buildings is becoming more important than ever.
“The buyers will expect a level of technological integration that improves their lifestyle and safety but doesn’t infringe on privacy,” explained Dhillon. “Technology can make buildings safer, more efficient and more integrated with our mobile devices. This will only snowball as we move forward.”
Although technology has been a critical tool for realty professionals during the pandemic, Dhillon believes that while tech solutions can amplify good sales fundamentals, it doesn’t replace them.
Throughout the past several years, Ng said that he has watched the buying process become more modular and flexible, which has only been accelerated by the pandemic. This past year has shown that developers can launch new projects without brick and mortar sales centres, providing sales teams with confidence and a roadmap to launch without a presentation centre from now on, Ng said.
In the future, developers will likely use a mix of online tools and in-person sales strategies for their buyers and project launches, he said.
“In the post-pandemic world, I think it will be a hybrid model similar to how online shopping impacted fashion retailers,” explains Ng. “Developers will elevate their entire online experience with transparency and presentation centres will be smaller pop-up spaces where the buyer may visit it once as a final meeting place.”