Like virtually every other Canadian industry, real estate was sideswept by COVID-19. Not surprisingly, house showings quickly grounded to a halt once pandemic measures took effect.
“Initially, it was really quiet when COVID hit, obviously,” says Toronto-based Royal LePage sales representative Sarah Norris. “Everybody just stopped and said, ‘Don’t come in my house!’”
Since the Canadian economy started feeling the effects of the pandemic in March 2020, housing prices have jumped up 34 per cent, according to recent figures. Chalk up most of that climb to a collision between increased demand and limited supply.
But crisis, as they say, breeds opportunity; and innovations that had been gaining momentum over the past decade in commercial and residential real estate, as well as construction, accelerated as the method in which houses were made and sold adapted to pandemic-era realities. Many of these developments—which include online document signing, virtual home tours, and increased consumer access to housing information—will continue to fuel the next 10 years of real estate innovations.
Due to COVID restrictions and seller-safety concerns, perhaps the most obvious change has been the prevalence of virtual tours over in-person ones. Instead of having dozens of people traipse through a home on a Saturday afternoon, real estate agents now set up live video feeds to attract visitors. Not only does this accommodate more potential buyers, including those who may be interested but unable to show up in-person, it pushes even further along the sales funnel those who take the time later to contact the broker.
Says Sammy Kohn, a sales representative at Ottawa brokerage firm Properly: “I’ve done a few deals where someone is out of the country, or a parent wants to see the house, and we do a FaceTime tour or something and a decision gets made through video. Why not? It’s a very effective little tool.”
An innovative way to market future property developments over the next decade, especially for clients living abroad, will be the evolution into virtual-reality tours. By using 3D VR glasses, prospective home buyers will be able to “see” their future home during the design phase, and suggest changes before ground is even broken. Clients can even experience how light falls inside the home at specific times of the day.
Online document-signing is another welcome change to the home-buying process. Now, instead of an agent spending time and fuel driving to obtain a client’s signature multiple times on multiple documents, the entire process can be completed digitally.
DocuSign is one of the most popular software-signing programs because it’s easily understood by both younger, tech-savvy clients and older home buyers, who may be less comfortable with technology. All they need is an email and a finger or mouse to click on the signature bubbles,” says Mary-Beth Hollyer, a sales representative at the Real Estate Homeward brokerage in Toronto.
While these developments are primarily client-facing, others are more useful to brokerages. The analysis of so-called “big data,” for instance, allows for more accurate valuations of properties; this becomes useful when agents expect multiple offers. These huge data sets can also provide deeper realtor insights into specific properties, predict consumer behaviour, forecast market trends, and model building performance for investors.
The other major development of the last decade that has benefited realtors is lead generation software. Top companies in this niche include BoldLeads, Zurple, Zillow Premier Agent, and Market Leader. These services often guarantee a specific number of exclusive monthly leads to realtors. These are generated via analysis of social media, brokerage websites, multiple listings services (MLS), and listing sites in specific geographical regions.
Perhaps the biggest innovation, at least in GTA real estate, has been the liberation of housing data. Until recently, the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) did not share with consumers housing data gathered via its MLS. This was an attempt, they argued in court, to protect consumer privacy. The Supreme Court of Canada, however, judged that TREB’s real intent was to limit competition. The decision has resulted in greater consumer access to housing information online. This trend is expected to expand to real estate boards across the country.
In terms of future innovations in this regard, January 2023 brought on even greater consumer access to GTA housing data with the launch of REALM. This modern consumer relationship management (CRM) system allows real estate agents to share with clients access to search features and functions, market analytics, and historical listing details. It will also act as a mobile-first platform with a real-time communication portal for each party to communicate and keep track of property developments as they occur.
Many of the other real estate developments we can expect to see in the next decade will be in construction. Sustainable buildings, for instance, will likely be a growing trend given that 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions can be traced to their construction and operation. That means stricter government sustainability standards will be attained by using energy-saving designs and healthier materials.
For example, CarbonCure is a Halifax-based manufacturer that injects carbon dioxide into building concrete to reduce its carbon footprint. And Habitat for Humanity and its partner organizations have begun experimenting with concrete 3D-printed homes for affordable residential use in Leamington, Ontario. These can be outputted in a fraction of the time (and at a fraction of the cost) of a comparable traditionally-built home.
Beyond these technical developments, what emerged in this analysis is the ongoing importance (and relevance) of the relationship between agent and home-buyer. While many developments promise to “disrupt” a given industry, often by giving consumers greater control over or information about a given process, the agent-client partnership requires little innovation.
“Buying and selling real estate is an emotional journey, and managing clients’ nerves is a big part of the job,” says Hollyer. “At this point, robots or computers do not have the heart for real estate, but I welcome their ability to collect data for me and organize my business.” //
Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer