What was once only accomplished through a live, in-person process, can now be completed virtually, in whole or in part.
“Even before the impact of the pandemic, virtual homebuying technologies had grown exponentially in popularity, catapulting the housing industry forward and shaping the future of real estate for homebuilders and customers alike,” said Phillippe Lord, CEO of Meritage Homes.
On Meritage’s website, the home search starts with helpful videos and articles on home ownership and financing as well as highlights of its specific energy-efficient and healthy home offerings. The digital solutions then guide customers through a curated search of available inventory and offers virtual tours of its models. During the pandemic many builders were struggling to follow the virtual home tour lead that Meritage and other were already offering.
Whether they are buying their first home or a homebuying veteran, it is now an expectation that before ever stepping foot in the door, prospective homebuyers should be able to start their home search online to get a sense of how it would feel to live in a particular home. With a few clicks, they should be able to view photos, floorplans, online video tours, interactive maps and digital community brochures.
“Fintech” (financial technology) and specifically the “iBuying” process was garnering headlines already in 2019, well before Covid lockdowns. iBuying is the process that allows buyers to choose their home and then sell their existing home to OpenDoor or Zillow, using the equity in the existing home to serve as the down payment on the new home and saving the buyer the hassle of having to show and sell their home, and possibly lose the deal if the sale didn’t happen promptly. No longer would contingencies need to be added to real estate contractors when you combined iBuying and a digital mortgage approval process.
Thanks to its fintech collaborations, a Meritage buyer could qualify for a mortgage, electronically remit their earnest deposit, sign their sales agreement, receive guaranteed on-demand homeowners’ insurance quotes on their selected home, and even close on a home online in states that allow it. Texas was one of the first states in the nation to adopt Remote Online Notarization (RON). Using “eNotarization,” many lenders, real estate professionals and home buyers and sellers are now performing digital mortgage closing and title transfer.
According to Zillow’s New Construction Consumer Housing Trends Report 2020, it’s not surprising that the majority of potential new home buyers said they would still tour homes in-person before making a purchase decision; 64% said they would prefer to self-tour homes on their own time without an agent or sales rep when experiencing a home for the first time. To allow customers to choose a homebuying path that aligns with their personal shopping style, latest addition to Meritage’s tech tool portfolio is the UTour program. In select locations, the UTour process now makes it easy for shoppers on the Meritage site to sign up for no-contact self-guided tours using the technology provided by UTour.
Now, after first touring a home virtually on the Meritage website, the shopper can select a date and time to tour the home at their convenience. They create a UTour account, verify their identity and receive an email with home details and a digital code to unlock the front door. An automated pre-tour nurturing campaign is delivered to the home shopper via email and text, and the sales team is simultaneously notified that the new tour is scheduled.
As the prospect arrives to tour the home, they receive a text message, encouraging them to reach out to the sales team during or after the tour. With the optional AI voice or chatbot feature, shoppers can use their Iphone to ask questions about the home or community. If desired, they can be connected to a live video chat with a salesperson. The entry code expires one hour after the tour’s scheduled start time. The builder gets a detailed report about the visitor’s engagement with the AI technologies during their tour.
After their tour, an automated email and text message are sent to the prospect, suggesting next steps with the sales team. The shopper can also ask questions and engage with the AI chatbox after their self-tour by simply texting their questions to get instant automated answers. The sales team follows its usual process to nurture and convert the prospect.
“We embrace innovation to improve and optimize the overall customer experience whether buyers choose to interact with us in-person, online or a mix of both, while ensuring 24/7 customer support,” Lord said. “Our goal as a builder is to provide the solutions that ensure a seamless process for our buyers from start to finish.”
What Lord calls “a seamless process” was also the topic of a presentation titled “Frictionless Finance Models” made at a housing conference by Washington Center for Real Estate Research and Fannie Mae. The discussion recounted how great entrepreneurs are coming from industries outside of real estate and moving into this category, because so many of them had experienced acute pain points around real estate transactions.
“In today’s housing market, buying is not an enjoyable experience; it has become competitive, stressful, and confusing, and too many people are coming away from it empty-handed. We are going to change that,” said CEO and Co-Founder Greg Schwartz of Tomo, which just launched its end-to-end digital mortgage and home purchasing platform in June armed with $70 million in seed funding.
The Real Deal Real Estate News notes that venture investors have been writing big checks to fund fintech start-ups since the beginning of 2021
noting that startups like Divvy and Flyhomes (and now Tomo) have drawn support with unique solutions to address the current environment.
Divvy’s “rent-to-own” financing option gives renters the chance to build equity credits. The homebuyer contributes 2% of the home value at closing and pays monthly rent, building up to 10% equity in the home over three years. The idea is for buyers who can’t afford to buy at the outset, could in time qualify for a traditional mortgage and own the equity in the home they already live in. In hot housing markets, buyers losing out on houses to people who make all-cash offers might find an answer in Flyhomes, a brokerage firm that makes cash offers on behalf of clients and includes mortgage, title and escrow, and contractor support as part of its service.
Where Tomo differs from other automated startups is that it doesn’t cut real estate agents out of the home purchase process. Tomo execs say local agents who know the ins and outs of their local market are essential with the rise of pocket listings and other backdoors in the current buying frenzy atmosphere. Tomo promises can generate pre-approvals within hours, not days. From there, Tomo Brokerage connects buyers to a local agent through a strategic partnership with real estate industry coaching and training guru Tom Ferry. After a purchase contract is signed, Tomo makes another promise that it will cut the industry’s average time to close (47 days) by as much as 55%. Tomo will target areas where rising home prices and competition are crippling first-time and millennial homebuyers, launching initially in Dallas, Houston and Seattle.
Statements by the recent startup fintech entrepreneurs say their intent is to restore–not further remove— the personal touch, the humanity, and the excitement that should come in purchasing a home. As single-family homes become commoditized by investors and with home prices continuing to escalate, they believe automated processes can level the playing field for the average home buyer who would otherwise see the American dream moving further and further out of their reach.