Bricks, mortar, and proptech. The economics of IT in brokerage, space utilization and commercial real estate finance

Pages327-347
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/JPIF-10-2019-0139
Publication Date23 Mar 2020
AuthorAlbert Saiz
SubjectProperty management & built environment,Real estate & property,Property valuation & finance
Bricks, mortar, and proptech
The economics of IT in brokerage, space
utilization and commercial real estate finance
Albert Saiz
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Abstract
Purpose Digital and information technologies (IT) are becoming silently pervasive in old-fashioned real
estate markets. This paper focuses on three important avenues for the diffusion of IT in commercial real estate:
online brokerage and sales, the commoditization of space and Fintech in mortgage and equity funding. We
describe the main new markets and products created by this IT revolution. The focus is on the pioneeringUS
market, with some attention devoted to the specific firms and institutions taking these innovations into the
mainstream. We also carefully analyze the economic underpinnings from which the new technologies can
expect to generate cash flows, thus becoming viableor not. Finally, we discuss their likely impact on
established players in the commercial real estate arena.
Design/methodology/approach In this paper, the author chooses to focus on three separate arenas where
the IT revolutionsometimes referred to as Proptech, as applied to real estateis having discernible impacts:
sales and brokerage, space commoditization and online finance platforms. The author invites the reader to
think seriously about the economic fundamentals that mayor may notsustain new business models in
Proptech. Real estate economists and investors alike need to be critical of new business models, especially when
they are being aggressively marketed by their promoters. Trying to avoid any hype, the author provides
thoughts about the likely impact of the innovations on their markets, guided by economic and finance theory,
and previous experience.
Findings The author evaluates the evolution of commercial real estate brokerage. While innovations will, no
doubt, have an impact on the ways in which we buy and lease commercial properties, the lessons from the
housing marketshould make us skeptical about the possibility of the new technologies dramatically facilitating
disintermediation in this market. In fact, new oligopolies seem to be emerging with regard to market data
provision.
Practical implications Proptech will change some aspects of the real estate industry, but not others!
Originality/value As change pervades the property industry, only a relatively few research pieces are
illustrating ormore importantlyproviding insights about the likely economic and financial impacts of IT
penetration. Similarly, only a few papers have so far addressed the economic viability of the alternative
business models of tech startups targeting real estate markets and transactions.
Keywords IT, Fintech, Coworking, Future of real estate, Online brokerage, Proptech
Paper type Conceptual paper
1. Introduction: IT disruption and real estate
The information technology (IT) revolution is having a profound impact on the economy and
the ways in which we produce and distribute goods and services. IT has helped create new
consumption items and replaced workers in the production of other goods. While the process
may eventually lead to a more efficient economy and allow humans to undertake more
engaging tasks, it is not without growing pains.
Acemoglu and Restrepo (2018) argue that recent technological innovations have a dual
impact in the economy: on the one hand, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) replace
humans with hardware and software, thereby decreasing the demand for labor. This, in turn,
could have a negative impact on wages in the sectors where technological penetration is
increasing. On the other hand, new technologies create innovative products and news tasks
that could increase the demand for labor.
IT disruption
and real estate
327
This research has been made possible by a research grant from Capital One. The views herein are
exclusively of the author and do not represent those of Capital one or affiliates.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
https://www.emerald.com/insight/1463-578X.htm
Received 30 October 2019
Revised 9 December 2019
Accepted 9 December 2019
Journal of Property Investment &
Finance
Vol. 38 No. 4, 2020
pp. 327-347
© Emerald Publishing Limited
1463-578X
DOI 10.1108/JPIF-10-2019-0139
The speed and depth of the two processes need not coincide. According to these authors,
we are experiencing a period of acceleration of the former human-replacement effect. This
process is creating tensions that are surfacing in the form of income stagnation among
workers whose tasks are easily replaced by machines or software.
A solution to the labor-market problem of automation in the short- to medium-term
according to Levy and Murnane (2013)involves retraining these workers so that they can
compete with highly-educated employees for new opportunities.
Some technological innovations are hard to measure, and generate new activities that
cannot be monetized,thus situating themselvesoutside of the realm of economicmeasurement.
By following instructions on YouTube, it is now easy to figure out how to grow a vegetable
garden, brew beer or learn French-style cooking. Social media is substantially changing our
leisure time.Similarly we can now devoteourselves to reading blogs andother unpriced online
resources. The implications of the widespread proliferation of such unmonetized innovations
on GDP and consumer welfare are as-of-yet unagreed upon. A team of economists
(Brynjolfssonet al., 2019) have recentlyassigned large economic valuesto the use of Facebook
and other innovations. While a consensus about the accuracyof such valuations willtake time
to emerge, an even moredifficult question to answers is: does theconsumption value of these
innovations compensate for the loss of jobs IT generates in other arenas?
Economic tensions are also surfacing in real estate markets. Many older industrial regions
are struggling to adapt to the new economy, and commercial real estate (CRE) and housing
values there lag behind those in more dynamic areas. On the flip side, metropolitan areas that
specialize in IT, media, the medical sector and biotech are booming.
Besides the obvious ebb and flows of the local economies that sustain real estate cash
flows, technology is changing the sector from the inside out. After all, buildings provide basic
economic services, the delivery of which is itself subject to technological change. Countless
innovations are reaching the market every year, in a process of creative destruction. Without
being exhaustive, software and online real estate applications are now available for: property
and asset management, leasing, monitoring and security, site selection, zoning, design, 3D-
visualization, building-operations management, financial underwriting, price benchmarking
and indexing, legal and accounting work and so many more areas. Some of the numerous new
applications, products and online platforms will not survive the market test. And yet, a few of
them will have tremendous impacts in the ways we experience, finance, operate and transact
commercial properties. In addition to these software products and online platformson a
parallel trackbig data is also starting to change practice in urbanism and real estate
(Hughes, 2017;Barkham et al., 2018).
As change pervades the property industry, only a relatively few research pieces are
illustrating ormore importantlyproviding insights about the likely economic and
financial impacts of IT penetration. Similarly, only a few papers have so far addressed the
economic viability of the alternative business models of the tech startups targeting real estate
markets and transactions.
In this paper, I choose to focus on three separate arenas where the IT revolution
sometimes referred to as Proptech, as applied to real estateis having discernible impacts:
sales and brokerage, space commoditization and online finance platforms. I describe some of
the most salient emerging firms and market niches, with a focus on the United States. The
United States is pioneering many of the innovations, so that lessons learnt here can actually
be useful to an international audience of researchers and practitioners.
In the paper, I invite the reader to think seriously about the economic fundamentals that
mayor may notsustain new business models in Proptech. Real estate economists and
investors alike need to be critical of new business models, especially when they are being
aggressively marketed by their promoters. Trying to avoid any hype, I provide thoughts
JPIF
38,4
328

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