AgentBrokerage

Can humans beat bots at home search? A broker’s perspective

One of our 'broker vs. bot' participants gives her 2 cents
  • Inman's "broker vs. bot" experiment was fun -- but it wasn't much like a real sale. The brokers had no opportunity to get to know the person behind the homes.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a challenge created by Inman in which I would go up against a “bot” (probably more accurately described as an algorithm) in order to determine who could choose better potential homes for an unknown client.

The instructions

These are the instructions I received from Amber at Inman:

FOR THE BROKERS

Each of you will be assigned one day of the week on which to participate. I will email you privately to confirm that you’re available on that day.

On the day in question, Brad or myself will send you the MLS number of the home that the judge liked. You will have 30 minutes to select three homes that you think our judge will also like. You will send the three MLS numbers of the homes you selected back to us.”

“Great,” I thought — “I’m up for this challenge!”

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The preparation

I sat down and waited for the MLS number that the judge had chosen. While I was waiting, I logged into the MLS and laid out my goals for approaching this challenge:

1. I wanted to make sure that I chose different homes than the bot — no matter what type of home I was presented with. 

After all, what would the point of this challenge be if I ended up choosing the same three choices as the algorithm? In Denver’s tight market, our buyers are competing for homes every single day, and Live Urban agents, including myself, are finding them homes by thinking outside the box. And even outside the MLS when possible and necessary!

2. I didn’t want to limit my choices to the “target” neighborhood, no matter where it ended up being.

Because I was supposed to choose 3 “similar” homes that I thought that this buyer would like, based solely on an MLS number with no further information, I decided to approach this challenge like I would with an online lead who called me on a Monday morning and said, “I’m about to get on a plane to fly out to Denver. I want to see three homes this afternoon, and I like this one.”

Because I didn’t have any other information from this person — but could get an idea of their aesthetic style, specs and price range from this one listing — I really wanted to take this chance to expose this buyer to a few of Denver’s awesome and diverse neighborhoods, not just the one where the “target” home was located.

3. I also wanted to find something off the MLS, so that if this buyer ended up liking the off-market home, he or she wouldn’t be competing against dozens of other buyers, and it might be possible to put together a smooth and easy deal without a bidding war.

I had to assume that the “bot” hadn’t been out door-knocking, prospecting for its clients, constantly trying to increase its local market knowledge by going on property tours, hard-hat visits of new construction developments, and networking with other brokers to uncover coming soon and pocket listings that might be perfect for this buyer, like I’m constantly doing for my clients.

With my three choices, I managed to accomplish all of these goals in under 30 minutes (which went surprisingly fast, because I was putting so much thought and effort into my search).

Picking the homes

Because the “target” home was located in Northwest Denver, and it was a modern new build, I chose one that was very similar and in the same price range, size range and neighborhood.

Then, I decided to choose a similar home in Wash Park, which is quite similar to the Northwest Denver neighborhood where the “target” home was located, with great walkability, access to parks and trails as well as Denver’s amazing downtown area. (I love helping buyers widen their scope — which they often have to do in our low-inventory situation — and introducing them to communities that they might not have initially considered during their home search online.)

Getting in the car and driving around more of metro Denver’s diverse and beautiful neighborhoods is one of my favorite parts of the buyer education process — but, of course, in this case, I was just supposed to choose three different homes that I thought this buyer would like.

So I decided to think outside the ‘hood, knowing that the “bot” likely wouldn’t.

Finally, for my third pick, I chose a home that hasn’t even broken ground yet, is not listed on the MLS and is going to be part of a pretty amazing development.

It’s a space with awesome front range and city views, innovative neighborhood use and design, and beautiful homes that edge up to a public golf course while having fantastic city, mountain and airport access as well as great nearby restaurants and shopping — and a small-town college vibe.

Missing: A buyer I knew — or could get to know

Of course, had I known that the “mystery buyer” was our good friend and local real estate writer John Rebchook, I would have known that he would have wanted to stay in Northwest Denver, where the “target” home was located, as he is a longtime resident of the area.

I also would have been familiar with his family’s needs, their love of walkability and their passion for fantastic architecture, and I might have been able to better choose homes for him — but I guess I have to admit that the “bot” didn’t know any of that information, either.

Greg Eckler from Denver Realty Experts, who also participated in the challenge, had a similar experience.

We recently discussed how happy we were that this situation does not accurately reflect the homebuying process at any point.

“The time limit made it extremely difficult to be thoughtful about the home search,” said Eckler. “I was trying to put a true buyer need in place and frantically looking for homes that might be perfect for this person, but without knowing anything at all about them.

“I guess that we weren’t any better than the algorithm during this challenge — because thankfully, that’s where the value of human interaction is truly priceless: in best serving the client throughout the process.”

I totally agree. The “bot” might have been able to choose apples-to-apples similar homes…but sometimes buyers start out looking for an apple and end up loving an orange. Or a cherry. Or a…you see where I am going with this.

What’s the verdict?

Every homebuying journey has twists and turns, challenges and delights, and it takes more than an MLS number to make a house a home.

Do new technologies improve the process for all? Sometimes, sure. And other times, no.

Inaccurate valuation algorithms, for example, really do a disservice to the public. And a “bot” that creates a search based on how a homebuyer clicks through a site might be a unique novelty, but it seems that it pretty much relies on MLS fields and listing descriptions to property-match, which might cause a buyer to completely miss what might be the perfect opportunity.

Thanks to Inman for creating the challenge. It completely solidified my belief that Realtors play an incredibly important part in every buyer’s home search process.

I was dying to pick up the phone and make a connection with this person, get to know their wants, needs and dreams for their next home and neighborhood. Not getting to do that took all of the heart out of the search for me, and all of the fun.

I’m so glad I’m not a “bot” — and I’m sure my clients are, too.

Stacie Staub is a broker associate and the director of marketing for Live Urban Real Estate in Denver.

Email Stacie Staub