Security and convenience are often at war. And one major area where they intersect in real estate is in the shuffling of keys, whether they’re being transferred to open the doors for a home tour, cleaning service or short-term guest.

  • Keycafe is a key exchange hub that can be located in a cafe, convenience store or any other central location.
  • Rental units can leave keys for renters who can get access to the keys only with a verification code from the Keycafe customer.

Security and convenience are often at war. And one major area where they intersect in real estate is in the shuffling of keys, whether they’re being transferred to open the doors for a home tour, cleaning service or short-term guest.

Digital lockboxes and smart lock integrations, which allow for real estate agents and homeowners to grant (and cut off) access to properties remotely from their smartphone — and may include security features like tracking, notifications when a guest enters and leaves the home, and fingerprint authorization — are examples of emerging solutions.

But another option that’s gaining traction are key exchanges from four-year-old Vancouver startup Keycafe, which convert delis, gas stations, coffee shops and bars into key storage locations with hubs that are accessible via digital code.

Keycafe has now placed over 500 key hubs or “SmartBoxes” — wall-mounted drop boxes with touch-screen access panels — across densely populated markets. The base unit offers 19 bins, with each unit being able to handle around 30 to 40 keys.

The key owner gives the guest an access code to get the keys from the hub. A user will repeat the process to return the keys.

Keycafe boxes are accessed with a code inputted into a touchscreen interface on the wall mount.

A key fob accompanies the keys to track when they are retrieved and returned, and by whom. Cofounder of Keycafe Jason Crabb did not have the figures to show how many keys have been lost, but said that user error is most often at play when they are misplaced.

KeyCafe is primarily being used by homeowners and renters who connect through vacation rental platforms such as Airbnb. When it comes to facilitating home tours, KeyCafe would allow a listing agent to leave the keys to a home in a box for a buyer’s agent and their client, who would have a public place to meet before heading to the property.

In Keycafe’s early days, baristas and store clerks managed key hub access. Crabb and co-founder Clayton Brown knew from the beginning the manual entry model would not work, but pursued the idea anyway. They tested the key exchange waters using manual access for nine months, then went back to the drawing board to address automating the system and rewriting the software. They launched the second generation six months later.

A Keycafe hub at Dollop University in Chicago.

“We knew from the beginning that we needed something automated because you can’t scale humans across the world,” he said. Keycafe switched entirely to automated hubs by 2016.

The next obvious step, according to Crabb, was to develop locations in New York. Keycafe started with five locations across the city, and has since expanded to over 120. The company just surpassed its 500,000th exchange with locations in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Boston and additional major U.S. cities, while it’s also branched into Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Crabb said that Keycafe doesn’t have any competitors in North America yet, but there are some “copycats” springing up in Europe.

Email Britt Chester

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