I recently spotted an odd question: “How will self-driving cars affect real estate?” At first, it seemed like a fair query, but after thinking for a minute, I realized the answer is simple: “Not at all.”
Had this question been asked years ago, the answer might have been different. Today, armed with current technology and emerging from a pandemic, buyer behaviors are dramatically different than a mere 20 years ago, and the idea that a driverless car might change things is, I believe, moot.
I started in real estate in 2001: Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser, Facebook was merely a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, Nokia ruled the cellphone market as the iPhone was six years in the future and consumer GPS was not yet cheap enough to be practical.
As for the MLS, we had a choice between a rudimentary Windows-based system or the old DOS version. Realtor.com was the only web-based real estate portal, and buyers, by-and-large, still relied on Realtors for information.
We set up buyers on auto-feeds direct from the MLS and then set appointments to see the homes they wanted to see. We would print MapQuest directions to each property, print out the property profiles for each home, pick up the buyers and head out.
It was sometimes a bit hectic driving with one hand, holding the MapQuest (or Thomas Guide) directions in the other, all the while chatting with the buyers about the house we had just seen. If buyers wanted to drive their own cars, they needed to follow and stick close to make sure we all arrived together.
About three years into my career, driving a Dodge Caravan minivan with a family in the back and map in hand, I was navigating from one property to the next when my cellphone rang. Hearing an alarmed gasp from someone in the back who thought I might actually answer the phone with my other hand, I concluded it was time to plunk down $1,200 for a dash-mounted Magellan RoadMate 700 GPS.
These days, as a consequence of COVID-19, no one rides in the Realtor’s car any longer. Thanks to GPS technology on our phones, no one needs to follow the agent to make sure they get to the house. Thanks to web portals with comprehensive data, buyers no longer rely on Realtors to locate prospective homes and, thanks to GPS links on each profile, buyers no longer need open house signs to guide them in to open listings.
The days of driving around looking for open house signs are over: Buyers now navigate their phones from their sofa and only visit properties that meet their criteria, resonate with their personal tastes, are priced correctly, are thoroughly prepared and showcased with beautiful pictures.
How might a driverless car fit into and even enhance this scenario? In suburban or rural areas, consumers prefer the freedom that comes with driving themselves to an open house or a showing appointment with an agent. If you had access to a self-driving vehicle, it would not change anything.
In urban settings with no parking areas or buyers who simply do not own their own cars, taxis and rideshare companies fit the bill just fine and operate exactly like a self-driving car might. The only difference could be that the self-driving car could be programmed to circle the block until you were done viewing each property.
There is a technology, however, that might dramatically change buyer behaviors in the future. We already have a taste of this now in 3D tours from companies such as Matterport. It is currently possible to strap on a set of 3D goggles and “walk through” homes.
Current tours have been limited to the key areas in a home, and while some venture outside for a few shots, the experience is still not comparable to actually being there. Imagine what might be possible if a more immersive 3D format would be available — one that would allow you to “open” doors and drawers, explore every square inch of the interior and exterior, and then allow you to go on a tour of the nearby streets and amenities. In this scenario one would not even consider a self-driving vehicle — there would be no need to visit at all.
A few short years ago, real-time video conferencing from a wristwatch was confined to comic strips. There is no way of knowing what possibilities might be available a mere 10 years in the future, but it is going to be exciting to watch and see.
And as the technology changes, the role of the Realtor changes along with it. We have moved from the era of being primarily showing agents into the realm of transactional experts. While there will most certainly be a need for Realtors in the future, agents who succeed will be the ones who learn to adapt and morph as the world literally changes around us.
Carl Medford is CEO of The Medford Team.