Robots Join the Sales Team


Zenny is not your ordinary real estate broker.

For starters, Zenny is only three feet tall, with a long slender body and a rectangular head.

Zenny is also quite young: Created in 2017 by Zenplace, a rental management start-up, Zenny is a remote-controlled robot that is essentially an iPad mounted on a wheeled base, and it is part of an expanding fleet of bionic agents showing homes across the United States. During Covid-19, their numbers are only growing.

Eric Holly, Zenplace’s chief executive, has been with the company since 2017. At the time, he said, “Real estate was old school, a lot of pen and paper, shaking hands, a lot of face-to-face.”

In the three years since, Zenplace, based in Silicon Valley, has rolled out Zenny to thousands of home showings across the country.

There’s plenty of competition: VirtualAPT, based in Brooklyn, has robots that glide through homes and provide immersive virtual reality tours; REX, a brokerage in Woodland Hills, Calif., has an AI-trained robot to answer potential buyers’ questions at open houses; RealFriend and OjoLabs have AI-powered chatbots that mimic human conversation while providing deeply personalized home listings and buying advice.

In Zenny’s case, the robot is powered remotely by the real estate broker or property manager who is handling the showing from afar. It is also equipped with sensors to keep it from running into walls or people.

In addition to Zenny, Zenplace’s platform includes a full suite of rental management solutions, including tenant screening, electronic lockboxes for on-demand property viewings, and a secure online portal for rent payment. The company charges a $599 flat fee for some properties, and $99 a month for others.

VirtualAPT’s robots, which roll through homes capturing 360-degree videos in 4K resolution, provide ultra-crisp, high-quality images. Their service costs 50 cents per square foot, which is significantly less than a human video crew would charge.

And REX, a full-service, digitally-focused real estate brokerage leaning heavily on tech and AI, has equipped its robotic kiosks with AI and natural language processing. They charge a fee of only 2 percent of the home’s sale price, compared to the traditional 5 to 6 percent that traditional agents take.

“Way back in 2017 we started experimenting with all sorts of AI and robotic systems for showing homes, including the REX Robot Kiosk,” said Andy Barkett, REX’s chief technology officer. “You could ask it questions like ‘How old is the roof?’ Or ‘How are the schools around here?’ and it would answer.’”

Their focus now is on drone-based imaging, which they use to display customized information about REX and the property on hand, and building 3-D models of each home using digital imaging and LiDar technology.

Zenny’s added value, Mr. Holly said, is that tenants can set the schedule for viewings, cutting through the red tape of traffic-crowded calendars. “It’s an on-demand economy,” Mr. Holly said, “If you look at any other product that you can purchase in the marketplace, you don’t have to negotiate a time to go see it, so that’s a huge barrier that slows the process down.”

In the world of rentals, robots could be a win-win, said Kelli Miller, a broker associate at Compass Real Estate in Cardiff, Calif. “Realtors don’t make any money on rentals, and you put in a lot of work showing those homes,” she said. “Renters, too, aren’t putting down their life savings, so they’re not picky, and a robot could definitely make things more convenient.”

But when it comes to home purchases, Ms. Miller was more skeptical. “Part of finding an ideal home means having your needs understood, and requires building a relationship between a buyer and an agent. A robot may be convenient and efficient, but it can’t do that.”

Where bionic realtors are making headway in real estate, bots are quickly moving in, as well. Luke, an AI-powered chatbot from the start-up RealFriend, scours dozens of real estate databases to pull personalized recommendations. The bot provides detailed recommendations with targeted amenities like sunlight, safety ratings and nearby subways, and can also answer specific questions such as, “Which directions do the windows face?” or “Is this apartment a better deal than where I am currently living?”

RealFriend was started in 2018 by Hadar Landau and Omri Klinger, two entrepreneurs who served in the same elite intelligence unit of the Israel Defense Forces. They first rolled out Dooron, Luke’s older, Hebrew-speaking cousin, for the Tel Aviv rental market. Luke launched in New York in July. The service is free for users. Brokers selling a property, who generally earn a three percent commission on sales in New York City, pay Luke 25 percent of their commission when the bot brings in a buyer.

The developers consulted with a behavioral economist when building both Luke and Dooron, employing strategies like always letting the client make the decision; making sure the bot’s replies are a discussion rather than facts only; and showing vulnerability by admitting when the bot doesn’t understand or gets something wrong.

Users say the result is similar to texting with a person — if that person had access to every real estate listing in the city.

“Luke is very empathetic. He apologizes if his answers are taking too long. It really feels like you’re talking to a person,” said Dr. Ruben Pagan, who has been hunting for a new one-bedroom apartment with a traditional broker for four months. One month ago, he decided to expand his search reach, and began using Luke to browse listings, while he also kept his human broker.

Thanks to Luke’s direction, he’s now focused on New York’s Seaport neighborhood, and finds himself exploring properties — and asking Luke for a recommended starting offer — at all hours. “I can text him at 11 p.m., or even 1 a.m., and not worry that I’m bothering him,” Dr. Pagan said. He started using Luke by asking which neighborhoods in the city were considered “up and coming” with prices around $700 per square foot.

RealFriend says that 45,000 users have chatted with Luke since his New York debut, resulting in more than 1,000 signed leases and a handful of home purchases. Mr. Klinger, RealFriend’s co-founder and chief technology officer, says he expects the number of buyers utilizing Luke to grow.

“We’re not replacing agents,” Mr. Klinger said. “We’re letting them do what they are best at.”

Luke cannot close a real estate deal, he added — an in-person real estate broker is still required to step in and handle the transaction after Luke does the scanning. And while Luke’s ability to source apartment listings and offer recommendations is beyond any human’s, he still has limitations.

“We still can’t tell you if there is a bad smell in the elevator or if the apartment doesn’t look like its photos,” he added. “We’re not quite there yet.”

For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

[Read More…]