SANTA CLARA, California: When Gilbert Serrano opened the door of his potential dream home, a modern, two-bedroom rental on Karen Drive, he was surprised to be greeted not by a real estate agent, but by a robot.
The sleek, 3-foot-tall bot whirred up to the door on small wheels. "Hello, welcome. You must be Gilbert." An iPad mounted on the machine displayed an agent's smiling face.
These robots, rolled out last summer in the Bay Area by high-tech property management startup Zenplace, are intended to take the hassle out of coordinating showing times between agents and prospective renters. They're just one piece of the new wave of technology that's changing the way we buy, sell and rent homes, as platforms such as Zillow, Redfin and a host of smaller startups have eroded the real estate agent's importance.
These days, clients can use artificial intelligence to comb property data sans realtor, take virtual tours of promising homes from their couches, and even apply for their favourite apartments online.
"We see this whole ecosystem changing," said Roelof Opperman of Fifth Wall, a Venice-based venture capital firm that invests in real estate tech. "Not only is how they buy and sell homes changing, but getting a mortgage is getting more efficient, how escrow works is getting more efficient, how insurance works is getting more efficient ...This whole ecosystem is getting revolutionized."
Startups like Open Door let property owners sell their homes, online, within days. Others, like Matterport and Transported, offer virtual reality home tours. And many companies are increasingly relying on drones to capture enticing images that will help them market their properties.
But Serrano, who works in sales at a tech startup, wasn't looking for revolution when he arrived at the newly renovated fourplex in Santa Clara. The 37-year-old San Jose resident was just looking for a new apartment to move into with his fiancé.
"I wasn't expecting a robot," he said, smiling with amusement as the bot, known as "Zenny," rolled around the apartment.
"I'm a person too!" countered real estate agent Rabia Levy, who was controlling the bot from Zenplace's Sunnyvale headquarters. And apart from a glitch that occasionally made her voice cut out, forcing Serrano to ask her to repeat herself, she responded to his questions in real-time, cheerfully whizzing around the apartment via robot and showing off its features.
"There's lots of light in this place. Beautiful hardwood floors," she said. She turned into the kitchen, with Serrano following behind. "Gorgeous stainless steel appliances."
Serrano tested the blinds in the bedroom. He opened one of the cabinets in the kitchen. Before the end of the tour, he was picturing where his L-shaped couch would fit in the living room.
Zenplace, which has a few hundred robots giving tours throughout the Bay Area, wants to make renting a home as easy as summoning an Uber, said CEO Rahul Mewawalla. Prospective tenants upload a copy of their ID, via their smartphone, which Zenplace uses to run a background check. Then Zenplace texts the client a code to get into the property, via a lockbox, on his or her own schedule. After a tour, the client can use the robot to fill out a rental application on the spot.
Serrano found the robot tour convenient, and said he felt less pressure than he might have if a live agent had been in the room. At the end of the tour, Levy used the robot's iPad screen to show Serrano rents at comparable apartments nearby and a picture of a park around the corner.
Levy, who has been a real estate agent for 11 years, said using the robot saves her time. Pre-robot, between time spent driving and coordinating with her clients' schedules, she could fit in just one or two showings a day, and often had to wait until the weekend to show a property at an open house.
"It wasn't physically possible for me to be everywhere at once," she said.
Now she can do between 15 and 20 showings a day, which is better for her bottom line.
And although the robot has some limitations – it can't climb stairs, for example – Levy says the experience is so seamless that she sometimes forgets she's not in the room.
Not all realtors are enthusiastic about the new technology. Rick Smith, a real estate broker since 1986, said nothing – not even a shiny, high-tech robot – can replace meeting a client face-to-face. Building connections with clients, answering their questions and watching their facial expressions are all key ways Smith judges people's interest in a property, and determines if person and property are a good match.
"When you've been in the business as long as I have, you often get a gut feeling about someone when you're sitting across the table from them," said Smith, president of the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors.
Mewawalla says his robots can improve a rental experience that, traditionally, "can be pretty frustrating on both sides," as landlords struggle to coordinate showing times with prospective renters, and spend days sending paperwork back and forth, leading to delays in getting properties rented.
But in this market, where properties are flying off the shelves, Smith says the robots may be a waste of money.
"When we get a vacancy," he said, "it's usually days, not weeks, before we fill it." — San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service