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Artificial Intelligence (AI) in real estate: Negating or monetizing an agent’s experience?

There is a growing interest and concern regarding the role of artificial intelligence in real estate, but most arguments miss the core of what makes an agent appealing.



Have you ever emailed or texted someone, and subsequently opened Facebook on your phone to immediately see that person in your news feed?

You read the entire terms of service when you downloaded that app, right? So you remember agreeing to every bit of your phone’s hardware and software recording and interpreting the signals that your everyday actions are creating (just nod your head yes—it’s watching you right now).

Artificial Intelligence is seeing tremendous growth in consumer-driven industries. It is the ability for software to learn and adapt to consumer behavior via live feedback. Cars, websites, wearables, and apps are becoming more intelligent and adaptable.

We’re seeing huge advances in the affordability of AI software that match the exponential growth of hardware’s computing power.

Simultaneously, human labor in developed countries is increasing in cost. Minimum wage laws, increasing liability, and rising health care costs are pushing employers to replace labor with technology. McDonald’s employees become kiosks that order Big Macs. Chase Bank tellers are replaced by apps that scan and deposit checks. Companies like Circuit City and Borders Books shutter their stores as websites more efficiently serve their customers.

How AI intersects with RE

Intelligent software has massive potential for creating technology that changes labor markets. Real estate labor is a natural target, and a couple of recent pieces got the ball rolling this past week. Russ Cofano penned a broker outlook that viewed “cognitive computing” not as a threat to labor, but an asset to the baseline of real estate’s agent intelligence:

“So here’s the question. What if cognitive computing enables agents to be better professionals and make better recommendations to their clients? What if access to cognitive computing power, and the data necessary to power it, becomes the 21st century equivalent of the MLS utility?”

Further, Cofano states, “Cognitive computing has the potential to add massive value to the real estate brokerage value proposition and do for agent professionalism what no other initiative could touch.”

While the piece focused on the superior delivery mechanism (Upstream vs. the MLS), it provided support to the idea that brokers could adopt intelligent data systems to improve agent capabilities industry-wide.

Not surprisingly, a different take came from Rob Hahn, focused on the costs of repetitive labor and the likely evolution:

“The $6 billion question is where real estate brokerage services fit in the spectrum of services if we put McDonald’s order-taker on the one extreme and the Chief Engineer of Nuclear Fusion Reactors on the other extreme in terms of specialized skill and knowledge.

I think most of my readers know the answer. Real estate is far, far closer to McDonald’s than it is to McDonnell-Douglas.

…rote procedures and manual inputs are being displaced by technology. Why would it be any different for the rote procedures and manual inputs in the real estate business?

Answer: it won’t.

Those real estate agents who survive will have to be ‘upskilled’ and focus on niche areas or ‘be equipped to handle smart systems.'”

Comparing two views on AI

So we have two very different views of software intelligence’s effect on real estate agents. In one, brokers might adopt cognitive computing measures to improve agents’ core capabilities to serve consumers. They improve and survive as a unified group of forward-thinking adopters.

In another, AI wipes away the entire foundation of repetitive services performed in real estate. This debases the masses of agents and eliminates the need for their services. It leaves only the specialized practitioners above water when it’s done.

It would be remiss of me to gloss over the McDonald’s analogy. The skills that allow agents to survive in their occupation can’t be crammed into a single linear comparison. It seems prudent to point out that the comparison of rocket scientists, real estate agents, and Egg McMuffin order takers should be complex.

In recent real estate history, replacing a repetitive procedure in the sales process with software has simply changed the sales process. It hasn’t removed the sales person. There are graveyards full of real estate labor would-be disruptors who have a poignant understanding of that history.


The intrinsic skills that keep real estate agents strongly entrenched in the industry seem to center on two things:

  • Personalized intelligence (unique local knowledge, negotiation, transactional experience)
  • Personal relationships (emotional IQ and sphere building)

The latter is almost invariably ignored in real estate labor disruption conversations, yet it’s probably the single greatest barrier to disruption. People list with people. Sellers’ top three requirements for a listing agent are reputation, honesty, and trustworthiness.

AI is the intrusive stalker in your phone. Thelma is the amazing woman who comes to book club and walks with you on weekends. H.A.L. 2000 can’t touch her in terms of trust. This should be the overriding theme of every disruption conversation.

On to bottling knowledge

In the future, personalized intelligence might be a different story. If part of the value of exceptional agents comes from what they know from experience, the way they negotiate, and how they interact with clients, how much of that could be learned by an exceptional AI platform?

Could exceptional agents allow themselves to be profiled by their devices and capture that intelligence to monetize it? Would brokers be able to conglomerate the practices and intelligence of their best agents to provide a unique set of processes for their agents and answers for their clients that aren’t available to the general public?

It might not be as crazy as it sounds. Think about the vast amount of information that could be gleaned from one agent over a single year with all of his/her devices in “AI learn mode.” Spoken word, tone, movement, visual cues, timing, location data, digital communication, social engagement, contract negotiation—all of these and more could be processed into a database describing when, where, and how top agents interact with their environments to close more sales transactions.

Who owns the AI?

While the aforementioned could be done on an industry-wide basis to inform brokers as a whole, it might also be led by savvy top producing agents or brokers who would profit from it as a differentiator. Melded with predictive analytics on consumer behavior and market statistics, the right set of personalized intelligence could tell an agent when and where to meet a consumer, and how to begin interacting with that person to provide a greater likelihood of a client and a sale.

Of course, until personality can be direct-ported into the agent’s brain, we still need a human with emotional IQ to show up and close the deal. The creation of a relationship might be initiated by data, but it’s going to be sealed with emotion.

ThelmaRealtor software version 2.5 could be an AI profile that’s sold to brokers or new agents as a foundational of intelligence for their careers. Whether these benefits and profits go to the real Thelma, her brokerage, or the industry depends on who adopts the technology first.

Back to the people

If that’s all a bit too much sci-fi, let’s get back to the basics. There are huge opportunities for the brokerage community to leverage greater technology and AI to improve how they do business. Those that do will have valuable differentiating tools and skills.

Still, Thelma v. 2.5 isn’t going to wipe out the physical agents on the ground. Technologists with armies of software agents will continue to stare at screens, while real life agents are cementing unbreakable relationships with real people. Consumers will work with agents they view as trustworthy, no matter what amazing intelligence is dangled in front of them by H.A.L. 2000 Realty.

It’s true that consumers want more intelligent real estate transactions. Before that, though, they want trust. AI has great prospects for helping brokers and agents improve their business intelligence, but it’s not going to take the human element out of the transaction any time soon. The real Thelma’s role may change, but she still owns the most valuable, subjective, and defensible portion of the real estate transaction: the relationship.


Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King Country REALTORS®. You can find his team at and


How calendars can stop your procrastination, boost productivity

(PRODUCTIVITY) As the old method of pen-to-paper planning comes back in style, see how its use can help with time management.



writing pen paper productivity

My favorite part of writing for this publication, by far, is the fact that it always has me keeping my eyes and ears open for inspiration. The simplest comment from a friend can snowball into an idea that becomes beneficial to others.

Such was the case this past weekend when my best friend, Haley, stopped by to help me unpack my new house. Haley is a graduate student, pursuing a master’s in interpersonal communication, and is a much smarter version of myself.

We got to talking about what was on tap for Haley’s final semester and she told me about a workshop she’s creating for the graduate school on the topic of how using planners/calendars helps with time management. The girl has an affinity for pen-to-paper planners, and has created an organizational structure for her daily life through their use.

Naturally, I thought, “hey, sometimes I attempt to give people advice on time management and planning, let’s bounce some ideas off of each other.” Haley then gave me a rundown of the bullet points she’s planning on covering for her interactive workshop.

1) Take everything as it comes. As a new task pops up, put it down on your calendar (whether paper or electronic) so that you don’t forget to do it later.

2) With these tasks, schedule deadlines for yourself. It can be tough to be self-motivate and have tasks completed by your own assignment. However, putting them down in writing will help you stick to them.

Only work on something if you’re being productive. If you stop being productive, you should take a step back and work on something else for a while,” says Haley. “This is why my personal deadlines help because it makes me work harder but I still have my own time.”

3) Schedule out your week starting with events that you cannot change. Start by writing down your work schedule, then appointments, meetings, etc. Then schedule in tasks that have more flexibility in time.

4) After doing this, take all of these tasks and prioritize what must be completed first and assess how much time each task will take. Be sure to give yourself an appropriate amount of time for each task.

5) For bigger projects, considering breaking them down a bit. “For bigger projects I break it down into steps, normally using a concept map to understand the core aspects of my task and what needs to be accomplished within each of those to make it more digestible,” says Haley. “Once I have the pieces, I place the pieces into my weekly schedule of events I cannot change.”

All of the pieces of this puzzle come together to create a calendar that will help you juggle every aspect of your life and boost your productivity. By implementing these ideas in my own planning, it has definitely helped me to become more of a self-starter.

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A hugely dangerous challenge of the Internet of Things

(EDITORIAL) The Internet of Things is here, with all manner of soft AI voices and shiny Bluetooth bits. But how long can we count on it staying?



LG Alexa internet of things

So, robot apocalypse. The Internet of Things machines have their cold metal fingers all up in our data, our houses, our sand dunes and/or porn.

And for what? What do they offer in exchange for this unprecedented invasion of our day to day lives?

Seamless, user-friendly automation to help with a thousand daily tasks, demonstrably improving our quality of life.

That’s… that’s actually a pretty good offer! Nice work, robots.

It comes with catches, and we’ve covered those, but Day One bumps and blunders are part of owning tech. They generally get engineered out.

What I want to talk about is Day 100, or 1000. Because the important word in “Internet of Things” isn’t “Internet.” We have the Internet. We can confidently expect the Internet to continue being a big deal.

But “things” is an important word. Things are distinct from tech. With tech, buying the thing and futzing with the thing are part of the fun, especially for practicing nerds like your narrator. Tech is new, and the excitement of a new game or a new phone can take the edge off, say, a server crash or a quick trip to tech support and back.

What about things? No early adopter aura in history will get a customer to ignore a fridge full of rotten food. Fridges need to work, period. So does your thermostat and your car. All those things are charter candidates for the full IoT overhaul, and they’re all capital T Things, not tech. They aren’t shiny toys people can live without for a week or four. They’re expected parts of daily life, things that need to work on Day 1, 100, and 1000.

Are companies preparing for that? Are the startups rising out of the blue-light-white-plastic Stuff Renaissance prepared to rebrand as global service providers, doing the hard, unglamorous, absolutely necessary work of digital maintenance?

Bigger question: are they prepared to guarantee security while they do so? Because anything with digitized bits needs patches and updates to function, and if it can download patches and updates, it can download things that are not patches and updates. No one wants to chase a botnet out of their microwave. Are the companies invested in always-on Things standing up and saying they’ll take responsibility for indefinitely securing and maintaining the infrastructure they intend to profit from?

Short answer, no. They’re not. Operations departments tend to be vanishingly small, painfully understaffed, spectacularly underpaid. Let’s be real,: we don’t prioritize stuff like that. We’re talking the digital equivalent of the guy who chases the raccoons out of your HVAC, and that sounds entirely too much like work.

Maintenance is not sexy.

But it’s absolutely necessary. It’s generally just the beginning of a thing. It gets the wheel rolling, and that’s not to be undersold.

But the IoT wheel is most definitely rolling. The issue is keeping it in motion, making it a wifi-level universal usage standard, not a 3DTV fad.

That won’t get done in a meeting. That gets done through long term adoption, and long term adoption will be about attracting, training, and retaining people willing to do the hard work of maintenance and customer support.

The Internet of Things wants to be a major step forward in the infrastructure of daily life. I am incredibly in favor of that. But daily life works because it’s the full time job of a whole lot of people to make sure it does so. So to Internet of Things companies, I say – pay them, treat them well, make your organization the best place in the industry for them, or be left behind by the people who do.

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Incorporating less stress into your work day

(WORKPLACE) Telling someone to chill when stressed at work is useless advice, so let’s discuss meaningful, tangible ways anyone can stress less at work.



stress mental health

You can’t avoid all the stress of a job, whether you own your own business or work for someone. It’s important to deal with chronic stress. Long-term, stress will affect your immune system, causing you to get sick more often. It’s linked to heart disease, heart attacks, low fertility and many other health problems. It can make asthma and acid reflux much worse. You have to manage your stress.

How can you incorporate less stress into your work? I have dealt with anxiety all my life. Here are a few of my most effective solutions:

1. Set boundaries

No is a complete sentence. I know my priorities and have to make myself say no to even simple requests. I’ve learned that the less I explain, the more likely I’m going to stick to those boundaries. I can’t stop people from asking me to do something, but I can make sure that I’m getting my work in on time.

2. Don’t wait until the last minute

I’m a horrible example to follow, because I can procrastinate with the best of them. But I’ve found that when I work ahead of deadlines, I am far less stressed. I set imaginary deadlines for myself. If I miss it, I still have time to work. If I don’t, I sleep better because the project is done.

3. Get up away from your desk at least every 60 minutes

Just getting a fresh cup of coffee reminds me to stretch and move. Five minutes away from my screen can help me stay focused on the next project I need to finish. I also try to look away from the computer screen every 10/15 minutes. This reduces eye strain.

4. Leave your work on your desk

Okay, I’ll admit I read emails after hours, but very seldom do I act on them. I’m finding that I need to shut down at 5 or 6 in the afternoon and forget about work. We’re so connected these days that it can be difficult to separate. But you have to. Your family will thank you. Your sanity will thank you.

I’m sure there are more things you can do to relieve your stress. Get a massage. Exercise. Eat healthy. All those things your doctor tells you to do. But before you can practice self-care, you have to prioritize your time and deal with work stress.

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