I had an egg sandwich this weekend with an oncologist who asked for a meeting so he could roll out a dozen ways to revolutionize the real estate industry. Just as the conversation was drifting toward other topics, including my love for beagles and their role in his medical experiments, he made one final proposal: web-controlled lockboxes for self-service home tours.
A traditional lockbox is how real estate agents access properties for sale, entering a code issued by the Multiple Listing Service. This lockbox is the main problem with an online business model, as it is expensive for us to hire field agents who can open the lockbox just to show the property, and we would rather have those folks focusing on what Redfin agents do best, guiding customers through decisions, negotiations, contingencies, and escrow.
The oncologist’s idea was to provide an online forum where a prospective buyer could present credentials (bank statements, credit card number, criminal record, photo, property access history) to the seller. The seller could then decide to schedule a time when the buyer could access the property, whereupon the website would issue a temporary code for opening the web-controlled lockbox. Armed with the code at the designated time, the buyer could access the property on her own.
This lockbox would be available to any seller, in addition to the traditional agent lockbox; homes with the self-service lockbox would be identified with a special marker on our map. Of course many homes would not have this self-service lockbox, and many buyers will always prefer to meet a friendly, knowledgeable Redfin field agent to introduce them to Redfin and guide them through the first steps of buying a home.
And yet this idea is intriguing. The oncologist presented his idea with fiendish intensity, anticipating objections, proposing manufacturing schemes, suggesting variations (fingerprint recognition, hidden surveillance cameras). His wife, a former real estate agent, nodded carefully.
“But someone could hide in the house,” I said. “Someone could get hurt.”
“I’m an oncologist,” he said, smiling. “I know someone is being hurt right now.”
The cafe had become quiet. Outside it had just begun to snow. The oncologist stood up.
“No one will be hurt,” he said. We talked about how other sites facilitated transactions and even meetings between total strangers: match.com, eBay, craigslist. He reminded me that the Internet depended on trust, and that the seller could decide for himself who could see the property. For the first time in my life, I felt cautious, and somehow cowed.
How do you feel about this idea? I promised the oncologist I would ask via this blog, and he promised to monitor the comments. The title of this post was of course his idea, too…