With the seemingly unstoppable growth of big tech companies over the past two decades, many of them are branching out into new industries such as health, automotive or finance. It’s no surprise therefore that big tech is also setting its sight on the real estate industry, the single largest asset class in the world.
We take a look at how big tech players are expanding their reach into real estate by segmenting steps of the RE value chain.
1. Property Search
Property search has long been under digital disruption through listing sites such as Zillow and Trulia that make it easier to find homes and connect to agents. Now, big tech companies are making moves to become part of the home searching process as well. In June of 2019, Amazon launched the TurnKey Home Buying Program in partnership with Realogy, the largest brokerage in the US. TurnKey matches those looking for a home with one of Realogy’s brokers and gives financial rewards to buyers in form of Amazon smart home products, services and other perks.
Two of the biggest Chinese tech giants — Alibaba and Tencent — are also entering the property search market in a bid to profit from the surging Chinese real estate industry. In 2017, Alibaba launched a home rental service through their Alipay app, where customers can search and rent properties without any deposit. The service is powered by the Alipay credit-scoring algorithm and only allows participants with a certain score to join. Tencent is entering into this space through big investments into Chinese prop-tech companies, most notably with its $1 billion investment into Lianjia, one of China’s largest real-estate brokerages, and leading an $800 million funding of the online listing platform Beike Zhaofang.
2. Viewings and Development
The real estate industry depends heavily on tenants, developers and investors imagining themselves in a place that doesn’t yet exist. So it comes as no surprise that virtual and augmented reality tech is finding useful applications in the RE industry, helping to visualize furnished homes and architectural models. In fact, real estate is becoming one of the main industries where VR and AR is applied and is expected to turn into a $2.6 billion market by 2025.
Since most (if not all) of the market-leading VR and AR headsets are made by big tech players such as Facebook, HTC or Samsung, these companies are well-positioned to provide the underlying technology for one of the most important digital platforms transforming real estate. Just one of many applications in this space is a partnership between Microsoft and enterprise software Altoura as part of the ‘Microsoft Mixed Reality Partner’ Program. Clients can use Altoura to create a digital simulation of a future property and virtually project it into the room during a meeting using a Microsoft HoloLens.
3. Property & Land Purchase
The two biggest single US real estate purchases of 2018 were made not by a financial services firm, but by a tech company — Google, paying $1 billion for a business park in Mountain View and $2.5 billion for Chelsea Market in NYC (the city’s second largest single-asset sale ever). In 2019, Google is enlarging its real estate portfolio at an even more rapid pace, with plans to spend $13 billion on land and buildings by the end of the year.
(Chelsea Market in NYC)
Driven by their growing appetite for data centres, an expanding workforce and generous local tax incentives, big tech companies have been heavily growing their real estate portfolios across the United States and abroad. Large real estate acquisitions allow them to diversify away from their core business and are turning big tech companies into partial real estate investment firms with experienced CRE experts on board. Berlin-based Rocket Internet has even outright admitted that they are having a harder time identifying exciting startup ideas and welcome real estate as a way to diversify their portfolio. They established a separate real estate investment fund (Global Realty Capital) and have been making headlines with acquisitions of several large-scale properties in Berlin.
True to its nickname ‘The Everything Store’, Amazon lately expanded its product catalogue to include tiny homes and cabins that you can buy ready-made in a few clicks. With its $6.7 million investment into Plant Prefab, a homebuilder that creates pre-made sustainable homes, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that families will soon purchase their entire home on Amazon.com. Their first investment into a homebuilder was made via the Alexa fund and is seen by many as a play to expand the reach of Amazon ́s virtual assistant technology (more on that below).
A flipside of the meteoric success that big tech companies have enjoyed is the increasing lack of affordable living in the Bay Area and other hubs, seen by many as an outright housing crisis. In an attempt to position themselves as better neighbours and try to lessen property prices, companies like Microsoft and Google have started to commit significant funds to building homes and unlocking land for construction near their headquarters. While Microsoft pledged $500M for constructing low-cost homes in Seattle, Google committed $1 billion to build affordable 20,000 homes in Silicon Valley.
5.1 Buildings — Retail
Amazon, retails’ biggest nightmare, is somewhat ironically getting pretty serious about retail itself. It bought the Whole Foods grocery chain for $13.7 billion, is expanding Amazon Book Stores and plans to open 3,000 cashier-less Amazon Go Stores by 2021. The reasons for this aggressive expansion into brick-and-mortar are manyfold. Physical stores serve as additional places to return items, something that is a big struggle for Amazon as 30% of all items get returned. Additionally, physical stores allow Amazon to collect more data on consumer preferences and pursue a complete multi-channel strategy, since customers who shop via multiple channels tend to spend up to twice as much with that retailer.
In China, tech companies are disrupting retail at a fast pace as well. Alibaba’s CEO Jack Ma actually coined the term ‘New Retail’ as one of five main pillars in their long-term business strategy. One of the most concrete examples of Alibaba’s New Retail is the launch of their own supermarket chain Freshippo, where the smartphone takes center stage in the shopping experience. Customers can find out more about each product on their app and have the option of scanning products into a virtual basket to have them delivered to their home — meaning that the fresh-food supermarket becomes a fulfillment centre.
In May 2019, Tencent teamed up in a new venture with Wanda, China’s largest commercial property firm, to build China’s first smart shopping mall. The mall has a VR gaming zone, holographic adds, advanced payment technologies, and the option for retailers to use WeChat (Tencent’s app) to run promotions. Across the country, the boundary between offline and online is disappearing as supermarkets, convenience stores, shops and malls receive a digital layer, ushering in a new era of shopping.
5.2 Buildings — Residential (Smart Home Tech)
It’s no secret that tech giants are in a bitter competition to become the number one smart home ecosystem. At a compound annual growth rate of 16.9% in the smart home market over the next few years and an expected market size of $53 billion by 2022, it becomes clear why.
Amazon paid $90 million for Blink, a video doorbell and security camera company and seems to release a new Amazon Echo device every other month, along with smart screens that show recipes and the Echo Look, a camera that helps you make fashion choices.
In addition, Google recently merged all its smart home products under the Nest brand and is also busy launching new devices such as the Google Nest Hub Max that you can use for video calls and home security monitoring. Apple seems to be moving at a slower speed, but still has a pretty clear intention about being a bigger part in people’s homes with its HomePod and HomeKit program.
6. Property Management
Speech-based assistants such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri are not just changing how we interact with appliances via a new form of interface, but also with service providers around our homes. As part of their Google Assistant Investment Program, Google invested into proptech-firm AskPorter, a voice-powered digital assistant for landlords and tenants to interact that helps with everything from arranging viewings to setting up cleanings.
Amazon again is active in this part of the real estate value chain with its partnership with Zego, a company that makes smart home management software. Zego’s app already allows tenants to request repairs and pay their rent. Under the partnership with Amazon, Zego now plans to upgrade their app with Alexa-skills to make many more features possible.
Allied Market Research — Global Smart Speaker Market to Garner $23.32 Billion by 2025 at 23.4% CAGR
ASEAN Today — Alipay’s entry into the Chinese rental market
Forbes — Alibaba’s ‘New Retail’ Revolution
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL — Tencent invests $1 billion in Chinese real-estate brokerage Lianjia
Wall Street Journal — Amazon’s Plan to Move In to Your Next Apartment Before You Do