AI and Real Estate: How Technology is Redefining Relationships

Last modified on October 5th, 2020

In the second episode of The Top Floor, we take an in-depth look at how the advancement of technology, including the introduction of AI, is creating new efficiencies and improving the customer experience.

You’ll also get insight into how several property management companies are leveraging AI technology to improve the efficiency of their leasing teams and obtain more reliable data for future needs.

We talk with AI expert and AppFolio CTO Andrew Mutz, Wendell Burris of Minnix Property Management, Kayla Röeder of Cambridge Management Group, and Alexxis Plata and Fernando Galindo of Plenty of Places Apartment Homes.

In this episode, you’ll also hear:

  • How technology has evolved over the last four decades, leading to the introduction of AI
  • The capabilities and shortcomings of AI
  • The role AI plays in helping teams improve efficiencies
  • The future impacts of AI on the industry

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Episode Transcript

Narrator: Technology has impacted everything about our daily lives and routines. To help us understand the role technology plays in property management, we’re talking to AppFolio’s very own AI expert and CTO:

Andrew Mutz: I’m Andrew Mutz. I focus on future technology at AppFolio and the impact it’s going to have on the real estate and property management industries. 

Narrator:  Before we take a look at how technology is currently impacting the property management industry, we need to take a step back. Let’s get up to speed by quickly touching on the evolution of technology over the last four decades. 

Andrew Mutz: So, from my perspective, there have been four big changes in the property management industry over the last four decades. If you go back to 1977, there was the introduction of the personal computer. The next big technological trend that hit our industry was the commercialization of the internet. That happened in 1991. The next big change was the introduction of the smartphone, which I think is appropriate to date from 2007, with the introduction of the iPhone. It wasn’t the first. There were some other smart mobile devices beforehand, but it really had the biggest impact.

Andrew Mutz: And then, the most recent technological change that we’re here to talk about is artificial intelligence. And the reason that I like to talk about these four technologies on the same level is to remind people that we really see AI as being on par with these other four technologies. It’s not a small technological change that’s going to be affecting our industry, it really is a big one, and so I think we need to think about it on this level.

Narrator: So, how is traditional software falling short in the property management industry? There are a few obvious ways.

Andrew Mutz: Some examples of things traditional software cannot do, traditional software cannot understand human spoken or written language. If a human was to say, “I’m interested in this property,” or, “I’m interested in this building,” we as humans know that those are very similar statements, but to a machine following strict rules, those are two very different statements. So, traditional software struggles with human natural language.

Andrew Mutz: Additionally, traditional software struggles for tasks involving common sense. If we have a leaky faucet and the last 100 times we’ve dispatched the same vendor to fix that leaky faucet, a little common sense can tell you, “Why don’t I just dispatch that same vendor this 101st time?” But traditional software really struggles with that. And lastly, traditional software really struggles with emotion or human relationships. Those are things that traditional software just can’t handle at all, and we don’t really think technology’s ever going to be able to handle those.

Narrator: But since AI can respond to situations intelligently, rather than being limited to following a fixed process, it has major potential to redefine technology’s role in real estate.

Andrew Mutz: Some examples that AI can do, you can have an AI system conversationally schedule showings with a prospect who wants to live in an apartment. You can have an AI system read the contents of an invoice. You can an AI system make some inferences about dispatching of vendors, these sort of things. So, all these things that needed to be done by humans, now can be done by an AI system.

Andrew Mutz: When it comes to understanding human natural written and spoken communication, AI technology can understand human natural language, and so this means that there are tasks that we could not have made before that we can now automate.

Narrator: The technology Mutz has been describing is not just hypothetical — today, it is actually helping property management companies, specifically leasing teams, accomplish many of these things Mutz mentions. For example, Lisa, AppFolio’s AI leasing assistant, is a conversational AI that handles inquiries from prospective residents, so that leasing agents can focus on building relationships rather than responding to calls and texts. Here’s Wendell Burris with Texas-based Minnix Property Management.

Wendell Burris: We’re at a point to where Lisa is basically scheduling everything for us. Contacting and following up with every lead that’s coming in and our showing rate has doubled every week. We were constantly having full schedules. We had to hire another full time showing agent just to keep up with the amount of showings that she is now scheduling. And so with that, as everyone in property management knows, the more showings you have, the more applications you get, the more applications, the more properties that are leased. 

Wendell Burris: And so our agents, you know, originally thought that they were basically being replaced by AI. Now, now that Lisa is actually active and running smoothly, we’re able to focus more on calling back these, these tenants focusing on customer service better, it really just freed up more time for us to give back to our tenants.

Narrator: Although conversational AI can save quite a bit of time for leasing teams, providing a quality experience during the leasing process is also extremely important. Surprisingly, an AI leasing assistant can also excel here. Listen to what Kayla Röeder, COO of Cambridge Management Group in San Diego California, has to say about her company’s experience with the same AI leasing assistant:

Kayla Röeder: I think from the standpoint that it is a robot is still interesting and surprising because it doesn’t seem like one. They’ve created it to be very personable and she interacts with you like another regular human being. It is a little weird that that is what’s on the other side of it, that there actually isn’t a human being on the other side. But at the same time I personally love technology, so it’s fascinating to me to see how quickly and efficiently she learns things and responds and changes schedules and manipulates things for us on the backend just all via an email.

Narrator: In fact, using Lisa to respond to incoming leads actually ended up providing a more human experience:

Kayla Röeder: The year prior, for years, we’ve tried to bridge the gap of working as efficiently as possible. And one of the ways that we did that was to create these canned responses based on the questions. Because every manager knows you get the same question over and over and over again, so you create these canned responses based on what the prospect is answering and you can basically copy and paste the verbiage into an email and hit send. We would do it either question-based or property based, it would literally is as easy as copying the response and then going through the emails, copy paste, send, copy paste, send, copy paste, send, copy paste, send. Maybe adding a little bit here and there based on the question they’re asking. That would be at the point where they would say, “Are we interacting with a robot?”

Kayla Röeder: It’s not really a human being on the other end because the canned responses were so similar across the board. Well, what happened is because they would acquire about multiple properties, we would be copying and pasting the same answer across the board because again, same question, but they would acquire about three or four properties of ours and we would copy and paste the same thing. Their interpretation of what we were doing was that they’re interacting with some sort of a robot. Fast forward to bringing Lisa on and having the AI, an actual true artificial intelligence, nobody even realized. We don’t get the same comments that we were getting just from our own interaction. We were literally interacting with every single email. It was not any kind of artificial intelligence. We bring Lisa on board and because of how she interacts and the way that she responds, it’s very human like. We don’t ever get that question anymore.

Narrator: When automated processes are not in place, inefficiencies occur.

Andrew Mutz: Well, first and most obviously, it soaks up time, right? This refers to a task that humans now have to be doing in the workplace. You’d like a machine to be doing it, it’s routine, it’s well-defined, but it can’t be done. A human has to do it. And that means you need more people on your team to be doing these routine types of work. And so, that’s usually the most obvious, when people talk about automation, is that it soaks up time. But there are other benefits that sometimes are less obvious that are just as large.

Narrator: Not only will automating your processes save you time and improve efficiencies, but it will also help you make more informed business decisions.

Andrew Mutz: Every time that you can’t automate a step, you end up with imperfect data about what’s happening in your business. well-meaning humans will try their best, but frequently, data gets left out or there’s errors in transcription. And so, when you go to make important business decisions, your computer systems end up having imperfect data, and that imperfect data can, can lead to imperfect decisions. And so, that’s another big benefit of automating, is you get machine quality data when you can automate a step in a workflow.

Narrator: Alexxis Plata, Marketing Coordinator from Plenty of Places Apartment Homes, has seen a major benefit in collecting quality data with Lisa. 

Alexxis Plata: When we implemented Lisa with the company, we noticed that all of our reporting was just taken off of our hands. We no longer had to remind agents over and over to remember to put your lead sources in the guest card and remember to ask them where they found us and so, from a marketing perspective it was crucial for me that we were able to implement Lisa into the portfolio for us because it not only saves me time, but it gave me a sense of security with our data, knowing that it was accurate and knowing that our agents had less on their plate and more time to feel less stressed out and then take care of our residents instead. So, that’s where it really played the biggest role for my company.

Narrator: Alexxis’ teammate, Regional Account Manager Fernando Galindo, explains how this valuable data actually allows them to better spend their marketing budget: 

Fernando Galindo: It provides a lot of data, and with the data we can choose where we spend our money. So we can spend our money a little more wisely versus just throwing it in the air and hoping we chose wisely, but with Lisa, we get a lot of information. We get a lot of leads are coming from here, we’re converting this many leads from here and it feels better to spend your money comfortably because you’re getting the numbers back so you spend the money and you see the numbers that it’s giving you.

Narrator: Of course, there are still limitations, even with the rapid advancement of AI technology.

Andrew Mutz: AI technology allows us to break through many of those limitations, not all of them, but many of them. 

Andrew Mutz: AI systems still can’t do emotion or human relationships, and we don’t really foresee a future in which they will. That’s really going to be the domain of us, of humans.

Narrator: But, although a conversational AI can’t build those relationships, what it can do is create time for humans to connect by lifting the burden of repetitive and distracting tasks. 

Kayla Röeder: It’s taken that burden off of the company itself. There’s so many efficiencies that are created by having the software in place and then you then have the leasing team carry those efficiencies on through the day because they’re not handling as much as they were in the past. They’re able to really be efficient with their time and interact and make meaningful relationships and have meaningful conversations with people on a day to day basis. 

Kayla Röeder: For us bringing Lisa on board, this created not only the ability to create a better customer service experience for the people that are interacting with you, but it also takes all the backend pieces of the day to day admin stuff. The typical questions that are asked of our staff that we don’t necessarily need to interact with, it takes all that off of their plate and allows them the ability to just create a customer service experience and then really give them and provide them good customer service and then really create the relationship first and put the relationship first versus all the admin duties. That then creates a much better seamless, a more personable experience for the perspective resident coming in.

Kayla Röeder: Again, it just takes all that busy work in the admin side of it off of their plates, they can just strictly focus on the person that’s right in front of them. Really and truly at the end of the day we all want the same thing. We want to be looked at and to be seen and be heard and to have people focus on us to help us through the process. Finding a home is one of the most stressful things that we can do. It’s one of the basic needs of life and we have a really big responsibility as property managers to provide good quality housing and to help people understand that we do really care. We want to find them in the right place and by harnessing the technology to help us along the way, that really creates a better level of service for us moving forward.

Narrator: Now, as even as more of the leasing process is taking place virtually rather than face to face, the need to create a human connection doesn’t change.

Kayla Röeder: …People are doing things online. They’re doing virtual tours in order to rent apartments. So there’s a lot of technology that’s being integrated and being thrown at them, and harnessing all of that in a way that it’s streamlined but also creating those meaningful interactions with people.

Kayla Röeder: Where you have the ability to use the technology, but you wrap your arms around that technology so they still get the human experience because it’s not all about technology. You can’t rely solely on technology. You still have to have that human experience, so being able to bridge the gap of those two, I think is really where the future is and understanding technology enough to get you to that point and having a team that’s trained to wrap their arms around the technology, to truly understand the technology and then also wrap their arms around the human being that’s integrated into that technology is really where the future is.

Narrator: As we start to see more automation in the industry, just know it will take some time to see its true impact.

Andrew Mutz: The impact is not immediate. There’s going to be this delay, this lag time, between technological innovation and then actual impact in industry. 

Narrator: But rest assured, we’re much closer to seeing the impacts of AI on our industry than you might think.

Andrew Mutz: From my perspective, the impact of AI on our industry is really happening now in 2020, and it’s going to be increasing going into 2021. From what we’re seeing inside our company and talking to our customers and with our products, we are seeing AI adoption rising quickly.

Episode Guests

Andrew Mutz

Chief Technology Officer, AppFolio Inc.

Andrew works on technology at AppFolio, with a primary focus on artificial intelligence. Outside of the office, Andrew teaches at UCLA on the topic of building scalable internet services. Prior to joining AppFolio, Andrew built software at Citrix and IBM. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science from UC Santa Barbara.

Kayla Röeder ARM®, CPM®

Chief Operating Officer, Cambridge Management Group, Inc.

Kayla Röeder is a management consultant and a founder of Cambridge Management Group, Inc. As a CA BRE Licensed Broker, a member of the NAAEI Faculty, and with over 19 years of experience, she is an expert in marketing, leasing, maintenance and management operations, leadership development and technology strategies. She oversees the marketing, maintenance, technology and daily operations at Cambridge. She currently sits on the Board of Directors for the San Diego Chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management and serves on the Political Action Committee for the National Association of Residential Property Managers and the San Diego Police Officers Foundation.

Additional Thanks:

Wendell Burris, Minnix Property Management
Alexxis Plata and Fernando Galindo, Plenty of Places Apartment Homes

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