CALGARY — Kim and Dave Bailey knew they wanted to build their new home on a lot that would accommodate a three-car garage.
But finding the right location meant repeatedly taking time out of their day to visit sales offices, only to find out what they wanted wasn't even a possibility.
"We must have visited seven or eight homebuilders in the community," said Dave. "We'd have a conversation and then ask, 'can you accommodate a three-car garage?' They'd say 'nope," and so it was like, 'OK, I guess we wasted our time.' "
After one too many unsatisfying experiences, the Baileys stumbled upon Ownly, an online shopping tool for the new home market launched last year by a pair of Calgary entrepreneurs and now available on several Calgary homebuilder websites. Using Ownly, the couple were able to browse prospective communities and floor plans and figure out which home designs fit on which lots.
While the advent of e-commerce and mobile technology long ago changed the way Canadians shop for everything from clothing to vacations to food, the real estate industry has been slower to embrace digital innovation. For most people, buying a house remains a cumbersome, time-consuming process that involves multiple in-person visits with agents, lawyers and bankers.
But that's beginning to change, with a growing number of homebuilders, real estate brokerages and financial institutions offering digital solutions aimed at modernizing the buying and selling process.
The Baileys also used Ownly to play around with different upgrade packages and get a ballpark price quote. By the time they actually set foot in the sales office of the builder from whom they ultimately bought their Calgary dream home, they knew exactly what they wanted and had a good sense of what it was going to cost.
“Building a new home is a huge financial decision," said Kim. "So being able to look at everything before you go out, and being able to tell if this is even feasible for you, it reduces some of that disappointment."
Abdullah Snobar, executive director of The DMZ business incubator at Ryerson University, says the economy is undergoing a major transformation as people become increasingly digitally savvy.
“Startups are definitely thriving in this space and we’re beginning to see the industry really find its footing around it,” he said.
Most homebuyers are familiar with commonplace digital real estate tools like web-based listings, virtual tours and online mortgage calculators. But tech innovators are now partnering with real estate companies to offer everything from digital sales offices to artificial-intelligence enabled search tools to virtual-reality-led property tours.
Advocates say taking advantage of PropTech — a term that refers to the use of technology in the real estate space — can offer a host of benefits to buyers and sellers. Whether it's the minimizing of face-to-face contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, or the convenience of being able to shop on your own schedule, the use of digital solutions can remove some of the headaches from a real estate search.
The use of PropTech can also be a money-saver. Because the Baileys weren't walking blindly into the sales office, they felt more confident about their ability to choose the model and upgrades that worked within their budget.
“Our salesperson didn’t have to upsell us at all. Anything that we upgraded came directly from us, not from them,” Kim said.
While PropTech has made some significant strides when it comes to disrupting the traditional real estate market, experts say it's not yet possible in Canada to complete all the steps in the home-buying process — from offer to financing to closure of the deal — online.
But Fred Cassano, partner and national real estate tax leader with PwC Canada, said a number of PropTech companies will likely offer such tools in the near future.
"I think we’re much closer than people realize to being able to complete the entire process online," Cassano said. “I don’t think we’re too far away from seeing that, which is transacting digitally from start to finish.”
In fact, Ownly says that within the next year, it hopes to expand its own platform to provide a complete end-to-end new home-buying service online.
Melanie Gowans, general manager of sales and marketing at Calgary's Shane Homes — one of the builders that has been using the Ownly tool — said her company is ready for it.
“We would never replace the service we’re offering now. There are going to people who aren’t comfortable doing the whole sale online. But I want to make it available to those who are comfortable," Gowans said.
"We (the home building industry) are one of the last industries to have everything online," she added. "But if you think about back when you first started being able to buy clothes online, that seemed really weird too . . . So I think we are getting there, and we're only going to get better at it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2021.
Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press