Automation in the property industry: a risky business?

  • Man wearing virtual reality glasses  

He might be from Nottingham and sceptical about some forms of automation, but that doesn’t make him a Luddite, argues Steve Holland our Head of Professional Services. Not everything is better without human intervention

Last week I grabbed a cheeky McDonalds on the way back to Nottingham from a site visit. I can’t stand the 7ft greasy touch-screens that have sprung up recently. I’d prefer to speak to a human being, thanks. So I joined the short queue to order only to be asked, with well-intentioned smothering helpfulness and a beckoning smile, if I wanted to use the over-grown iPad instead. 

“Not really.” I said, only to be met with (as if I was a 90-year-old at a busy zebra crossing):  “I can help you.” 


That would probably have been the end of it but later the same day I telephoned a local restaurant to book a table. My dad’s birthday was coming up and a nice meal out was called for. But there was no human taking that request either – venue, time, covers and even any special requests all fully automated and not a word uttered. Did it work?  Admittedly, yes. Did it take something away from a venue which trades, in essence, not just on the food but also the service and hospitality it offers? Definitely, yes.

And, of course, many of us now regularly order a taxi, park our car, book tickets, pay for groceries and plenty more besides with no human interaction. There’ll be an app for it, I’m sure.

But what has this got to do with property?

Well, there is pressure in our industry to automate. Plenty of would-be providers are hoping to hit on the next big Artificial Intelligence revolution and make their millions. And there is an ever-constant pressure to provide services more quickly, and at less cost. Most obviously it concerns valuations. Certain re-sellers of market data (with fairly obvious vested interests, it might be observed) heavily promote increasingly automated reporting. And lenders, if the service is cheaper and quicker, seem understandably keen.

It is often fair to complain about the cost and time taken to buy property in England, commercial or residential. But if a cheaper and quicker valuation relies on second-hand information provided without liability and transactional evidence with little or no human input or, worse still, reported market evidence which is inaccurate but nevertheless accepted at face value, is this healthy progress?

Why could this be a risk?

It is conceivable, with an extensively standardised asset and with well-considered margins, that a lender may not really need (and therefore why should a borrower pay for) a brilliantly accurate valuation. Estate-built housing is the obvious example. But for non-standard housing and most commercial properties, confirming a reliable opinion of value using a heavily automated process is surely playing with fire.

It worries me greatly that this rush to automation and AI by some, certainly in the sphere of valuations and especially valuations for lending, will end in tears.

I don’t believe it makes you a Luddite for suggesting that not everything in life is better with an app, or improved by removing the human interaction. Person to person communication is good for your well-being – mental as well as financial.