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Real estate and the cloud: Finding and buying a home on your smartphone

Data and blockchain transform Hong Kong's property market

Finding your dream home to rent or buy can be a nightmare. Sifting through listings, meeting agents, inspecting potential properties, and completing reams of official paperwork can be a real hassle.

But imagine if you could do all that on your smartphone – from anywhere in the world. That’s the future of real estate, and one company in Hong Kong is starting to realize it today, using the agility and security of blockchain and the cloud.

Tomy Pang, CEO of Centaline Data Technology, believes that with blockchain and the cloud, people can buy properties wherever they are securely on their mobile phones.

Breaking with tradition

For years, the territory’s property market functioned in a very traditional, old-fashioned way.

Every step of the process involved filling out confusingly detailed forms – most of them duplicated with carbon paper! Before you could even begin buying or selling you had to meet an agent in person to sign documents to permit them to represent you.

If you were searching for a place, agents would hand you stacks of paper brochures. And, if you wanted to view a property, you had to schedule a time and travel there in person. In busy Hong Kong, that is a chore.

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All that began to change in 2010 when Hong Kong property agency, Centaline, launched its first mobile app called “Centaline Property”. The breakthrough enabled users to browse through listings of houses and apartments in their desired districts or estates or even use GPS searches of available properties elsewhere.

Users would mark which properties they liked, and the app would keep them up to date with the latest listings and pricing trends. Later 360 image, video and VR viewing functions were added so users could conduct virtual walkthroughs.

All of this is standard now, but it was the most downloaded free app in Hong Kong upon launch, and still boasts 100,000 unique users today.

Transforming for convenience

Now, Centaline believes it is onto a new digital gamechanger. It has partnered with Microsoft to use blockchain and cloud technology to streamline time-consuming paperwork. All the necessary forms for buying, selling, renting, or letting can be completed securely and conveniently online via a new look app (with no carbon copies needed!)

Blockchain that runs on Microsoft Azure adds a level of trust and professionalism to the process. Agents send links to the relevant documents to buyers and vendors or landlords and tenants, who can sign digitally – from anywhere.

“We have customers all over the world – even some residing as far away as Canada – who are keen to buy properties in Hong Kong,” says Tomy Pang, Centaline Data Technology’s Chief Executive Officer. “With blockchain, they no longer need to take a flight to Hong Kong to sign documents and can now do that securely on their mobile phones.”

Using blockchain achieves several objectives. It proves the documents have not been tampered with. The documents and data are secured. And, the other party can verify the document and data.

Within just a few months of being available, the usage rate for this blockchain solution has already surpassed 20 percent, reaching as high as 40 percent in some regions. Centaline expects this uptake to keep growing.

Pang says customers are not that concerned about how exactly blockchain works. They just want “an efficient and fast way to sign cumbersome paperwork,” and to know that their personal details are secure.

Potential buyers can now view Hong Kong properties virtually on Centaline’s mobile app.

One-stop shop

Centaline has found a solid business case for using blockchain. Streamlining the paperwork process has made everything faster. More properties online translate into more sales. And, agents can manage more properties at any given time.

Looking ahead, the company is moving its systems to the Microsoft Azure cloud. It plans to expand blockchain and data analytics to take its service to the next level.

The security of blockchain also provides opportunities in after-sales service. Centaline will be able to offer their customers the option of finding lawyers to complete the sale (which is a requirement in Hong Kong) or mortgage lenders directly through the app. Again, all the necessary documents will be shared with them simply and securely.

New Opportunities

Eventually, Pang sees a time when all of Hong Kong’s paper agreements will be digitalized, creating new business opportunities from the deployment of data analytics and artificial intelligence. By way of example, Centaline anticipates having real-time knowledge of what properties are hot and who should be targeted for ads.

Finding the right place to live is a big decision and a hard task for most of us. But technology is starting to simplify procedures and delays.