Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.
In September 1934, readers of the National Real Estate Journal learned about a cutting-edge invention called the “Scarsdale Keybox.” This locked steel container, controlled exclusively by members of what is now New York’s Hudson Gateway Association of REALTORS®, was created “to keep out direct buyers.” More than 80 years after this first known mention, lockbox technology has evolved to better integrate advancements in mobility and data, but further developments underway in property access and information control are signaling even bigger shifts for these understated yet ubiquitous devices.
One major game changer has been in the realm of big data. Marilyn Wilson Lund, founding partner of real estate consulting company WAV Group, says internet-enabled lockboxes are already providing valuable insights to agents on both sides of the transaction. Listing agents can use heat maps of showings to figure out the popularity of a neighborhood, giving them an edge in crafting marketing plans and determining pricing. And buyer’s agents can factor the number of showings a listing has had into their negotiations on behalf of clients. Brokerages and associations use aggregated data from lockboxes as a leading indicator about the health of the market in the form of foot traffic. “The intelligence of the lockbox is really interesting,” Lund says. While tools such as ShowingTime’s InfoSparks are already doing some of this, Lund expects the sector to expand. “Technologists need to get smarter about using things that are only available to real estate pros like lockboxes to analyze and deliver meaningful data.”
SentriSmart, the app offered by SentriLock (a REALTOR Benefits® Program partner), integrates data from REALTORS Property Resource®, Homesnap, HomeSpotter, and other information sources as part of the company’s ongoing effort to enhance real estate pros’ access to data. SentriLock CEO Scott Fischer says his company is focused on ways to make the process of offering property information and market data seamless. “When the lockbox is accessed, the information for the property is pulled down automatically” into SentriSmart, he says. “There’s definitely value in the instant access to data. The last thing agents want is to be distracted by pulling up information when they’re with clients.”
Lund foresees situations where lockbox hardware might disappear entirely. “I’m not sure why you actually have to attach it to the home to get the benefit” of the lockbox, Lund says, noting that some consumers are reluctant to hang them on their doors for aesthetic and security reasons. Fischer agrees that while most users think of the physical lockbox as SentriLock’s primary product, the underlying technology will be far more important to the future of real estate: “The device is a big part of [the lockbox business] today, but that doesn’t mean we can’t leverage that platform to integrate with other tools in the future.”
While many products such as August Smart Lock (a 2015 NAR REach® program participant) allow consumers to admit visitors remotely using their smartphones, both Lund and Fischer agree homeowners are unlikely to be comfortable turning over all security operations to an agent, so an intermediary technology to control access will still be in demand, even if lockboxes become unnecessary.
For now, physical lockboxes remain a reality, and new products are coming on the consumer market offering sellers more control over the real estate sales process. One such device is TOOR, the brainchild of Dallas-area practitioner Junior Desinor, who shifted his focus last year from brokerage management to real estate product development (though he maintains his license and continues to buy and sell property regularly). After his successful Kickstarter campaign last year raised more than $100,000, he brought his lockbox to ABC’s “Shark Tank” and got the buy-in of two of the show’s investors late last year.
TOOR came about as a result of Desinor’s frustration with the amount of time and energy he and his former agents spent scheduling showings and touring listings with buyers. When he couldn’t find an alternative, he created his own lockbox—one that allows for easier access to listings and would require less agent intervention—to sell on the open market. TOOR, like many lockboxes on the market today, allows users to connect to a key compartment using a mobile app. Sellers determine the requirements for house hunters looking to tour their property—whether they must have an agent present or even submit a mortgage preapproval letter or background check. All users of the TOOR app must upload profile information, including a photo of their ID. While the lockbox is available for purchase by consumers, Desinor says they already have several large brokerages and MLSs as customers, with preorders totaling in the thousands. Desinor hopes to begin shipping those orders in October, when the price for the basic model will increase from $99 to $149 and the premium lockbox (which includes key tracking and remote opening technology) will rise from $149 to $199.
If buyers who don’t have an agent want to tour a home where one is required, they can use TOOR’s on-demand service to find a licensed real estate agent through the app. They’ll preview and select an agent who will accompany them at the property. The service is expected to debut in Dallas in October, when Desinor hopes to begin shipping the first round of lockbox orders. He hasn’t determined pricing for the agent matching service yet, but Desinor says it will vary by region and should be in line with the fees charged by other lead--generation tools on the market.
Desinor knows many in the industry are uncomfortable with the idea of buyers gaining access to homes without an agent, but he predicts those feelings will soon wane. “It may sound weird now, but the idea absolutely will be commonplace and the norm of the future,” he says, comparing it to the way the public felt about Uber and Airbnb just a few years ago. “Would college [kids] be getting into cars with random strangers at two in the morning? A million people are staying in someone else’s bed every night through Airbnb.”
Lowering barriers between consumers can cause other discomforts. Recent studies have shown instances where Uber and Airbnb users appear to have been discriminated against based on their race. Desinor says TOOR users who don’t comply with fair housing laws will be banned. Housing providers and real estate agents always need to be mindful of fair housing concerns, including how certain policies or practices may potentially result in a disparate impact on federally protected classes. “Being an African-American myself, I’m not sure if I would be approved to see every single one of those properties,” he says. “We’re going to have zero tolerance for it. It’s a fine line, and it’s one that we’re aware of.”