Tokenizing the Real Estate Industry

The real estate industry is not a simple sector. On the contrary, it involves multiple stakeholders, vast amounts of money, specialized knowledge sets, and jurisdiction-dependent regulation. While this complexity currently results in plenty of inefficiencies, a growing number of startups, established companies, and even government entities are recognizing that blockchain tokenization could revolutionize the sector. Here are three (very different) ways blockchain tokens are making the real estate industry better:

Increasing Investment Opportunities

Real estate investments have always been illiquid, which means they’re not easy to turn into cash when the asset holder needs them. Many people can’t afford to part with large amounts of money for extended periods of time, which means real estate and similarly illiquid investment opportunities are out of reach for those investors. Losing access to a significant portion of one’s money without an easy way to recover it on short notice is too substantial a risk, even if it could result in long term profit.

Tokenization, however, can turn illiquid investments into liquid ones, dramatically increasing the pool of potential investors. The founders of Securrency, a blockchain-based asset trading platform, list the need to bring liquidity to real estate investments (without sacrificing transparency) as a significant factor in founding the platform. Securrency includes workflow guides for helping asset owners tokenize their holdings while complying with securities regulations. Tokens representing fractional ownership in any liquid or illiquid asset (such as an apartment building) can be traded on the platform. Any qualified purchaser can purchase a token that represents fractional ownership in a real estate property and sell it when they need cash.

Muirfield Investment Partners, a real estate private equity firm, is using a similar tokenization strategy. They’re rumored to be initiating a TAO, or Tokenized Asset Offering, later this year that will allow accredited U.S. and non-U.S. investors to buy fractional ownership shares in a real estate private equity fund, a kind of real estate investing that is usually only available to the ultra-wealthy.

Unlocking Savings by Disrupting Markets

Blockchain tokens are immutable and can’t be duplicated–and that means they have unique potential to disrupt markets that have suffered from inefficiencies for a long time. That class of markets includes real estate.

Deedcoin, a real estate startup with active partner agents in all 50 states, is showing how tokens can improve the problematic consumer experience of buying or selling a house. In the U.S., sellers usually have to pay two agents: their selling agent and the buyer’s agent. Each agent charges around 3% of the house’ sale value, which means that someone selling their home for $200,000 has to lose a whopping $12,000 to agents. Agent fees are significantly higher in the U.S. than in other countries, where agents might make 1.5% (the U.K.) or 2% (China).

Agent fees are so high in part thanks to the monopolizing influence of the National Association of Realtors, who severely restrict their member agents’ ability to compete with each other through competitive pricing. In an over-crowded market, high customer acquisition costs and low yearly deal-closing rates mean that agents must charge high fees to survive.

Deedcoin uses blockchain tokens to provide access to a different kind of agent network. When a home seller works with Deedcoin agents, they can pay as little as 1% of their agent fees in cash, covering the rest in Deedcoin. Sellers subsequently enjoy significant savings. Even buyers who are using a Deedcoin agent to buy from a non-Deedcoin agent can use Deedcoin to get a sizable rebate on a portion of the house’s cost.

Deedcoin only works with partner agents who meet their screening standards and only accepts as many as a local market needs. Deedcoin agents may make less cash upfront when they close a deal, but they can complete far more sales than other agents because they don’t have to spend money or time on customer acquisition. They can also resell Deedcoins on the open market.

Funding Affordable Housing

There are few factors that more effectively generate stability and economic well-being than owning or renting an affordable home, but this essential commodity is out-of-reach for many Americans. The affordable housing crisis is particularly severe in urban areas with extreme wealth disparities. Berkeley, California is one such area. But city leaders are turning to a unique solution to address their affordability woes: a cryptocurrency “Initial Community Offering.”

This new kind of “ICO” is based on municipal bonds. Municipal bonds are debt securities offered by local governments to fund projects for the public good, such as highway construction, school improvement projects, or affordable housing initiatives. A proposed partnership between the city of Berkeley, the UC Berkeley Blockchain Lab, and finance startup Neighborly would offer municipal bonds via blockchain tokens. Because blockchain tokens allow fractional ownership, Berkeley citizens who might not buy a full municipal bond could still obtain a token that represents a smaller portion of the security. Token holders might eventually be able to pay at local businesses with the tokens and would earn their investment back with interest over time.

The initiative still has approval hurdles to clear before it becomes a reality, but it demonstrates how cryptocurrency isn’t just a real estate tool for those lucky enough to buy or sell a home or invest in new ventures. It can also fundamentally contribute to the good of society.

The housing-related financial crash of 2008 still lingers in many people’s minds, and it’s important to discern true value from hype products that may recreate the same confused exuberance responsible for the crash. Blockchain, however, has real utility to change the real estate industry when applied thoughtfully and responsibly.

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