And you probably thought buying and selling houses was bizarre before. Bots are now buying houses. Algorithms, computer programs, are estimating the value of houses as they are listed for sale, comparing that against the price the computer thinks the house can be resold for, and then making an offer if the potential profit is high enough and the risk is low enough. It isn’t happening in every market, but just like with stocks, there are more reasons for corporations to get the computers to work for them, with a bit of human oversight. The Digital Singularity may eventually be a singular moment, but on this side of it, we’ll probably see change accelerate, computers proliferate, and humans become less dominant. How does that fit into your retirement plan?
Originally, the stock market operated by people getting together, comparing prices, making deals, exchanging the stock and money, and repeating. There was corruption, but there was also an openness and a pace set by humans. Computerized trading was probably one of the first tasks given to the machines. At the start, the computer could only recommend because trading was done by humans. Eventually, in the interest in efficiency and therefore profit, computers were given more access. Trades were made by humans, but instead of face-to-face, the communication became electronic. Speed increased. Costs decreased. Commissions were undercut by discount brokers, and eventually individual investors could submit orders without human intervention. Ah, the good old days. After computers were allowed to initiate the sale and the purchase, trading volumes jumped because decisions were made at CPU speeds instead of neuron speeds. One symptom that things may have gone too far are the flash crashes that occur when only the sell orders are executed. Now, nanoseconds matter. Light travels at about a meter a second. Electricity travels almost as fast. It has become profitable to shorten the physical distance between computers so one set of computers can outperform another set of computers. Humans are less involved every day. The people on Wall Street are, however, going to continue collecting their bonuses.
In a world like that, why invest in stocks? All of that frenetic trading concentrates on nanosecond movements in stocks. The long term prospects of companies continue to operate at human speeds with processes and progress measured in months and years. The stock may bounce around every nanosecond, but the company travels a steadier path. An individual investor can hear a company’s story, apply some understanding of human actions in the marketplace, decide if supply and demand apply, and then decide to invest in the company or not. Fluctuations of fractions of a percent are insignificant compared to long term growth rates of doubling, tripling, or climbing into much higher multiples. An individual can’t think faster than a computer, but at least for now, an individual can look further ahead, and act accordingly. Day traders, however, may find themselves being increasingly outcompeted.
Real estate moves at human speeds. A stock trade can happen in a few nanoseconds, but a house trade can take weeks or months. I consider the closing on this house to have been a stellar accomplishment because I went from making an offer to getting the keys in less than three weeks. Besides, each house is unique. History has an affect. Condition isn’t readily apparent. (Thanks, Kath.) There may be multiple constraints on the title. There can even be confusion about what the exact property is. The surveyors were on my street again. Imagine how busy they’ll be after an earthquake.
As I said above, there is a place for a computer. The earliest cases were probably in the biggest markets, with lots to choose from, and were measured against the widest margins. If the error band is 10%, but the house is listed at 20% below what the computer considers to be a reasonable resell price, then trust the computer – at least to make an offer. At this point, that’s all they are doing. The computer checks every new home in the market, quickly makes an offer based on the data in the listing and the records, and then sends out the pesky slow humans to inspect, verify, and close the deal. Do that often enough with wide enough margins and get the majority of the best buys, leaving humans to work out the deals that are closer or more troublesome.
Computers made Wall Street wealthy; not as if the brokers were poor. Computers may make someone in real estate wealthy, but the task for the real estate agent changes. A bot won’t care about an open house or the smell of fresh cookies. Staging won’t matter to a bot. The tactics devised to appeal to humans won’t apply. Just the facts and data, please.
The Digital Singularity will surprise most people. The concept and the term are uncommon. The rate of change isn’t a surprise anymore, but few expect everything to radically change in a minute. Between those two are changes seeping into specific jobs like stock broker and real estate agent. Wall Street has less to do with people and more to do with data. Real estate may undergo a similar change. Similar changes are also happening in trucking as autonomous vehicles reduce the need for drivers, and farming where sensors can track a crop or a herd.
I don’t know of any way to invest in the trend, unless I was to go back and learn how to program the bots, which might be profitable but counterproductive.
I do know that I’ll pay more attention to the Zillow estimate of my house’s market value. It is now within 5% of my Make Me Move price. I have my doubts about the validity of the estimate considering the house across the street is about the same size and hasn’t sold at 30% below my house’s Zestimate. (Though that house’s Zestimate is still 8% below their asking price.) What I’ll be watching for is whether there’s any interest in my house when the Zestimate matches or exceeds my Make Me Move price. I’ll be curious to find out how they found me, whether it was a human or a computer that first took note. I’ll also be curious to see whether I’ll say yes. That decision will be made by me, not a computer, because for some things emotions matter.