FIRST it was sagging sales. But even as the property market now shows tentative signs of bottoming out, the shrinking industry of real estate agents looks set for even more pummelling as property listing firms across the board automate parts of the transaction process.
Hit by a languid market, the number of licensed property agents has fallen from 31,800 three years ago to fewer than 28,400 in January 2017. And increasingly those still in the market may find themselves being edged out by technology - with both established listing platforms and newer startups using it to augment their services.
Established players such as SRX Property, PropertyGuru, and 99.co tell The Business Times that agents will not become redundant, even as more of their work gets automated. The technologies employed will generally complement and augment the agents' services, they say.
But startups - including Ohmyhome, HugProperty, and Averspace, all about a year old - feature innovations that could potentially cut out the middleman entirely.
PropertyGuru, for instance, is developing four technologies for property buying and selling - artificial intelligence, virtual reality, drone technology, and a tracking function called ePropertyTrack.
ePropertyTrack is one example of a service that complements the role of the property agent. It is a real-time project sales and marketing platform that makes it easier for the buyer to interact with the agent. PropertyGuru said that it has recently added improved functions to let agents track their leads in real time, which helps them better market properties.
SRX's platform also has technologically augmented features, such as virtual tours, price analysis services, as well as property trackers, and 99.co says it uses Big Data and data analytics to make information more transparent on its portal.
These firms emphasise the role of the agent in the transaction process, with 99.co CEO Darius Cheung declaring that agents are "absolutely essential" to the property market.
PropertyGuru CEO Hari Krishnan says that some of the technological developments "will be directly consumer-facing, (while) some are oriented at analytics or increasing efficiency for our agent partners".
Proptech startups, however, take a different direction from the established players, with some offering services that are supposedly able to replace those offered by property agents.
Disruptproperty.com lists about 40 proptech companies in Singapore, offering services ranging from search engines to asset management companies, smart building firms, crowdfunding websites, market research companies, and data analytics solution providers, to name some.
Startups BT spoke to say they aim to put more power in the hands of individual buyers, renters, and sellers. While some startups also augment property agents' services, others say their platforms can replace the agents entirely.
One startup, HugProperty, says it uses data science, machine learning, and 3D modelling technologies to give the kind of detailed information that humans cannot.
For example, on the data science front, HugProperty takes into consideration a wide set of datapoints including "your children's ages and their intended schools, your intended time horizon for the property, or any other issues to consider", said co-founder Andy Teoh.
While HugProperty says that it would continue to work with housing agents to provide value-added services on its platform, Ohmyhome touts itself as a P2P (peer-to-peer) property transaction portal covering Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats.
Asked if Ohmyhome works with property agents at all, CEO and co-founder Rhonda Wong clarifies that her firm operates on a hybrid model, using both automated services together with agent services.
It offers two fixed fees: S$2,888 for agent services from advertising to completion, and S$1,688 for documentation services, aimed at those who have already found their buyer or seller, or who would like professional help with paperwork.
Says Ms Wong: "Ohmyhome will be able to replace a significant amount of work done by traditional agents by increasing the efficiency through automation, as well as by providing reputable and affordable agent services."
But the platform simplifies the transaction procedures to the extent that buyers and sellers can "DIY" their own transactions if they wish to, she adds.
Averspace founder Ivan Lim says that his firm does not use property agents, and allows buyers and renters to land a property without the need for an agent. It does not engage agents mainly to save costs, and this allows him to charge what he describes as "very low" fees.
The firm - a C2C (consumer to consumer) real estate platform - uses blockchain technology to ensure that the transaction is secure, and has features that allow buyers and sellers to interact directly with one another.
All three startups - HugProperty, Ohmyhome and Averspace - reported strong revenue streams and healthy transaction volumes in their one year of business.
When contacted, ERA Realty and PropNex voiced optimism about the technological offerings.
ERA key executive officer Eugene Lim says: "We see technology as helping our agents to be more productive, cut down on admin and focus their efforts and energies on where the payoff is better - marketing and closing the deal.
"Technological enhancements or services offered by the proptech community help with the buying side of the transaction. The selling side remains the forte of real estate agents."
PropNex CEO Ismail Gafoor says: "It is naive to think technology will not disrupt the property market here. I believe that agents and technology platforms will come to co-exist alongside one another eventually.
"Professional agents who provide value-added services will be the ones making the most out of this, and those who act as mere middlemen in the transaction will be replaced."