Technology is helping drive housing sales to new heights

by Neil Sharma on 24 Feb 2021

Canadians have grown remarkably comfortable with the electronic homebuying process, and the convenience factor even appears to be driving sales higher.

Proscriptions on open houses and in-person meetings have actually made purchasing homes more convenient, if not leisurely—a virtual property tour can be taken from the comfort of one’s own living room couch—and, abetted by platforms like DocuSign, deals are closing faster.

Last summer, Plaza Corp. launched King East Estates, a 255-lot single-family subdivision, in Richmond Hill, but instead of opening a sales centre, the Plaza team digitized the entire process with virtual tours and virtual walk-throughs, client meetings on Zoom, and a ton of electronic marketing. By mid-September, Plaza opened a sales centre and began accepting interested buyers by appointment only, and not long after, this hybrid strategy started bearing fruit.

“We’d do everyone’s sales through DocuSign,” recalled Scott McLellan, senior vice president of Plaza Corp. “We introduced technology into the process because we were forced to, and our project did about 100 sales from November until now in a very hybrid situation where, yes, you still needed a tangible, touch-and-feel sales centre, but we were able to integrate technology in order to make the consumer feel safe and comfortable, and having a little bit of both drove a ton of sales for us.”

McLellan is quick to note that sales upsurged specifically when technology, and its myriad conveniences, was married to the physical experience of buying a home—and not merely one or the other.

“We probably had a handful of sales before then, but we realized that once we had the sales centre things would take off, and they did,” he said. “It’s interesting how it didn’t go 100% back to the old way of selling; it was a mixture of technology—purchasing from a laptop with DocuSign and taking virtual tours—and people still needing and wanting to come into a sales centre and touch the materials, take a look at the site map, get a feel for where the sun shines in the afternoon. Those are things we still need in our business. There has to be human-to-human interaction and the other physical requirements one may need in a sales centre. It was a pre- and post-COVID way of doing business.”

Crowded sales centres generally aren’t conducive to making good buying decisions, perhaps underscoring the importance of 10-day cooling off periods, because—especially in the low-rise market where lineups have been known to form on the eve of project launches—under the duress of high pressure sales tactics and the threat of another buyer waiting in the wings, people can feel rushed into purchasing. That could partly explain buyers’ enthusiastic adoption of technology.

“The most important thing is the buyer has an opportunity now to actually take some time, from the comfort of their own home and on their own schedule, to make their buying decision,” said Mark Cohen, managing partner of The Condo Store in Toronto. “When people go into sales offices, they have to deal with their own time constraints, like coming in after work or on the weekend, and all this stuff we do as marketers to bring them in with big crowds and lineups. But it’s a pivotal time in the industry right now because people have the opportunity to shop on their own schedule and without having to leave their homes. This is an amazing opportunity I haven’t seen in 35 years in this business. Sales are better than they’ve ever been.”

The low interest rate environment is doubtless the primary reason for record-breaking housing sales in Canada, but Cohen advises not to underestimate how crucial feeling secure and empowered is for buyers.

“Purchasers appreciate it and they’re buying faster and more comfortably because of it,” he said. “They have the opportunity to review a document in 24 hours instead of having to sign it on the spot. There’s no longer someone shoving it down their throat and saying, ‘Buy it otherwise somebody else will, and you have 10 days to cancel.’”

McLellan noted that another major advantage to digitizing sales is people from outside of Canada can purchase homes here before they even arrive. It’s difficult to imagine that tangibility will ever be removed from the process of buying a home, but the pandemic appears to have permanently changed how people shop for them.

“We’re still seeing it. We’re back under lockdown, but it seems like the buying population is getting more comfortable with DocuSign and more comfortable with electronic-based presentations,” said McLellan. “Traditionally, people still want to come in and touch and feel things, but our last 30 or 40 sales have been done on DocuSign.”

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