Could artificial intelligence ever replace estate agents?

chris burton director at Grosvenor claygate header

Chris Burton, Director at Davies Property Partners Claygate office

I’m pretty confident that the question posed in this headline has been asked by millions of people over the last two weeks following the media frenzy around ChatGPT – the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that seemingly has an answer to everything.

Of course, the words ‘estate agents’ will have been swapped to match the inquirer’s job or industry of choice, but amongst the sense of opportunity as to what tools like ChatGPT offer, there’s also a natural sense of fear or at least wariness.

‘Will ChatGPT automate thousands of jobs at the expense of humans?’, ‘will AI decimate entire industries?’ and, perhaps more immediate, ‘is my job at risk?’, are all valid questions when considering something that seems so revolutionary and game changing. In fact, it’s probably worth asking ChatGPT directly if you’re brave enough to face the answer.

But let’s take it back to the property industry. More pertinently, as a Surrey estate agent, could ChatGPT ever replace the work that I / we do? From my perspective, the answer is an absolutely and resounding ‘no’.

Middleman is NOT a dirty word

As I highlighted in a previous piece entitled People vs pixels (the case for traditional estate agency in a digital world), estate agency is not only a people-based busines, but it’s also a community-based business, too, neither of which can be entirely served by AI. Estate agents are the ‘bit in-between’ – the middlemen (or middle ‘people’), if you will – that add value and keep the cogs moving round.

The term middleman, aside from now no longer being ‘gender neutral’, is often under-appreciated.  The truth of the matter is that in a great many professions, the ‘middleman’ is essential. It’s also a role that’s very difficult – I’d argue, impossible – to replace with AI and technology.

I’m not alone in this line of thinking, either. A recent article in The Telegraph revealed that some of the UK’s largest middlemen including the world of estate agency’s very own online estate agent, Purplebricks, are in trouble. Shares at the company, which is one of many who wanted to disrupt things by going digital and cutting out the middleman, are down 70 per cent and it’s even put itself up for sale.

It’s not just a property-wide issue, either; the same article covers how Cazoo, the online car retailer, is in a similar position. What this tells me is that the human touch is still very much coveted after all, despite a phase in which everyone thought automation and digitisation was the way to go.

The Telegraph article’s author, Matthew Lynn, seems to agree. He puts this shift down to the fact that ‘middlemen are a lot more useful than the tech disruptors realised. They really know the market, and they know where the customers are and crucially, how much they will pay so those skills will still be valuable for a long time to come.’

This sentiment is further reinforced in a Guardian article, in which the author and journalist Sophie Elmhirst writes:

Middlemen. They say the right things, know the right people, take a cut. Sometimes, it’s not obvious what they actually do. But then you try to do something without them and it falls apart, because there’s no interpreter, no buffer, no oil. An agent, as their name implies, makes things happen. The world moves through them. Without them, you’re writing a book that no one reads, selling a house that nobody sees.

The human touch

Service for people by people is still really important and judging by the direction that our online competitor has taken, it might just be more important than ever.

Technology such as ChatGPT will undoubtedly assist estate agents but it will never replace the work we do. People still need people to, as Sophie Elmhirst says, be the buffer, the interpreter and the oil.

I welcome ChatGPT and believe that it will become yet another tool in the estate agent’s toolbox; one that is likely to help us improve customer service through website integration, increase efficiencies by automating routine tasks, support lead generation and assist with data analysis.

How do I know this? I asked ChatGPT, of course.

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