By Thomas Wainwright
What’s the issue?
UK homeownership rates peaked in 2003 at 70.9%, before falling to 63.9% in 20181. A combination of precarious work, stagnant pay and increasing property prices have seen more households find themselves within the private rental sector (PRS). In contrast to other countries, the UK’s rental market is fragmented, consisting of many small scale landlords and a smaller, but increasing proportion of institutional landlords. For example, MHCLG’s last private landlord survey in 2018 revealed that 45% of private landlords in England own just one property, with 38% owning between 2-4 properties2. While the PRS remains an important part of UK accommodation provision, it has faced criticism, focussing on ‘rogue’ landlords, unprofessional management and high costs, partly resulting in the Tenant Fees Act (2019), which banned tenant fees3 and inadvertently boosted demand for rental proptech – to which we will return later. Further calls have been made for mandatory landlord registration to combat issues concerning low quality accommodation4 and while demand for PRS accommodation continues, so will calls for change. One set of actors responding to these calls are the entrepreneurs behind rental proptech platforms who are seeking to disrupt and re-shape the PRS for renters, landlords and letting agents.
What’s going on?
Property technology, or proptech, refers broadly to a diverse range of new entrepreneurial start-ups that focus on the increased use of data, interconnectivity, automation, and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms and blockchain, to solve a variety of issues related to property management. As a sub-sector, rental proptech focusses exclusively on – unsurprisingly – the rental sector.
Rental proptech has grown rapidly since the 2008 GFC. The start-ups are diverse, but generally seek to digitally mediate the relationship between landlords, tenants, letting agents and other suppliers, capturing fees and access to new sources of data for marketing, analysis, and to calculate risk. Rental proptech seeks to make the market easier to navigate for tenants. For example, making it easier to remotely book and undertake viewings, or to manage the check-in and out of property through apps, rather than a series of paper forms. Some platforms provide added transparency too, seeking to bar ‘rogue’ landlords and to reward outstanding landlords with greater market visibility and ratings. Landlords are able to access a broader market of renters through online-only letting agents, for example, cutting costs and enabling them to self-service administrative work through automated technology. For letting agents, the technology has also removed much of the administrative back office work. For some, this has been a lifesaver, following the Tenant Fees Act and the loss of application fees, as it enabled high-street agents to adopt rental proptech and to automate their processes, cutting costs.
The UK’s proptech market is arguably world-leading, given the scale of its creativity and innovation, with access to venture capital funds providing considerable potential for growth. In mediating relationships between letting agents and tenants, for example, rental proptech platforms have the opportunity to charge fees and profit from both types of client in this multi-sided market, while cross-selling other products and earning commissions. While tenancy durations vary across different markets within the UK, estimates suggest households stay at a property on average between 18 months5 and 4.1 years6. Towards the shorter end of tenancies, this mobility or churn creates more regular revenue earning opportunities, when compared to property sales, for example.
Given the size of the PRS and its fragmentation, there are opportunities to structure and organise the market through these platforms. In recognising the potential of rental proptech, considerable flows of investment are moving into the sector fuelling its growth, with specialist investment from Pi Labs, Round Hill Ventures and A/O Proptech, for example, with many deals detailed on Unissu.
Digital disruption in the PRS
Rental proptech start-ups are diverse. For example, they include apps that seek to compete with and directly challenge high-street letting agents (Howsy), digital management for letting agents (AskPorter), provide regulatory and compliance support for landlords (Kamma), tenant bill splitting (The Bunch), digital referencing and passporting (Goodlord) and managing the departure of tenants and return of their deposits (The Depositary).
In curating multi-sided markets, rental proptech promises solutions to all parties. Lower costs for landlords, which can mitigate pressures from tax changes regarding SDLT and mortgage interest tax relief. Rental proptech has enabled letting agents to reduce their administrative workload, enabling them to focus their efforts and time on negotiating tenancies and finding new business. For small and medium-sized agencies who simply do not have the capacity to develop their own in-house tech solutions, refocussing their business and outsourcing routine time-consuming tasks provides a considerable benefit.
Renters are able to benefit from a series of improvements, focussed mainly on convenience, For example, through automated check-in and out processes on their phone including deposit reclaim, setting-up and splitting utility bills, and reassurance on some platforms that landlords have been more thoroughly vetted. While rental proptech has not made renting directly cheaper for tenants, following the Tenant Fee Act, in using proptech to reduce costs, this has, in some cases, mitigated the need for agents to increase management fees for landlords, which in turn would be passed into tenants in the form of higher rents.
Sector maturity, hybridisation and consolidation
Rental proptech businesses initially could be seen as pure disruptors to the PRS, seeking to act as direct competitors to high-street estate agents. However, as highlighted above, they are increasingly partnering with established high-street agents, seeing the latter become hybridised – not proptech agencies, but increasingly heavier uses of data-driven tech. Routine and unprofitable functions are being unbundled from agency business models, replaced with rental proptech as it enters the mainstream.
The market is also beginning to consolidate. While rental proptech began with businesses focussing on one problem or difficulty in the PRS, as identified or experienced by the venture teams, they have begun to diversify their product offering. First, to develop additional revenues, for example, through AI driven tenant management or digital referencing, but also as the rental proptech sector focusses on convenience and ease of use. Using several different products from several different firms each with a particular focus is not convenient to clients. As such, rental proptech start-up product portfolios have begun to increasingly overlap, leading to greater competition.
This has seen the development of mergers and acquisitions in the sector. For example, Goodlord acquired Vouch in 2020 to gain tenant referencing capabilities and Acasa in 2021 to gain its tenant bill splitting applications7. Partnerships will no doubt become more important, but the result in the foreseeable future may well be a smaller number of larger and more comprehensive rental proptech firms seeking to cover all parts of the rental value chain. As they provide more comprehensive solutions to high-street agents, the latter may be hollowed out further to focus exclusively on relationship management as hybridisation becomes the norm. While Rightmove and Zoopla may be the property search engines of the sector, new competitors may well come to dominate the market, but in servicing a digital PRS and facilitating the moves of renters.
Emerging digital risks
Rental proptech is underpinned by the novel use of new technologies. However, this raises a series of new risks and issues that could impact on businesses, tenants and the wider market. These risks should be considered, and where necessary, mitigated. As start-ups expand for survival, they focus on client acquisition and revenue growth and it is unsurprising that data risks are not fully considered. From the research, some key risks are apparent – their mitigations are examined in more detail in the accompanying ‘think piece’ [here].
Rental proptech is drawing on ever more detailed personal data through APIs, particularly through open banking. Some of the ways in which this data could be used poses ethical questions, particularly if it could lead to discrimination against particular groups of renters, even if this is unintentional. Not only does this pose ethical risks against tenants, but also reputational and revenue risks that can affect specific businesses, and the broader sector. Just because data is available for use, does not necessarily mean it should be used without thorough justification and an assessment of its potential impacts.
This can also extend to data that renters may self-input. Using apps, tenants can be encouraged to provide more data than perhaps they would provide on paper forms, as the processes is much easier. However, tenants may not fully understand how the data will be used, and may not be comfortable with its function if they knew. More transparency is needed over why data is required, as while consent may be given, it may not necessarily be fully informed.
There are also emerging issues of data equity. For example, some types of data sources may be used in algorithms, which is not available for all renters. For instance, some local authorities provide data on noise complaints in tenant referencing, but not all. This creates a data asymmetry in that some tenants, using a nation-wide rental proptech platform, may be penalised, while others are not, based on the availability/absence of data, rather than actual activity.
Moving from data and turning to the analytical technologies, AI is known for replicating racism, sexism and ableism, based on biases within the data from which they learn8. While this reflects discrimination and bias within society, decisions made using flawed AI can reinforce, replicate and expand discrimination. Similarly, the design of algorithms can encode and replicate unintended results that reinforce discrimination. This creates substantial ethical issues that translate into business risk. While the discrimination may be unintentional, flawed technology can be problematic if left unchecked.
Finally, rental proptech platforms often appear to focus on a particular target market, often of young, urban, professional and mobile renters. While this issue is not technological in itself, products are designed around the needs of these particular renters, which may exclude other types of renter, or may accommodate their needs less effectively. As rental proptech continues to expand and be adopted by more high-street agents, it may be at the detriment of different renter demographics. As such, further work needs to be undertaken to understand how rental proptech affects, is used and adopted by different renter types.
What next – new opportunities?
So far, rental proptech start-ups are focussing on working with smaller landlords and letting agents within the UK’s PRS ecosystem. It’s likely that this trend will continue, with the technology becoming more mainstream amongst high-street agents. Potential opportunities may emerge through coordinated M&A activity to create more full-service rental proptech groups. This could be driven by venture capital funding, or by larger national agencies seeking to develop their own tech platforms and move further into the digital space.
Rental proptech activity is currently limited in the institutional build-to-rent (BTR) sector. However, the BTR arms of pension funds and vertically integrated developers are growing. In addition to housing associations, these landlords could prove to be a new market. The operations of institutional investors are driven by interest around yield. To date, there appears to have been limited interest in rental proptech by institutional BTR sector as is not seen as being able to add sufficient value to the rental experience, or in cutting operational costs, to increase yields. It may be that rental proptech is introduced to these landlords through managing agents and facilities managers, rather than by the landlords themselves.
In the US, proptech has been used to streamline the valuation, surveying, acquisition and management of single family home rentals, to be bundled directly into private equity-backed investment portfolios. Proptech is used to manage asset maintenance, but to also outsource management work from agents and landlords onto tenants using technology, to reduce costs further. While these models and practices have not yet emerged in the UK, existing rental proptech technologies may be deployed for new uses.
As highlighted earlier, while the propositions of rental proptech have the potential to disrupt and enhance the PRS, driving convenience, efficiency and profitability, risks surrounding the use of data at the centre of these technologies remain. These risks need to be considered carefully by the sector and some suggestions and mitigations are outlined in the associated think piece.
Methodology: The data collected to underpin this research project consisted of expert interviews with 30 prominent actors within the UK’s rental proptech and real estate sector. This was supported through secondary resources and publically available materials.
Resources: RED think piece – What could a Tenant Data Charter look like in the rental proptech sector?
Funding: British Academy – Tackling the UK’s International Challenges
Acknowledgements: Comments from reviewers are much appreciated in clarifying and augmenting the key points raised in earlier drafts
Dr Thomas Wainwright is Reader in Strategy and Entrepreneurship. Tom completed his first degree at the University of Leicester and holds an MSc from the University of Nottingham. He completed his ESRC funded PhD in 2009 (University of Nottingham) where he investigated the development of new strategies and innovations in the financial services sector. Tom then worked at the University of Nottingham on projects that examined wholesale-retail bank linkages and wealth management. In 2010, he began a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Small Business Research Centre at Kingston University, where he worked on consultancy projects for Barclays Bank and other stakeholders, such as Eurofound. Tom joined the University of Southampton in 2012 and became Senior Lecturer in 2014, before becoming Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Innovation and Enterprise.