A challenger to the real estate lockbox has arisen in the form of home automation systems. Homeowners can install systems that turn on lights, control heating, and, most importantly, unlock doors. Access control systems, which replace the traditional key and lock, have many of the features common to the latest generation of lockboxes. They can be locked and unlocked by smartphones, entries and exits can be logged and audited, and they can generate one-time or limited duration key codes that can be given to others – including real estate agents when a showing has been arranged.
Some have suggested that as home automation becomes more commonplace it may represents the twilight of the lockbox, at least in the context of occupied or managed listings. Some homeowners already do not want a lockbox on their property. In their view, it invites crime, it broadcasts the fact that the home is for sale to nosy neighbors, and it is not aesthetically pleasing. Also, when others have access to the key, they can now easily take a smartphone picture of it and have a duplicate made by an online service such as Keysduplicated.com or keys.me – savvy homeowners are increasingly aware of that security risk. If the homeowner or property manager has the requisite home automation hardware already, they will be happy to use it in the lockbox’s place, giving them more control over agent comings and goings.
I spoke with Scott Fisher, President and CEO of SentriLock, who has some ideas about how lockboxes can continue to be relevant. The most intriguing of these is the idea that the real estate lockbox or its associated mobile app can evolve to be integrated with the home automation system, controlling essential home subsystems such as an alarm system, lighting, and video surveillance. Perhaps in the future the lockbox won’t even need to hold physical keys, but will just instruct the home automation system to open the door. Fisher frequently hears listing agents complain that showing agents do not re-arm alarms or are intimidated by the alarm interface. The lockbox would present a standard alarm interface across diverse homes that would contain only the functionality agents need to use. As for lighting, Fisher says, “Turning on even one internal light can make an agent’s job easier and safer.” In the near future, SentriLock will offer “reactive lighting” that can be put on the property and turned on or off at the lockbox; at some point, the lockbox will control some portion of the home’s own lighting. Finally, the lockbox could be used to turn on video surveillance cameras, key for Realtor safety; again, for the immediate future, agents can set up their own cameras, but further out the lockbox might hook into a house’s own surveillance systems.
This vision certainly establishes the lockbox’s continued relevance for Realtors, as it evolves with home automation systems. At the same time, some technical barriers will have to be overcome. Dozens of companies make home automation hardware, and no one unified protocol controls that hardware. In point of fact, there are currently three main ones: Zigbee, Z-Wave, and INSTEON. They use different frequencies, have different transmission modes (wireless, powerline), and are completely incompatible. Hubs exist that can bridge a network of heterogeneous light bulbs, refrigerators, and thermostats, but these hubs themselves come from a variety of different manufacturers. So the common hardware that would have to go into a lockbox would have to be sophisticated and substantial, involving a host of solutions that would have to change as automation systems changed over time; the lockbox of the future – or at least it’s related app or web application – would have to be able to talk to anything and everything. This could increase the complexity and cost of the system.
Even if the lockbox system’s usefulness to agents is greatly improved by its connection to home automation, the case for using the agent’s lockbox still has to be made to the client. The same issues of control that make some people reject today’s lockboxes may be amplified when lockboxes don’t just permit entry but also have control over the house automation systems. It will be increasingly important for the lockbox manufacturer and the agent to be able to articulate the benefits of either a standalone real estate lockbox or one that is integrated with the home automation system, rather than just using what comes with the home automation system.
What benefits can lockbox system providers show to the homeowner? Scott Fisher says, “Comparative foot traffic information, heat maps and showing event duration can be vital in helping a seller and their Realtor have substantive conversations about price, presentation and improvements necessary to be compelling in the sales process.” This is, at least, a starting point for the discussion. But the reasons for using a Realtor’s lockbox over a home automation system have to be further framed in terms of how the seller will directly benefit.
Quite simply, using a Realtor’s lockbox makes it easier for both agent and seller to sell the house. A recent C/NET article names the top five smart locks, and there are probably triple that number on the market today. How many manufacturers’ smart lock apps can an agent be expected to keep on his or her phone? How many invite and temporary access codes from different sellers can an agent be expected to keep track of, and how well is he or she going to do at matching sellers with invite codes with apps? The effect of having to keep track of apps and codes is like the agent having to carry around a giant, unwieldy, industrial key ring. It makes the agent’s job that much harder.
Using a home automation system also will cause the seller unanticipated inconvenience. Every time an agent needs access to a home, the owner will be on the receiving end of a phone call asking for an access code. The seller could be taking a bath, be at a romantic dinner, on an airplane, or out camping; that phone call will come again and again. And what if the seller has turned off his or her phone and is simply not available? The agent cannot get in, and the property will not be shown. The whole reason for the lockbox concept is to let the agent get in and out without bothering the owner; using home automation turns that on its head.
When it comes to real estate lockboxes, the value proposition for the seller relative to home automation and security systems is still is not as strong as it could be. But the state of the art in lockboxes is progressing and, while there are challenges ahead, the lockbox vendors have no intention of letting them slide into obsolescence.
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