Property business is generally perceived to be a murky one. The image of the key players is one associated with flashy cars, smooth talking, dream weaving, and a generous waving of hands to offer a free view of gold and precious stones on their person. And the young man in front of me that Saturday morning in Nageswara Rao Park, seemed to fail on all those parameters: Biju Savindran, the Director of SA Metroplots Pvt. Ltd, a Chennai-based real estate solutions company (www.metroplots.com) is an MS in Information Systems Management from Carnegie Mellon University, with work experience as Member Technical Staff in HCL Technologies, Software Developer in Tata Consultancy Services, Business Process Management Consultant in Project Performance Corporation, and Computational Finance Teaching Assistant in Tepper School of Business, as his LinkedIn profile informs.
“I believe that a good information system can solve any real-life problem in time, which led me to create Metroplots.com,” he tells me, as we walk towards a grassy lawn. “Information technology (IT) is known for simplifying problems and increasing transparency in any industry. So why not in real estate?” he asks.
Through the website, Biju wants to address the lack of transparency by providing all-round information about every posted property – both new and old – through photographs, videos, details about amenities and so on. “Since we Indians like negotiating for anything and everything, you can even directly negotiate with the landlord/ agent through the website without revealing your identity,” he explains.
“We provide the user with the average property prices of each locality for the past 5 years so that they can know by how much the prices have risen. We have a discussion forum where users can share their thoughts, and also pose questions to industry experts.”
Encouraged by the hits that the site has been witnessing from NRIs (non-resident Indians) across the globe looking for Chennai properties, Biju is keen on developing more software tools to further increase the ability of Web users to make an informed decision on the property they would be interested in.
Excerpts from the interview.
What motivated you to start a venture in real estate services?
The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ shares a character with the word for ‘opportunity.’ The state of our real estate industry is one such opportunity.
In the current state, it is a highly people-based business with a lot of unnecessary forwarding points. In most cases, for a simple process of finding a property, a property-seeker has to deal with multiple agents, watchmen, servants, etc. who in most cases end up showing at least 5 properties which do not match the requirements.
If the property-seeker ends up liking a particular property, he has to deal with the phase of negotiation where the agent(s) play an important role. There is a conflict of interest here because the agent represents the property-seeker and the landlord, which leads the agents to start the negotiation with inflated property prices.
This could lead to a point when a sudden fall in real estate prices could create a financial breakdown like what the American real estate industry is going through.
This is just one of the major problems that the industry faces. Lack of transparency, delay in completion of projects, the huge difference in guideline and market values, duplicate documents and lack of clear titles are other problems that makes this industry chaotic and unpleasant. It is the urge to solve the problem created by this disorganised industry that motivates us at Metroplots everyday.
Would you like to talk about the areas in which IT can bring efficiencies into the real estate industry?
With the advent of IT, it is actually easier for real estate regulatory agencies to create an information system, which stores and monitors the abundant data that is available in their archives.
Some of the data that can be captured are:
a) Property transactions and details.
b) Rentals paid for each property.
c) Property tax, water tax and other payments made by residents and businesses.
d) History of every property with its list of previous owners and floor plans.
e) Data about upcoming residential and commercial projects.
This information can be processed and analysed to generate numerous reports and tools, which can be useful to many stakeholders in different ways including the regulatory agencies.
A simple example could be a heat map of Chennai showing the demand of residential and commercial real estate. This can help businesses to decide where they want to set up shops and stores to attract customers instead of setting up businesses in the wrong places and ending up in a loss.
Monitoring property transactions can prove to be really useful for the regulatory agencies as well to keep a check on inflation. If a landlord knows how much his neighbour sold his property for, he gets a clearer idea of how much he can quote, instead of being misled by agents who may suggest inflated prices for his property.
There can be numerous applications and inferences that can be made by creating an excellent information system with the amount of information the regulatory agencies possess. Real estate is a key driver of any economy and information systems can be a good way to protect it.
You say that your site is only 20 per cent of the work you do. Does that imply the importance of customer-connect and service-delivery, which may be tough to capture on a site?
We see ourselves as an end-to-end real estate service provider, rather than just a website, because there are services that cannot be provided online and require physical interaction. Among the services that prospective home-buyers need are: Finding properties for particular requirements, site-visits, verification of documents and titles, arranging for home loans, and the preparation of sale deeds and registration of the property.
Our target audience – which includes the NRIs, corporate employees, expats and professionals – usually doesn’t have the time to spend on property search and approaching different people for getting the above-mentioned services done.
NRIs face another kind of problem; they visit India only once or twice a year for short durations. They have access to websites but will require their parents or siblings back in India to physically visit the location to make a decision. Then, a power of attorney has to be made by a lawyer, which will be given to their local representative, to complete the transaction on his/ her behalf. Applying for a loan is another process for which you have to contact another service provider. This process gets very complicated if it involves multiple service providers instead of one.