Buying a house is a major moment, whether it’s the first purchase you’ve made or the 21st. It’s true that the procedure becomes easier as your familiarity with it grows, but where that home is, what’s going on around it and how it compares with other places you had your eye on remain vital elements of the transaction.
Until I met Emre Kazan and Cem Savas last month (March, 2014), for my next hypothetical move I would probably have looked online, and then gone to an estate agent. Now I will open up their website, Plentific, and see what is available.
How, you might wonder, does Plentific stand out in the body of property information the size of a small galaxy out there? You can already tour a house online, cruise up and down the streets on Google Earth, browse all the local information you like and swot up on the buying process on any number of helpful sites.
Plentific just does it better, and all in one place. It lets you search for properties, compare them, study the area and begin the buying process. The website is easy, intuitive and impressively comprehensive. Traveling time to work? It does that. How to make an offer? There is a link to a video on its YouTube channel. What are the local schools like? Well, that’s coming.
A product doesn’t become good just because its founders are two very smart outsiders (in the estate agent sense) who looked at the current property-buying landscape, decided it wasn’t good enough for them, so they quit their jobs and set up their own company in Tech City in East London. But that fresh and intelligent point of view has certainly helped here. And maybe the stimulating work environment helped it happen sooner.
This is much more than a helpful app, an electronic hand-holder guiding you to the next property. It plays high above that level, and does enough to even make you wonder whether we will need estate agents at all in the future. The comprehensive nature of Plentific, the depth of information and the assistance it gives you, in one all-inclusive package, makes it a good example of disruptive technology. So anything may happen.
The Internet certainly shook up house buying and selling, but it only went so far. Estate agents were early adopters of the technology, displaying their properties online. But the challenge of joining up the buying experience was too great, so buyers having inspected the house on the web, would invariably follow that up with a visit to the agent’s office on the High Street.
Even with the launch of sites such as Zoopla, which massively increased the number of homes prospective purchasers could see online, buying a house was still not something you could do under one “virtual” roof. You could research properties, and find out about the process of buying from many different sources, but it could still be a laborious, stressful and disjointed business.
Enter Emre and Cem. Emre is Turkish, and Cem was born and grew up in Germany of Turkish and Italian parents. Before setting up the site, they were both working for investment bank Nomura.
They wanted to devise a system to make buying easier. Based in Tech City, around “Silicone Roundabout”, the entrepreneurial hub in East London (their office is in Techspace on Old Street, co-working space for tech startups), they have come up with something which they say is more comprehensive in its scope than anything else available.
“What we’re trying to do is put together everything that you would need when you are buying or renting a property, in one website,” said Emre. “There are websites where you can do property searches, sites where you can compare mortgages; and sites or blogs where you can read about neighbourhoods, and so on.
“So there are a lots of places online. But as a buyer or a property consumer you would need to spend so much time going from one website to another and making notes, in order to make sense of this abundance of information. We make sense of that information and data for you, and we put it in one place.”
The site takes every property on Zoopla, presenting them in a slightly different way. As well as detailed, they’ve made Plentific intuitive and easy to navigate. “And it is a free tool for the user,” said Emre. “We make money by making references and referrals to our partners, such as solicitors and architects.
“Initially the site would be aimed at the first-time buyer. We have lots of interesting tools for the first time buyer, whom we see as the most vulnerable purchasing category.
“We’re making it all simpler, by helping them get to grips with their budget, and finances and by letting them know what they can afford. We run financial scenarios on those properties. We have a milestone tracker which you can go through step-by-step. And you can hire a mortgage broker, a solicitor, a surveyor through the website as well, so you don’t need to call your mum and ask if she knows one.”
Emre Kazan took an MSc and a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He studied electronics and robotics, and numerical methods in engineering decision sciences, following this with a two year post doc at Cambridge University.
Co-founder Cem Savas worked in investment banking and various financial institutions in London, ran his own residential property company and has completed over small-scale developments over the past 5 years. The pair are articulate, with a complete grasp of an, at times, quite technical subject, which they convey in flawless English.
Cem took up the story. “We been toying with the company for five years, We both have personal experience of buying and selling. I love property, Emre likes property. One night when we were a bit drunk, we said: ‘Let’s quit our jobs and do it.’
“The title Plentific means plenty of fantastic tools; we made something catchy and short out of that. We set out to be quite visionary about where things would go in the industry and hopefully improve everything, step-by-step.
“We started developing the platform in May and June 2013, so what you see was developed in a 10 month timeframe. That was actually quite fast; our beta product was done in about three months, using our own internal team. I think we’ve done it in a record time.”
They set up first-time buyer workshops in their office, and consulted mortgage brokers, solicitors and buying and property search agents.
One of the main features of the site is the milestone tracker. It is divided into four phases and eight steps. And underneath the steps there are sub-steps. Buyers may take them at their leisure, and repeat what they don’t understand.
The site helps prospective purchasers understand their buying power through a number of different visual summaries, “Things like housing expenses as a percentage of income,” Emre explained. “Nice visual tools.”
This summary of assets, liabilities and net worth helps determine the areas where they should focus their search, and whether a specific property qualifies.
Emre explained the colour coding. “Green means the purchase it is quite doable; amber means you are not meeting some of the criteria. Not majorly, but breaching them a little bit. Then if your financial circumstances change a little bit more, maybe things become red. Which means you cannot afford this house, so go back and optimise that green figure showing what you could afford.”
There is information on obtaining a mortgage, and when to approach a solicitor or conveyancer. And a section on due diligence, advice on making an offer, how to negotiate the best price, how to accept the offer, notification of sale and more.
Something Plentific say you can’t do on other property sites is put two properties side-by-side and compare them. Now you could do that with two favourites and compare the kitchens and bathrooms. “And the system is also smart enough to pick up what you can afford, and it will say this property will fit your budget.”
It takes travel into consideration, estimating how long it will take to drive or walk or take public transport to work. Then you can put your partner’s work travel time in, and compare, then run financial scenarios and see if you can afford it or not.
There is additional advice on mortgages, renovation, rental and other features through videos on its YouTube channel, backed up with articles on such things as how to negotiate an offer.
Cem again: “And then you need to find the right business partners or professionals to work with, such as conveyancers and architects. Our business partners will populate this information themselves, so we don’t have to go asking them for information. They create their own profiles. You could get a real time quote from these businesses.”
The purchaser might then pay a deposit by card so that the legal process can begin immediately, without waiting for conveyancer or solicitor to issue instructions. Plentific estimate it will save at least three or four days.
Coming soon to the site are area profiles. “it took me six months to find out about Clapham, when I was renting in Maida Vale,” said Emre. “I didn’t know south of the river much, so I went to God knows how many different neighbourhoods every weekend, just looking around, trying to get a feeling. The tool we’re trying to develop is going to look at your financial profile, and who are you as a person. Are you interested in nightlife? And a very busy area? Are you more a family person, and just want schools and restaurants?
“We will focus on London first, and we’ll see how it goes. Even in London there are 118 different areas, so if we want to cover all those it’s going to take some time. Expanding that to the UK will it take a little bit more.”
He said that they would have to be sensible about coverage. “If it’s too wide, it’s not going to be so valuable. But in terms of schools, we are going to be introducing functionalities so if you’re looking for property you would be able to see schools around the area as well. And we will build links to OFSTED data, so you would be quickly able to refer to its reports. Schools are one of the reasons people move houses. It is one of the biggest criteria.”
The two co-founders see an advantage in their own office location, in the Old Street area. Emre, again: “We felt that as a start-up technology firm we should be where all the other technology firms are, so we can mingle with them. It’s easier to get developers and designers too, because they work here as well.
“There is a buzz around the area: it’s kind of a San Francisco feel – apart from the weather. There are really cool coffee shops and restaurants which we value a lot, and doing a start-up you have to drink a lot of coffee.
“We have currently five people and we’re adding two more soon. And we have a few freelances working for us as well. You get ideas from other people around here.
“Maybe someone will recommend a recruitment agency they use, and we go there too. And solicitors – everyone uses a legal firm. So bouncing ideas around is really helpful, and it works because not everyone is in competition with each other. We speak to another business, and we’re not competing, so we can help each other to go faster, and further.
The site will not be for all prospective buyers. There are those who may find a computer programme, however intuitive and easy to navigate, beyond them, or simply not worth the effort.
But it’s easy to see how a system such as this will be immensely valuable to the present and coming computer-literate generations. And with the promise of more features over the coming months, this is only the start.
“I think we’re pretty close to the market,” said Cem. “And now it’s time to disrupt and innovate.“