Online reviews have made huge inroads into the property industry. Most famously, Airbnb revolutionised short-lets and based its business on landlords and renters rating each other.
And scores generated by sites such as TrustPilot and allAgents are now regularly quoted by estate agents in their marketing efforts, helped by Purplebricks’ relentless pursuit of five-star reviews as one of its key business metrics.
One area where an online reviewing culture is conspicuous by its absence is the new homes and development sector. But the rise of buy to rent (BTR) in the UK is disrupting this. When entire blocks are built solely to rent out and it is the freeholder through a management company that is the landlord then the dynamic changes.
And particularly so given the huge growth of the sector, which is building approximately 80,000 units a year in the UK and expanding by 30% per annum, the most recent British Property Federation figures show.
This is the opportunity that HomeViews.co.uk is hoping to exploit. Set up two years ago by a marketing professional and an events industry entrepreneur, it covers 500 developments in London and its users have so far written 2,000 reviews.
So far many of these developments and most of the reviews have been by tenants within BTR developments, partly because BTR operators are more focussed on customer satisfaction after tenants move in, and also tenant retention.
“You can find customer reviews for this sector but it’s all unverified, so we wanted to give buyers and tenants trusted insights that offer much more than the marketing brochure,” says co-founder and former beauty and healthcare marketeer Hannah Marsh.
“Within the industry there’s no transparency or benchmarking for what constitutes good or bad customer satisfaction, which is another opportunity we identified.
“What people forget about TripAdvisor is how it raised service standards in the hotel industry. When it first launched the average score for hotels was 3.5 but it’s now at 4.2.”
Marsh says she has spoken to Royal Wharf’s developer Ballymore and that they ‘got it’ because whether it’s tenants or owners at the site, the company wanted both their ongoing experience to be a good one, and worker harder on protecting their brand’s reputation.
But although HomeView is wading into both a huge opportunity, reviews can be shark-infested waters. Sites like TrustPilot and TripAdvisor have been hugely successful, but have not been without their problems.
This has included doubts over the honesty of reviews posted by their users, questions over how reviews are prompted and verified, and accusations that many if not most reviewers are either employees posting using aliases or spittle-specked customers out for revenge.
The question for new homes developers and build to rent operators to grapple with is this; once the reviewing cat is out of the bag, there’s little that can be done to get it back in. For example, it’s not uncommon to stay at a B&B where the owner complains bitterly about the carnage that a bad or vindictive review on TripAdvisor has wrought on their business.
Marsh is acutely aware of these challenges and says HomeViews is employing tracking, data and industry partnerships to root out fake reviews on its site.
“Our message to developers is that the people who write reviews proactively are usually the extreme of any experience so if you just let this happen then you are going to get these extremes,” she says.
“But if developers encourage everyone to write reviews then you are going to get a more balanced cross-section of what it’s really like to live in your development.”
“Our message to developers is that the people who write reviews pro-actively are usually the extreme of any experience so if you just let this happen then you are going to get these views.”
– Hannah Marsh, HomeViews.com
Marsh founded the proptech company with Olly McGinn (pictured, right) in 2016 and has been building the platform carefully since then.
It only officially launched last week, at the same time adding a new co-founder, Rory Cramer, who until recently worked for estate agent Marsh & Parson’s as its new homes strategist, and before that at CBRE.
“It’s been really interesting talking to different developers, operators and building management because invariably they have assumed that a reviews platform for their sector already exists,” says Marsh.
“For the past year we’ve been testing the concept with a working platform, talking to developers and operators to ensure we are collecting from the data points that are important so that the reviews are accurate.
“We’ve also been talking to both owners and tenants to find out what information they thought wasn’t available when they went on viewings.”
Marsh says what HomeViews offers developers is insights into their development that are more than just tenants or owners venting about a single issue that has frustrated them, because it asks them to give a more overall and balanced view.
“An example is one woman at the 3,386-unit Royal Wharf development who was really upset about the poor mobile signal within her apartment. But after completing a review she gave the development 4.2 out of 5,” says Marsh.
HomeViews.com has been up and running since August and Hannah has been busy getting the first reviews on the site using some innovative strategies.
This has included targeting developments by using fliers inserted into pizza box deliveries via a partnership with Deliveroo, or through their letterboxes, incentivised by a £5 voucher. These ask them to review the development using a unique code, which is another way that Marsh says she can verify reviews.
HomeView has a big job ahead of it. More developers, management companies, tenants and landlords need to be persuaded to get involved and it needs scale and more reviews, something its discussions with the Home Owners Alliance is designed to help build.
Marsh’s company has private backers as well as money invested by the three founders, and she says at the moment the focus is on getting the product and marketing right rather than worrying about making money.
But what HomeViews doesn’t have to contend with is a crowded market; no other reviews sites has tackled new homes yet so at least for the time being, the service has time to develop.