There was no one home when Avisheh Madani arrived to tour a San Francisco rental property. No one human, that is.
Madani, 35, used a code from an app to unlock the door and was greeted immediately by a robot.
"It was definitely weird," she said.
The robot, really a moveable video monitor, is the brainchild of Zenplace, a rental management company based in San Francisco and expanding quickly across the nation. The company developed the software itself, which doesn't look like a classic robot, although it does have a face: the real face of the rental agent. Essentially it's a roving screen showing a live person in another location.
"Robots are part of our end-to-end solutions," said Rahul Mewawalla, CEO of Zenplace. "What our robots really do is reduce the leasing period and cut down vacancy times for owners. Tenants can now literally go from seeing a place they like to renting it out in a matter of minutes versus the days and weeks it traditionally took."
The rental agent talks to the prospective renter through the screen and can also move the device throughout the home. In addition to the live agent, the robot can provide real-time data about the neighborhood, amenities, and rental trends, such as pricing. It also has a lease application, so the renter can apply on the spot.
"I have gotten used to doing everything through apps and technology, so it's kind of nice to make it convenient," said the prospective renter Madani, "And I didn't have to wait on anybody else. I was able to do it in my own time frame. It was very convenient."
It is the next step in management technology, and a response to an increasingly competitive and fast-moving rental market.
Since the last housing crash, the nation's homeownership rate dropped to a record low and has hovered near there for the past year. Meanwhile, the growth in rental households since 2010 averaged just under one million annually, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. In addition, nearly 4 million single-family homes, the majority of them foreclosures, were purchased by investors and converted to rental homes, bringing the total now to just over 18 million.
Rental growth is finally starting to slow, but new rental households are still estimated to increase by nearly 500,000 annually over the 10 years from 2015 to 2025, a historically robust pace.
In response, a new breed of rental management companies, offering all kinds of apps and advancements in technology, are vying for the new business. Rental Beast, RadPad, Landlordy, Zumper, HotPads, to name just a few, offer various services, from helping renters find properties, negotiating leases, scheduling maintenance and paying rent, all through mobile devices.
All this is not lost on Zenplace's CEO.
"As a Silicon Valley company we are constantly asking ourselves how can we do better? How can we do something the next week which is entirely, three times better than this week?" said Mewawalla. "Our belief is we continue to remain ahead of the pack and improve the experience for landlords and tenants."
The robot may seem like a gimmick at first, but it does give potential renters much more flexibility. They can walk into a home they may have been just walking by — which raises a question about security. This likely wouldn't work with for-sale homes, which might be filled with the owners' belongings. Rentals are often viewed empty.
Zenplace does have a security protocol. In order to gain access, the potential renter must first text the number on the sign and send an ID picture. Zenplace then does a quick "background check" (they wouldn't say exactly what type), and if the person is accepted, they are sent a unique code that unlocks the key box on the front door. All of that then activates the robot inside.
"I felt very safe," said Madani. "I think in the future, if I were to do it again, I'd feel equally safe. It was just a different experience. It was like having somebody there, just in a different shape."
Zenplace currently operates the robots in its California properties but expects to expand to five other states, including New York and Florida, next year.