Startups shake up Southeat Asia online property market

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Startups in Southeast Asia are moving into the real estate market and changing the way people find a home to buy or a place to rent. At least three of them, based in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore, have a distinct expat influence.

Westerners and other foreign nationals who relocate to Asia for work or to settle have a choice of websites to help them find property. These websites, though, are often highly frustrating to navigate. Property postings that look like online classifieds and are overloaded with information (much of it irrelevant) make webpages complex and confusing. This is in contrast to the West where prominent property websites are user-friendly, rich in content, and feature comprehensive listings with photo references.

In addition, users in some countries find that it’s extremely difficult to get a fair price estimate on sale and rental properties from credible sources, turning the search for a place to stay into a nightmare.

Hong Kong’s Spacious Spacious, a startup in Hong Kong, is succeeding in changing the house-hunting experience in Hong Kong. Co-Founders Asif Ghafoor and David Beatty, who come from families in London and Australia that are involved in property investment, were frustrated by the lack of market transparency in Hong Kong. They found local property websites had fake listings because agents were trying to chase up prices.

Seeing the opportunity, they set about creating what Ghafoor calls a “world-class user interface”. They launched their startup, Spacious, in August 2013 and raised US$500,000 in funding in March 2014, which allowed them to expand the team. The company ambition is to become the “go to” real estate online portal via the web and smartphones.

Spacious improves the user experience by providing photo-centric neighbourhood and building guides to help users figure out where they want to live. Property listings feature market-related valuations and are updated daily. Users can also mark properties as spam to prevent estate agents from posting fake listings.

Thailand's FazWaz It is no secret that Thailand is a popular tourist destination and many vacationers are deciding to make Thailand their home. There is also a trend amongst tourists is to find a traditional Thai house rather than a hotel to stay in, which has created an opportunity for local home owners. In Phuket these developments have led to a 7% growth in the local property market over the past three years.

However, for expats looking for property, the local websites offer enticing pictures but not much information and too many outdated listings.

Real estate startup FazWaz aims to change that. The startup has launched a data-driven condominium real estate platform, with more than 40 developments and 2,500 units on display. Price comparison tools, listings placed side by side, and all fees and costs clearly highlighted, help buyers to make educated decisions.

Paul Trayman, head of biz dev at FazWaz told e27 that they have no direct competition in Thailand yet. The platform analyses millions of data points in relation to property sales along with their respective developer characteristics in the Thailand market. FazWaz’s algorithm compares unit prices and takes into account economic trends in different geographical locations. The startup has plans to expand to three other locations within the coming months. The startup has been bootstrapped up to now.

Singapore’s 99.co Singapore is another destination that draws expats for work and launching businesses. High-profile expat and investor in Singapore startup 99.co, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, explained his reason for investing in the property portal at the announcement of a new funding round in January this year.

“When I was trying to find a home for myself here in Singapore a few years ago, 99.co didn’t exist and I naturally explored all web and mobile tools available, and I was nothing short of disappointed,” said Saverin. “Were the listings real and available? Was the pricing data and other details accurate? Why so many duplicates? It was a high-friction and time-consuming experience that had to change.”

Because agents are required to pay to have property listed, the agents who can pay the most, have their listing featured more prominently, regardless of the suitability of the property. 99.co does things differently. The startup takes a more user-centric approach, it doesn’t prioritize any results and uses only its search algorithm to surface listings.

“We’re offering a new way of doing property search. Our search results are relevant to our visitors and not corrupted by advertising money,” CEO and co-founder, Darius Cheung, told TechCrunch.

99.co announced at its official launch that it had received an investment of US$1.6 million from Saverin and leading venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, bringing its total investment to US$2 million.

The Asian property market is enormous and there is a clear gap in the market to improve the online property search experience for users. It will be interesting to see if and how these new startups, led by expats, will affect traditional property websites in the region.