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Robot-led home tours are a thing now

Only in SF

A couple walking into an apartment and greeted by a short robot with a computer tablet mounted on top. Photos courtesy of Zenplace

This is not a drill: Zenplace, a San Francisco-based property management startup, will offer potential tenants tours of homes using robots.

The technology has not yet progressed to the point where C-3PO greets you at the door and shows you around, looking like a scene from Epcot Center. Rather, the machines are more like drones, operated remotely by human realtors.

Founded in 2016, Zenplace started out employing artificial intelligence to the management side of the property management game.

“How do you think about pricing, how do you think about tenant screening, repair and maintenance, those things” were the focus, CEO Rahul Mewawalla tells Curbed SF.

Previously, Mewawalla served as an advisor on technology to San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, which afforded him ample opportunity to think about housing. During his tenure, he decided the biggest problem with renting a home (other than price, presumably) is that it takes too long and the entire process is cumbersome.

“You’ve got to look for a place, you have to play phone tag, you have to fill out long applications,” says Mewawalla. “You lose two or three weeks every time you have to do this. And as an owner, every day your property is vacant costs you hundreds of dollars.”

Zenplace is supposed to make finding a new place futuristically convenient: Potential tenants walking by a Zenplace home during showing hours (generally between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) can schedule a tour on the spot using their smartphone, unlock the front door with an app-provided access code, and step inside to be greeted by the bot.

The device that shows you around the property looks like a cross between a Roomba and a floor lamp. The realtor communicates via a tablet mounted on top. A GPS chip accurate down to inches is supposed to keep the robot in line as it wheels around the apartment.

Rabia Levy, a realtor from the South Bay who started at Zenplace only a few months ago, tells Curbed SF she’s conduced about 20 robotic tours and got the hang of handling the technology after one day’s practice.

“At first it feels a little like a remote control car,” says Levy. She notes that “people don't always know a robot will be there” when they walk in. This can catch folks off guard, “But if they want to see the property, they want to see the property.”

Mewawalla boasts that this way a home and an agent can be available for tours on short notice anytime during business hours. The one possible Achilles heel of the entire setup?

“Very steep stairs might be hard for the robots,” admits Mewawalla. “But if they’re small stairs, it can escalate, one step at a time.”