Hundreds of robot realtors are helping Bay Area renters find new homes

Some potential renters in California meet an unusual assistant when they show up for a tour of their new dream home — a robot realtor named “Zenny” that gives a tour of the house, wirelessly connected to high-tech property management startup Zenplace.

The Mercury News recently followed one prospective buyer as he checked out a place in Santa Clara. “I wasn’t expecting a robot,” chuckled Gilbert Serrano as he arrived at the two-bedroom rental house. The three-foot-tall robot had an iPad mounted at the top, connected to real estate agent Rabia Levy in her Sunnyvale office. “I’m a person too!” she responded.

Zenplace has hundreds of robots in the Bay Area, and using them for home tours can reduce much of the time agents coordinating and scheduling visits with prospective buyers.

As Forbes notes, rentals have surged in recent years, with 45 million households now tenants. But owning a rental property can be an enormous hassle, with time-consuming challenges such as finding reliable tenants, setting a suitable rent, background and credit checks, leasing paperwork, as well as ongoing property maintenance.

Rahul Mewawalla, the CEO of Zenplace, wants to change all that. He says renting or buying a home should be as easy as scheduling a ride with Uber.

The company is backed by Bay Area investment tycoons, and it uses the latest technology to streamline the process of property management. A.I. machine learning can predict potential problems with rental properties, letting owners be proactive with repairs. The machine learning A.I. can also quickly assess available vendors, both locally and across the nation, to find the most capable and competitive for a specific job.

So, for instance, not only can it tell you a tenant’s dishwasher is likely to fail within the next three months, it can also find a top-rated replacement and a local contractor who will install it.

On the tenant side, Zenplace offers a phone app and supports connected devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. Tenants can pay rent, manage utilities, and report issues they’ve encountered.

Not surprisingly, other area realtors are less excited about welcoming their robot overlords. Rick Smith, a real estate broker for more than 30 years, prefers face-to-face interactions. “When you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you often get a gut feeling about someone when you’re sitting across the table from them,” he said.