Unlocking The Data In Our Homes

I'm a relatively new homeowner. We moved into our place in September, and aside from a few coats of paint and some cosmetic fixes, we didn't have much to do. But I've been thinking a lot about home ownership and residential real estate over the past few years, and it still seems like an area that's ripe for disruption. My most recent observation came during my evening commute, as I watched the lights from thousands of single-family homes cruise by and starting thinking about what we could learn from them both individually and collectively. Here's what got me excited:

Each single family home is a complex system in an of itself, with multiple sub-systems working together to provide its inhabitants with a comfortable and safe place to live. These systems are co-dependent but relatively easy to bucket: foundation, framing/joycing, roofing, flooring, home envelop & windows, HVAC, electrical, plumbing (I'm probably missing or mischaracterizing a few). Add the exterior and landscaping and we're introducing a few more systems. Any any point in time, each of these systems is in some state of relative health and maturity, and often these states are quite different. The electrical system in one home may be in very poor health while the roof has recently been replaced and is in excellent health. The plumbing in another home may be in tip-top shape but its windows are well-below modern standards and creating liabilities. You get the idea.

Aside from detailed record keeping and a kind of homeowner's sixth sense, gained only through experience, it's difficult to have a great sense of the current state of your home's systems. We tend to deal with problems as they present themselves, learning about the health of one system or another only as it fails. In fact - there's really only one point in time when a homeowner (and the associated parties - mortgage lender, insurer, registrar) get a comprehensive view of the home's health: the home inspection, which takes place rarely.

We can do better than this - and I don't think it has to mean waiting until every possible component of the homes can monitor and self-report. We have had an explosion in availability and affordability of sensors in the past few years, making it relatively trivial from a technology standpoint to measure basic things like temperature, humidity and current. These could be used to cheaply retrofit a home well enough to provide a basic stream of data output - a sort of home pulse - that could be either stored, ingested and interpreted by any number of useful applications. Combined with a more regular human inspection (on the order of ever year, vs. only at time of transaction), it should be more than possible today to get a much more accurate picture of a given home's overall health.

The use cases for this kind of data are numerous, especially as it expands beyond the very simple pieces described above. Homeowners could better anticipate maintenance needs, avoiding emergency repairs and saving money. Similar to some new health insurers, property insurers could get a more accurate picture of the risks facing a given asset - and potentially give homeowners reduced premiums keeping their homes in better health. The aggregate output from many homes could power a host of other applications in real estate, finance, construction and beyond.

Regardless of how our home ownership models may change over time, a huge portion of our overall housing stock is made up of single and multi-family homes, each in a varying state of age and health. There is huge value to be unlocked by translating that information into a usable data set. I think it can start happening in the immediate future.