Would you put your house on the blockchain? What does that even mean? What about just buying property with cryptocurrency? These are the questions that cryptocurrency and real estate pioneers are investigating.

In October last year, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington made blockchain history when he used an Ethereum smart contract to buy a Ukrainian apartment. (A smart contract is, essentially, an application programmed on top of a blockchain, meaning the underlying data is distributed and verified by that particular blockchain's network of participants.) Arrington used Propy, a startup that aims to provide a global marketplace for these types of real estate transactions.

Arrington isn't the only one interested in using the technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to manage his real estate. People are intrigued by the possible efficiencies of handling the whole process through code, and want financial flexibility beyond what traditional banks and insurance companies typically allow.

In early January, an Idaho resident named Zach Doty announced on Reddit, "I just warranty deeded my house into an Ethereum smart contract. AMA." Doty accomplished this by setting up an irrevocable trust and designating an Ethereum address as the grantee.

He explained in a comment, "Beneficial interest in the irrevocable trust can be assigned through our smart contract from one ETH address to another." Each address has to be tied to a legal entity in order to satisfy existing legal requirements, Doty said.

Arguably the Reddit post was a publicity stunt. Doty is the founder of a project called SmartLaw, which aims to facilitate arrangements like the one he set up for himself, as well as other financial services. "We're kind of like a blockchain notary," he told Inc. 

When you control the legal ownership of real estate via self-executing code, "a lot of things become possible, for example, fully automated foreclosure processes," he said. A smart contract could be set up to automatically auction a property after a certain number of payments are missed, and then split the proceeds between the creditors. Instead of needing to go through lawyers and manually conduct the process, in theory the SmartLaw code would handle all the administration of the auction.

Doty has big plans for SmartLaw: "It'll support buying and selling real estate, it'll support borrowing against real estate," along with "a lot of cool lending features."

Rick Stacey, an Idaho lawyer with a specialty in real estate, says he thinks the arrangement is probably legal, albeit baffling. "I don't see any advantage to it," he said, while there are "potentially some downsides," like not being able to procure title insurance.

Stacey pointed out that until this structure is tested in court, there are inherent unknowns. (Granted, someone willing to entrust their home to a cryptocurrency is probably not fazed by the unknown. But how many of those people can there be?) "You can do the exact same thing with a trust without using blockchain," Stacey said.

A more straightforward way to blend the world of real estate and cryptocurrency is just to buy property using cryptocurrency. Los Angeles real estate agent Piper Moretti is actively representing and seeking clients who want to use their cryptocurrency investments to buy property. So far it's been pretty uncomplicated: People sell their cryptocurrency when they're ready to pull the trigger, then complete a normal cash transaction.

As for crypto-to-crypto transactions, "I have people who are working on it and they can't wait for this to happen," Moretti says. She is a cryptocurrency investor herself, with almost 20 different varieties in her portfolio. "I don't think blockchain technology is going anywhere. We're on the very forefront ... and that's definitely going to disrupt the real estate industry."

Of course, it's still early days. All of these efforts to blend cryptocurrency and real estate are experiments that may or may not spark trends. Are we ready to hand over our family homes to computer code? Perhaps not yet.

Published on: Feb 19, 2018