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Tokenized real estate and public databases

One of the ways that you can turn a traditional real estate company into more of a web3 company is talk about how you’re going to tokenize the ownership of real assets. But what does that even mean and how would it work?

Here is one example that I recently discovered (but of course there are countless others and I’m not suggesting that you should use their product). Bricknest is a startup that is focused on buying vacation apartments in popular tourist destinations. They then split the ownership into 365 non-fungible tokens that live on the Solana blockchain.

Each token is intended to correspond to a day. And so if you own 1 token, you own 1/365 of the asset and you get 1 day. You can choose to either use it yourself on this day, or rent it out and get the rental income sent directly to your crypto wallet. If you own all 365 tokens, then it would be similar to you just owning 100% of the asset.

The obvious question is how is this different from, say, fractional ownership, which can be similarly found in high-demand vacation spots? And the dumb answer is that, well, tokens exist on a blockchain and fractional ownership shares do not. So I guess the real question is whether or not tokens will make this ownership model any different.

There is a long history of trying to democratize the ownership of real estate. In fact, this was the general idea behind REITs when they were created in the 1960s. So again, we are back to the question of whether tokenization will be any different from what we already have.

But I think that most people are asking this same question of crypto/web3 in general — why does all of this matter? And a big part of the problem is that crypto is generally hard to explain. One of the best explanations that I have come across is this one here by Albert Wenger.

Simply put, most internet companies today can be thought of as large privately controlled databases. Instagram, for example, is a database of all of our photos (among other things). But because it’s Instagram’s database, they get to decide what can be done with it. And naturally they are going to do what it takes to maintain their economic moat.

Blockchains are similarly databases. And right now they’re not particularly good databases. However, the key differences are that (1) they are public, (2) they are not controlled by a single entity, and (3) anyone can read and/or write to them. And so they directly attack the thing that gives many companies today their economic advantage.

Does this mean that tokenized real estate is the future? Does it make a difference that rental contracts can be programmed into the blockchain so that distributions are automatic? It still feels too early to tell. But I do think that most people are underestimating how disruptive a seemingly small change like this might be.

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