Robocalls, ringless voicemails and AI: Real estate enters the age of automation

Home for sale along Biskra Road in the Desert Park Estates housing community in Palm Springs.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California’s real estate market is as cold as the snow currently adorning the peaks of its mountains. Interest rates are up. Inventory is down. And deals are few and far between.

In slow markets, the agents at the top — those with experience, connections and plenty of clients — typically maintain a modest but steady stream of business. It’s the agents at the bottom — those just getting into the industry who’ve only managed to close a handful of sales — who starve.

As those agents have grown more desperate for leads, they’re trying alternative ways of finding them. Some are outsourcing the work overseas, and others are turning to AI or automation in a last-ditch attempt to find a seller.


During the record-breaking pandemic market, there were so many transactions that most determined real estate agents were able to make a living. More than 43,000 single-family homes traded hands in L.A. County in 2021, and more than 42,000 were sold in 2022, according to the Multiple Listing Service.

During that time, tens of thousands joined the National Assn. of Realtors, or NAR, with membership swelling to a record 1.6 million in 2022, up 200,000 since 2020. Real estate wasn’t just a solid job; it was a way to leap into a higher tax bracket.

But then the market started to freeze in 2023 as mortgage rates shot up. Only 11,539 single-family homes sold that year, and sales are at a similar pace so far this year.

Some agents are simply calling it quits. In California alone, NAR lost 9,723 members from December 2023 to January 2024 — a 4.75% decline . But even after the drop, California still holds the second-most active Realtors in the nation at 194,964, and they’re all fighting for an extremely small pool of sellers.

At the peak of the pandemic market, Tyler Andrews, 29, tried his hand at real estate in the Inland Empire, thinking he would use his outgoing personality to sell homes as L.A. residents flocked to the area during the pandemic. He got his license and helped a few friends with their house hunts, but ultimately didn’t earn any commission and stopped in 2023.

He’s one of many agents who rushed into real estate hoping for a taste of California’s latest gold rush.


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From the outside, listing a house in a hot market seems like the easiest of get-rich-quick schemes. Homes sell in days, and a 3% agent’s commission on a $1-million sale comes out to $30,000. If you represent both sides of the deal, it turns into $60,000.

But the real estate industry isn’t an easy one to break into. You typically get paid only if you close a sale, and in any market, most homeowners still prefer to go with an agent with experience.

In a hot market, sellers find an agent. In a cold market, agents have to find a seller. The situation is coming to a boil in many areas, such as Leimert Park, where residents have been barraged by agents asking whether they’re interested in putting their homes up for sale.

Cold calling is time consuming — and stressful, considering the ire it draws from those on the receiving end. So some agents are handing that thankless task to machines.

A handful of companies such as Slybroadcast and Salesmsg offer “ringless voicemail,” a robocall-adjacent tool enabling agents to send pre-recorded messages straight to your voicemail box without your phone ever ringing. The messages are often meant to trick you into thinking you missed a call, saying things like, “Sorry I missed you! Give me a call back whenever you get a chance.”

In 2022, the Federal Communications Commission declared the trend a form of robocalling and said it’s illegal if the caller doesn’t have the recipient’s prior consent. But that hasn’t stopped agents from sending out such voicemails to potential clients.


“I don’t have time to cold call all day,” said one real estate agent who asked to remain anonymous due to the potential taboo of using the technology. “I have to find clients somehow, and in a market like this, you have to get creative.”

The thinking is this: An agent could spend eight hours a day calling every home in a neighborhood to ask whether they want to sell their home. Or they could send out 500 ringless voicemails simultaneously, and those who bother to call back have a better chance of needing the services of a real estate agent.

Andrews said he had heard of other agents trying such technology as the market got colder in 2023, but he never bothered doing it himself because it didn’t seem authentic. It also would’ve been an extra expense — one he didn’t have a budget for.

In historically Black Leimert Park, some residents are upset with constant phone calls and mailers asking them to sell their home.

Jan. 30, 2024

Mary Thompson has owned her home in Beverly Crest for more than a decade. Over the last year, she’s received multiple ringless voicemails asking whether she wants to list or buy a house.

“I was fooled by the first one. I called back and ended up on the phone with an agent for 15 minutes asking about my plans as a homeowner,” she said. “I don’t bother calling back anymore.”

U.S. consumers received more than 55 billion robocalls in 2023, 5 billion more than the previous year, according to the YouMail Robocall Index. Roughly 15 billion were telemarketing calls, and 8 billion were scams. California consistently ranks as the state with the second-most robocalls, behind only Texas.


As a response to thousands of unwanted call complaints, the FCC has established a Robocall Response Team to combat the influx of robocalls, many of which are targeted toward homeowners.

Last year, the commission shut down a robocalling campaign from MV Realty, a real estate brokerage that was sending out robocalls with misleading claims about mortgages. A whistleblower from the company told a Seattle news outlet that employees were directed how to use software called PhoneBurner and required to make at least 450 calls per day.

Other companies such as VoiceSpin give agents access to auto-dialing software, which, like it sounds, automatically dials numbers from a list. VoiceSpin claims to use AI and machine learning and enables agents to drop voicemails straight into inboxes, record calls or even use local area codes so you’re more likely to pick up.

In that case, you’d be talking to an agent, but sometimes you might find yourself unwittingly conversing with a robot.

The tech company Ylopo recently uploaded a video showcasing an AI assistant conversing with a potential home buyer planning a move to the North or South Carolina coast. The company said it’s “one of thousands of AI calls being made daily already for Ylopo clients.”

Cinc, a real estate lead generation platform, offers agents an AI-powered digital assistant that purposefully misspells words and uses emojis to make interactions with potential leads appear more human.


The NAR itself offers an AI scriptwriter powered by ChatGPT that analyzes housing trends so that agents can appear more knowledgeable about the market. Agents can even choose the tone: professional, engaging or conversational.

Earlier this month, the FCC continued its fight against robocalling by outlawing robocalls that use AI-generated voices. Since the ruling is so fresh, it’s unclear how companies utilizing the technology will be affected.

In a market as slow as this one, even finding numbers to call becomes a challenge; tech becomes useless if it’s being wasted on the wrong potential clients. So many agents are looking for leads.

On Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services, a glut of listings has popped up offering agents potential leads on prospective buyers or sellers. One of the most prolific is Abhishek Rai, who has racked up more than 3,000 five-star reviews offering leads on motivated sellers, vacant properties or absentee owners since joining the platform in April 2020.

Rai, who’s based in India and uses the handle @virtualguy2020, typically charges $10 for 100 leads, $50 for 650 and $100 for 1,500.

“Real estate agents have demanding schedules, and outsourcing lead generation tasks allows them to focus on other aspects of their business, such as client meetings, property showings, and negotiations,” he said.


Rai has clients across the U.S., including many in Southern California. He added that generating leads is a specialized skill and not every agent has the expertise to find them on their own.

For his leads, he combs through public records, online databases and real estate sources such as property records, tax records and foreclosure listings.

To be clear, the vast majority of agents in Southern California still conduct business the old-fashioned way. But the ones trying new things are often doing so in order to make a living.

In 2022, Realtors with 16 or more years of experience made a median gross income of $80,700, according to the NAR. But those with two years or less experience made just $9,600.

According to a report from business networking platform Alignable, 31% of real estate firms struggled to pay rent for their office in January.

AI’s subtle invasion of the real estate industry doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise because the technology has pervaded nearly every profession over the last few years. But for an industry that has long relied on human connection — handshakes, open houses, fresh flowers and other personal touches — AI’s cold, sterile seep into housing has become unnerving for some.


“When I do need a real estate agent, I need one that I can connect with,” Thompson said. “I don’t want anything to do with their AI assistant.”