Blockchain and real estate

Based on the title of this blog post, you might assume this might be about Honduras, where there is a proposal to use the blockchain to store land records. The problem with Honduras is that there is no “trusted third party” – nobody even trusts the government, for example, so the best way to store land records is in a decentralised hard to tamper manner.

Over the last few days I’ve been reading up a bit on blockchain and bitcoin and how it works and so on. I haven’t yet got to the math – that it is described as “proof of work” irritates me no end (given that work should be evaluated on output rather than input).

So I see that what makes blockchain secure (apart from the miners having to agree on every transaction, and securing bunches of transactions using cryptographic hashes) is that every block contains within itself a hash of the previous blocks. In other words, the entire sequence of transactions is maintained.

The way “normal currency” (like cash) works is that only possession matters, not history. So the fact that there is a hundred rupee note in my pocket means that I can spend that money, and nobody has a track of how that hundred rupee note reached my pocket. This makes the system insecure since if a pickpocket picks this note, there is no proof (apart from possibly catching him in the act red-handed) that he picked it from my pocket.

With bitcoin, on the other hand, there is a record of how each bit of currency (no pun intended) ended up where it ended up. So even if someone were to magically “steal” my bitcoin, the historical records show that this legitimately belongs to me, and that makes it secure.

This reminds me of the paperwork involved when we bought our apartment in Bangalore last year. Normally you would imagine that a certificate indicating that the title currently rests with the current owner is enough to conduct a real estate transaction. but lawyers and bankers here are not satisfied with that.

The paperwork for the apartment I bought went back sixty odd years, when the land on which the building was built was first “allotted” by the City Improvement Trust Board. If I have to sell this apartment on, along with the certificate that I own this apartment I’ll have to furnish copies of this entire history going 60-70 years back. And the way property deals are done here, I don’t expect the system to change.

So this is what makes real estate such a prime candidate for using blockchain. Not only is a third party (such as the government department that stores land records) not trusted, it is a standard practice to include the entire history of every land or property going back several years. A sale transfers ownership, but in terms of paperwork, a layer gets added, not replaced.

This shows why real estate is such a prime candidate for moving to blockchain for storing transactions. It is ironical that a small and crime-ridden country such as Honduras is showing the way on this. It is time for countries like India to consider similar uses. But first, we will need to digitise existing records and make sure there is exactly one owner for each piece of property, and blockchain can’t help us with that challenge!

One thought on “Blockchain and real estate”

  1. For an ideal blockchain network, the rewards for maintaining a copy of ledger must be larger than the cost of doing so. For bitcoin, the reward is the value of bitcoin and miners will keep mining (maintain ledger) as long as the value of a bitcoin is greater than cost of mining (hardware, power, human resources, etc.).

    For land records, what incentive will you give to those who do all the hard work of maintaining copies of ledgers?

    Digitization of land / home records will lead to more simplicity than a slapping blockchain network on top of current process. A year ago, my uncle purchased some farm land and I went to the “taluka” gazetteer’s office with him. There I saw how digital land records have made the entire process simpler and transparent. We can even access the land record online and see its entire history.

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