Even the most respectable news institutions have run out of formal descriptors for the Australian property market and are just calling it what it is: insane.
Spiralling prices are pushing people into parents’ homes, house shares, and even tents.
Part of the solution - building more houses - is strung up in an old, intractable, glacially slow planning system (a global problem). Approvals for new builds aren’t just backlogged - they’re at the lowest in 10 years.
Extending or self-building would be an alternative to buying existing (unaffordable) stock - if people could figure it out. Complying development certificates (CDCs) are supposed to make things simpler, but only 45% of property in NSW - home to the epicentre of pricing insanity, Sydney - is even eligible.
There’s a government’s guide to completing a CDC project - but it’s 141 pages long.
So often it’s left to the pros - architects, developers, planning consultants. But they still face a wall of red tape, build-blocking policy, and liability-averse councils afraid of NIMBYs.
Speaking of NSW - its planning system has just been ranked worst in the country by the Business Council of Australia (BCA), which has identified another victim of planning inertia - small businesses applying for expansion or change-of-use.
The BCA’s suggestion? Digital solutions.
Meet the problem
Australia doesn’t just need the odd house here and there.
To have a hope in hell of bringing down Wild West property prices, it needs houses, terraces, apartment complexes – medium and high density residential sites. NSW currently builds 1 house for every 5 people added to the state. Calls are being made to use pre-approved “pattern-book” site designs to multiply the devastatingly insufficient housing stock.
But all of these build types must gain approval against complex planning regulations, which take months and provide no guarantees.
Wading through thousands of regulations that vary by territory is time and resource heavy, often grounding projects before ground is even broken.
Rushing this stage means risking mistakes - for which there are regulatory and reputational consequences. They can draft in a town planner or consultant, but this means another link in the chain to get paperwork through (and it costs a lot of money).
Planning systems are like this the world over. Boris Johnson was planning the biggest overhaul of the UK planning system since World War II - and even the man who got Brexit done couldn't even do that.
But… we have AI now.
Trawling through dense documents and impenetrable legalese is a tedium most people would probably have been throwing money at for years - had the tech existed.
Thanks to AI, it finally does.
Rules as Code and large language models can now translate legalese into legible copy and make the incomprehensible clear. These may be some of AI’s greatest gifts yet.
There are three direct blockers to increasing housing supply in Australia: under-resourced councils, limiting government policies (allowable building quantities, land use restrictions), and the “assessment burden” (aka good old-fashioned bureaucracy).
PropCode - a smart regulatory engine that translates planning legislation into a clear analysis of what you can and can’t do to a plot of land - has a hand on all these levers.
Meet the founders
After studying meteorology at uni, Will dived deep into the data, analysing natural hazard risk for insurer IAG. He was also building on the side, developing a weather forecast data mapping tool called Globe.
“I then opted for a career change to the property industry, moving to OpenAgent, a startup that connects sellers with real estate agents, while also pursuing a Master of Property Development from UTS,” says Will.
It is here he became more aware of Australia’s huge planning problem. Inspired to be part of the solution, he took up a role at Mecone Consulting, where he advised state and local governments, and built tech for urban planning workflows and analysis.
Jonah is a software engineer with 10+ years experience at Amazon and Atlassian.
“After my comp science degree at UC Berkeley I jumped into building software at Amazon. I then came to Australia with Atlassian, where I saw that exponential growth ramp up to IPO.”
He then shifted focus to conversational AI, building an AI strategy/team for government agency, ServiceNSW before joining togetherAI as CTO.
Will and Jonah knew that solving the planning problem required a unique intersection of deep property and technology experience – something the pair have in spades.
“The urban planning sector is one of only a few within proptech that has not been completely oversaturated with startups attempting to solve problems.”
Why? Because it’s not easy.
“Speaking to property professionals as well as government officials, the amount of pain and lack of innovation in this sector has become very clear.”
Meet the product
Through PropCode, users can search any residential address in NSW or VIC (and soon, Australia).
The platform generates a report outlining every regulation relevant to that address. It can help users plan in the first instance, or make clear why historic proposals might’ve been rejected.
Founder Will says it can “cut up to 2 hours of confusing journeys through the Codes SEPP, LEPs, and dozens of maps”.
Users do include individuals, but PropCode expects recurring use by architects, agents, property investors, and developers.
The impacts across industries will be massive: improving the clarity of written laws, slashing admin and project delivery times, avoiding human errors made through confused reading comprehension, and ultimately empowering the consumer by helping them understand what they’re reading, signing, or possibly in breach of.
PropCode’s competitive edge is its transparent audit trail of all the rules evaluated. In other words, it’s backed up with sources so customers don’t need to second guess the results. Rules and regs are also being consistently reviewed by domain experts.
It’s a level of transparency, accuracy, and depth that no one else is offering currently. As a result, PropCode is already seeing strong early interest from property platforms wanting to offer the service to their clients.
The ultimate ROI for customers is the saving in manpower and brainpower that will let them take on more business.
Alongside Skalata, the team has received early investment from Brisbane Angels and Antler.
Currently based in New South Wales, the founders plan to expand PropCode’s reporting capabilities to jurisdictions across Australia, then into industrial and commercial properties, followed by expansion into overseas markets.
While local rules and regulations differ, PropCode’s core technology is translatable to any jurisdiction.
And they’re moving quickly.
Will and Jonah started working on the idea in July 2022, had a functional proof-of-concept in October 2022, raised a pre-seed round from Antler in November 2022, and then released their MVP in late December 2022.
For a startup defined by efficiency, that’s some good “be the brand”.
The team has recently released the PropCode Library, a free regulations viewer making it easier to find, read, and search planning regulations that are relevant to a property.
In what Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called "the most significant reforms to housing policy in a generation,” the federal government’s new National Planning Reform Blueprint (NPRB) has committed to building 1.2 million new houses in 5 years.
It’s a bold promise. Keeping it, and accelerating housing supply, will depend on drastically improving planning processes.
“PropCode is in a very timely position to help both governments and locals understand housing potential."
“The NPRB will be huge, as it proposes changes that PropCode could directly help private users or governments implement or interpret," says Will.
New developments in AI/ML have uncovered and validated new ways to ingest, synthesise, and extract value from enormous data sets that would otherwise be impossible to handle.
As little as 5 years ago, PropCode would have needed to train a model from scratch.
Simple, routine, objective questions can now be completely automated, while AI can assist in minimising decision time on more subjective or merit-based questions.
At its heart, PropCode is enabling professionals to swap the tedium for the tools to process information, apply their expertise, calibrate advice and dramatically speed up the property planning process.
It could just be the ticket to improving Australia’s insane housing market…