There is a lot being written about blockchains, bitcoin and related technologies, and for many real estate professionals, this is part of a brave, new, confusing world of technology. Like the original internet, the blockchain is a revolution in technology that will touch all people and all businesses. So people are paying attention, but many still don’t understand what the blockchain is.
Imagine that you and your best friend Bob are standing on a stage in an auditorium, and there are 1,000 people in the audience. In front of these 1,000 people, you hand your car keys to Bob, and Bob hands you his Rolex. You declare, “Bob, you now own my car.”
Bob declares back to you, “You now own my Rolex.” There are 1,000 witnesses who can each declare, without doubt, that your car now belongs to Bob, and the Rolex belongs to you. If anyone in the audience later tells a conflicting account of who owns the car or the Rolex, the other 999 people will refute it. And, if you take a spare set of your keys and try to give that same car to someone else, the 1,000 audience members will confirm that Bob owns the car, as each of them witnessed the “transaction.” This is the essence of how the blockchain works.
In its most simple sense, the blockchain is a series of computers (thousands to potentially millions of them) that each keep the same record of an event or transaction in a ledger that is open to the public. Each record is encrypted, and the ledger is virtually hack-proof. Since all these computers see the same thing, they offer consensus that the recorded event or transaction is valid. The most important value of the blockchain is that it allows two or more parties to interact with, say, a financial transaction, with no middleman.
Bitcoin is merely an application of the blockchain. You buy a bitcoin with cash. You transfer ownership of the bitcoin to someone else with the consensus of thousands of “witnesses,” and that someone else can then sell the bitcoin for cash. It’s one way to transfer money without a bank or other third party. There no physical coin, however; it’s not like a subway token. It’s a digital asset, assured by the blockchain.
Interestingly enough, when people buy homes with bitcoin, they really are still buying with cash. It’s just being converted to bitcoin first. So, the next time you read about a bitcoin home sale, it is generally still a traditional cash sale.