Zillow's Strategic Shift

Zillow announced its Q2 financial results today, along with the acquisition of a mortgage broking business.

Why it matters: This is another big move that signals Zillow's clear intent to get closer to real estate transactions.

A major move into mortgages

In my opinion, the most interesting part of today's announcement is Zillow's acquisition of a mortgage broker, Mortgage Lenders of America LLC.

Why? Two reasons:

  • This is exactly the same move REA Group pulled off in Australia last year when it acquired the mortgage broker Smartline (both businesses even have roughly the same number of employees).
  • In addition to its Instant Offers program, this is another huge example of Zillow moving closer to the transaction in a big way.

Closer to the transaction

In my latest report, The Future of Real Estate Portals, I provide a strategic framework for how to think about portals expanding into new businesses. There are two ways: getting involved in more of the transaction, and getting closer to the transaction.

There are two big examples of real estate portals making big moves to get closer to the transaction: Zillow's Instant Offers program, and REA Group's acquisition of mortgage broker Smartline.

Zillow's announcement today is yet another major -- and not unexpected -- move in that direction. That's a big deal; it's a clear signal of intent and strategy, and one that no other portal is matching around the globe -- yet.

A strategic shift

What we are seeing is the result of a strategic shift at Zillow, likely started in 2017, and now moving full speed ahead. It is an intentional move to get closer to the transaction is all areas of the business, and move away from simply being a marketplace that connects buyers and sellers. 

As I mention in my report, it is a move from search engine to service engine. And it's a move to larger revenue pools. Zillow's existing mortgage lead gen business generates about $4 per lead. Mortgage origination can generate hundreds to thousands of dollars per customer.

It is a big move. While all the iBuyers talk about providing mortgage solutions to streamline the process, no one has purchased an existing mortgage broker. This isn't testing the waters; it's jumping straight in and hoping for the best.

Premier agent growth as catalyst 

I believe one of the big drivers of Zillow's strategic shift was the slowing growth of its flagship premier agent program. As I've written about in the past, it is naturally slowing down.

To Zillow's credit, with slowing growth in its main revenue driver, it did two things:

  • Made the aforementioned strategic shift to get closer to the transaction through Instant Offers and Mortgage lending.
  • Made significant investments into its premier agent program to improve lead quality and value to agents.

The first action opened up new areas of growth. The second arrested the decline and stabilized the premier agent program.

Strategic implications

There are a number of key takeaways from Zillow's latest move:

  • Moves to get closer to the transaction are people-intensive. At scale, Zillow's Instant Offers will have hundreds of employees on the ground. Mortgage Lenders of America has around 300 employees. Unlike a classic marketplace business, these new growth areas are expensive and low margin.
  • This is going to happen everywhere. Expect every major real estate portal to get deeper into the mortgage and finance space.
  • Zillow is not standing still. Its business today looks quite different than it did 12 months ago. Does yours?