How serious are Zillow and Redfin about iBuying?

In the past year, two of the U.S.'s leading portals, Zillow and Redfin, have launched iBuyer businesses. Zillow's entry was, in part, a response to an existential threat to its business model, and much of the value it may derive is not from buying and selling houses at all, but by generating valuable seller leads (watch my video presentation). Which begs the question: How serious is Zillow about being an iBuyer?

Opendoor's 3x advantage

The best way to compare seriousness is actual market traction and purchase volumes -- putting your money where your mouth is.

In the first seven months of 2019, Opendoor continues to be the clear leader in the iBuyer space as measured by home purchase volume. Opendoor has purchased nearly 10,000 homes, around three times the volume of Zillow.

 
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On average, Opendoor is purchasing around 1,400 homes per month (as an aside, a recent Opendoor commercial stated the company buys a home every 34 minutes -- or around 1,300 per month). Again, this number is about three times the volume of Zillow for the first seven months of 2019.

 
 

However, Opendoor's volume advantage is eroding over time as Zillow's activity accelerates. In January, Opendoor purchased 4.7x the volume of Zillow, but that is down to 2.4x in July. Zillow is closing the gap (especially in the last three months).

 
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The magic number in all of this appears to be 3x: year-to-date in 2019, Opendoor is about 3x ahead of Zillow in terms of home purchases. But Zillow is catching up.

Available firepower to purchase homes

Another way to judge a company's level of seriousness about iBuying is how much debt it has available to purchase homes. Each of the major iBuyers has secured massive amounts of debt, but some have secured more than others.

 
 

Once again, the magic 3x number appears: Opendoor has three times the debt available to purchase homes compared to Zillow. So it is no surprise that it is purchasing three times the volume of homes.

What about Redfin?

Readers may notice Redfin in distant fourth place in many of the charts, which, again, is an indicator of seriousness about iBuying.

Opendoor has 30x the debt available and has purchased nearly 40x the homes compared to Redfin in 2019. On average, Opendoor is purchasing around 1,400 homes per month, compared to Redfin's 36 homes per month. Redfin is an iBuyer in the same way I'm a basketball player. Both statements are technically true, but neither of us are anywhere close to the big leagues.

Differing strategies and motivations

Opendoor's entire business model revolves around buying and selling as many homes as possible. At scale, it becomes a powerful business. Zillow, on the other hand, may want to moderate its home purchases to achieve a scale where it maximizes seller leads. As I've said before, Zillow has the potential to make more money with less risk by monetizing seller leads.

Zillow's purchase rate (the amount of homes it buys compared to the total number of offer requests it receives) has consistently hovered around 2 percent.

 
 

Zillow is expanding fast to catch up to Opendoor, but it may have different motivations in doing so. Zillow's buying activity in Phoenix, for example, has plateaued since January of 2019. Is it taking a well-earned breather, or is 100 homes a month all it wants (or needs) to buy?

 
 

The evidence suggests that Zillow is serious about being an iBuyer and a major player in the space. But its motivations, and the question of why it wants to be an iBuyer, may differ significantly from other iBuyers.


Check out the part of my Inman Connect presentation where I talk about Zillow's pivot to iBuying, and the value of seller leads.

Realtor.com’s slow descent to irrelevancy

With the rise of iBuyers as a powerful new starting point in the consumer journey, realtor.com is yielding the strategic advantage to arch-rival Zillow. Lacking an iBuyer strategy for the past year, realtor.com has fallen further behind in terms of delivering value to consumers and agents. Multiple options to enter the space are available, but the clock is ticking for realtor.com to execute strongly and maintain relevance in a rapidly evolving industry.

Power at the top of the funnel

One of the topics I discussed in my recent Inman Connect presentation was the power companies have at the start of the consumer journey. Real estate portals around the world derive and maintain their dominant positions because they are a consumer's first stop in the home buying and selling process.

In the days before the internet, real estate agents were the starting point. With the launch of Zillow and its Zestimate, portals became the popular starting point for consumers. Opendoor and iBuyers shifted the dynamic by offering instant offers on homes, attracting consumers. Today, a number of iBuyer aggregators and real estate agents are fighting to attract consumers by incorporating instant offer services. I explain further in the quick video clip below.

 
 

In some markets, up to 40 percent of serious home sellers are requesting an instant offer before listing their home! Instant offers are becoming the new Zestimate -- the new, natural starting point for determining a home’s value. And because of this, they are also an existential threat to portals.

The value of seller leads

The iBuyer business model generates a ton of high-intent seller leads: consumers who are interested in moving and request an offer, but don’t sell their home to an iBuyer. In the last three months alone, Zillow generated 69,000 offer requests but only bought 1,500 homes. The remaining leads can be distributed to real estate agents -- a valuable source of new business.

 
 

Today, Zillow Offers is active in 11 markets. Once it expands to 20 markets, Zillow could generate close to 500,000 seller leads annually -- a number that will increase as its national roll-out continues.

Zillow and realtor.com’s traditional lead generation businesses are built around buyer leads. iBuying has become the holy grail of seller leads: popular with consumers, valuable to agents, and of generally high quality. Over time, these leads will become a valuable source of new business for real estate agents, and an additional revenue driver for Zillow.

Using rough estimates, it's clear that the profit potential of seller leads far outweighs that of buying and selling actual homes, with considerably less risk for Zillow.

 
 

Real estate agents partnering with Zillow receive valuable buyer and seller leads. The same partnership with realtor.com yields only buyer leads.

Strategic advantage: Zillow

Each day, Zillow continues building its sustainable competitive advantage by strengthening its leadership position in consumer’s minds as the place to go for an instant offer. Simultaneously, Zillow generates tens-of-thousands of valuable seller leads for its agent customers each month -- a service which realtor.com does not provide.

For a real estate portal’s two most important audiences -- consumers and agents -- Zillow is highly differentiated while realtor.com lags behind.

Realtor.com needs to provide an iBuyer service -- but does not need to buy and sell houses directly -- to compete with Zillow. The logical entry point is a partnership with a national iBuyer (and that iBuyer, by the way, needs an inexpensive source of leads just as much as realtor.com needs an iBuyer service).

Until realtor.com unveils a coherent iBuyer strategy, it will remain at a growing disadvantage to Zillow, and risks further irrelevancy in the evolving battle for consumer eyeballs.


Check out my entire Inman Connect presentation, "iBuying Disrupted: Battle of the Behemoths."

iBuying is Zestimate 2.0

When Zillow launched in 2006, its Zestimate was its claim to fame.

The Zestimate was a lead generation tool that attracted consumers by giving them a starting point for determining what their home -- or any home -- is worth. It was online, it was fast, and it was easy.

Flash forward more than a decade later, and online valuation tools are a commodity. There are dozens of web sites that will determine a home's estimated value. Zillow’s unique advantage has diminished.

Zillow's strategic necessity

I believe Zillow's guiding strategic principle is that it must be consumers' first destination in the home buying and selling process. Zillow's sustainable competitive advantage lies in its massive audience and strong position at the start of the consumer journey.

In the past, other listing portal competitors were relatively undifferentiated. Zillow has been the clear market leader, and there was no credible threat that could unseat it from its powerful position.

However, the entry of iBuyers with a service that made instant offers on a home – online – was novel and compelling, just like the Zestimate in 2006. Suddenly, more and more consumers were beginning their home selling process not on Zillow, but on other web sites like Opendoor and Offerpad. This was a key existential threat for Zillow.

The iBuyer business model is Zestimate 2.0 – the natural starting point for determining your home’s value. What’s more accurate than an actual offer on your home?

Mass-market appeal

Opendoor's long-term vision is that every home owner will request an instant offer before selling their home. It's a natural starting point: It's easy, it provides value, and there's no commitment. What better way to value your home than an actual offer?

While Zillow only purchases around three percent of the offer requests it receives (that number is higher for the other iBuyers), a very large number of consumers are requesting offers each month. In established markets like Phoenix, anywhere from 25–35 percent of active home sellers request an instant offer before selling their home. The numbers are BIG.

 
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Given the growing mass market appeal of an instant offer (tens of thousands of requests each month) and the simplicity of the process, it's no surprise that Zillow launched its own iBuyer service.

Strategic implications

If you're in the business of providing consumers an estimate of the value of their home, the bar has just been set higher. The inherit power and appeal of the iBuyer model is quite clear:

  • Instant offers are simple, easy, and quick. All online.

  • Instant offers are at the start of the funnel -- they attract consumers at the start of the home buying or selling journey.

  • It's a novel concept that satisfies a consumer need, hence the high proportion of consumers requesting offers.

In other words, iBuying is the new Zestimate.

Rightmove's slowing growth: same problem as Zillow, different strategy

Rightmove, the U.K.'s top portal, announced its full-year 2018 results last week.

Why it matters: Not unlike Zillow, the growth in Rightmove's core advertising business continues to slow. The slowdown in velocity reveals the limits and highlights the challenges the business will need to overcome as it looks for new growth opportunities.

Overall revenue grows and slows

Overall revenue at Rightmove grew 10 percent last year -- respectable, double-digit growth, but also the lowest number recorded in its history.

 
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Rightmove's core revenue driver is its Agency business, which accounts for over 75 percent of total revenue (concentration risk!). Annual growth continues to slide over time. The 8.7 percent growth is the lowest number recorded, and reflects the growing difficulty the business has in charging its customers more money for the same service.

 
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Nearly all of Rightmove's growth is coming from price increases (average revenue per advertiser, or ARPA), as opposed to new customers. The amount that Rightmove is able to squeeze out of its existing customers is slowing over time.

 
 

Controlling expenses

Historically, Rightmove has demonstrated incredibly disciplined cost control. By managing its expenses, Rightmove is able to maintain its phenomenal 76 percent profit margins.

 
 

But while good for the bottom line, controlling expenses too much can limit the ability of a business to invest in future revenue streams.

One way Rightmove maintains its margins is limited headcount growth. In 2017 (which was a transition year when revenue growth slowed considerably as new pricing was rolled out), the business only added ten new hires. In 2018, Rightmove added sixteen new hires.

 
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Strategic implications

While facing similar challenges, Rightmove's strategy stands in stark contrast to nearly every other major real estate portal around the globe. Zillow and REA Group spent tens-of-millions of dollars to acquire mortgage businesses, Scout24 acquired a finance comparison business for over $300 million, realtor.com acquired Opcity for $210 million, and Zoopla acquired a range of adjacent businesses for half-a-billion pounds.

The real estate portal business is evolving, moving closer to and getting involved in more parts of the transaction. But Rightmove has remained steadfast and stationary in its solitary focus (more on this in my Future of Real Estate Portals Report and 2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report).

 
 

Rightmove's revenue growth slowdown may sound similar to Zillow (as I wrote about last week), although the slowdown is less pronounced and immediate. But the trend and concern is the same.

Both portals are facing slowing growth in their core businesses. Zillow has invested heavily in new business lines (mortgage, rentals, Zillow Offers, and lead qualification to name a few) and appointed a new CEO, while Rightmove hasn't -- its eggs are still in the same basket.

Zillow's New Strategy: Insights, Implications, and Analysis

Last week, Zillow announced a major strategic shift: Along with a new CEO, it made clear that its top focus is its Zillow Offers iBuyer business.

Today's email covers the highlights of that announcement. Additionally, next week I'll be holding a 60-minute webinar that dives deep into the strategy, numbers, and implications of Zillow's latest move.

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Premier agent growth grinds to a halt

The most striking statistic from Zillow's results is the lack of projected growth in its flagship, billion-dollar premier agent program (which accounts for 67 percent of its revenue). Guidance for the first quarter of 2019 is only 1.5 percent -- a steep decline from past quarters.

 
 

And on a full-year basis, Zillow projects its premier agent program will grow at 2 percent -- a flattening from past, double-digit growth.

 
 

Both of these projections come on the back of difficulties rolling out new premier agent products focused on lead quality over quantity.

But what's most striking is the suddenness of the decline. Going from double-digit to flat growth in the span of a year is significant. More than rollout issues, I believe Zillow has reached the upper limit of what it can charge agents for leads. Which is what's driving such a significant shift in strategy.

Expensive homes and a longer hold time

Last week I wrote about Zillow's unsold inventory in its Offers program, and the significance of longer hold times. The latest data highlights the same challenge.

 
 

The homes Zillow sells are less expensive: an average sale price of $292,000. However, the houses it holds in inventory are considerable more expensive, with an average value of $320,000.

This data point matches up exactly with the latest data from Phoenix, which shows a considerably higher average purchase price for Zillow compared to the other iBuyers.

 
 

The more expensive the home, the higher proportion of unsold inventory. It takes longer to sell more expensive homes, and it looks like Zillow is more than dabbling in the expensive end of the market. This is a key metric to watch!

Profit projections

Zillow released a detailed financial breakdown for its Offers business, including initial profit margins on its sold homes. Adjusted EBITDA, which backs out a number of costs including stock-based compensation, shows a per-home profit margin of 0.6 percent, lower than the stated goal of 2–3 percent.

 
 

(As a form of employee compensation, I believe stock-based compensation should be included in a true EBITDA calculation, so I've provided both options above.)

It's still early days, but this benchmarks current performance compared to where the business needs and wants to go in the future.

Strategic implications

I believe Zillow's guiding strategic principle is that it must be consumers' first destination in the home buying and selling process. Zillow's sustainable competitive advantage lies in its massive audience and strong position at the start of the consumer journey.

Think of this latest move as "Zestimate 2.0." The original Zestimate gave consumers a fun and helpful starting point when thinking about moving or buying a house. Now that online valuations are a commodity, Zillow needs to up the game: Instead of an estimate of value, how about an actual offer on your house? It's a compelling consumer proposition -- even if it simply serves the same purpose as the original Zestimate (attracting consumers at the start of the journey).

There's a whole lot more to discuss! If you want to listen and watch as I dive deep into the subject, register for next week's webinar.

Zillow Offers' most important metric

 
 

Later today, Zillow will announce its fourth quarter and full year 2018 results. Its activity as an iBuyer continues, and it recently overtook Offerpad to become the second-largest iBuyer in Phoenix. But my attention is focused on one key metric: Zillow's ability to quickly sell houses.

Why it matters: Zillow's goal is to hold houses for an average of 90 days. Any successful iBuyer needs to hold houses for as little time as possible, otherwise unsold inventory builds up, finance costs rise, and the whole model starts to blow up.

Overall activity grows; #2 in Phoenix

Zillow's overall iBuyer activity continues to grow, both nationally and in Phoenix (its biggest market). Based on the total number of homes purchased and sold, Zillow overtook Offerpad to claim the #2 spot in Phoenix for the month of January. Zillow is -- for the moment -- the second-largest iBuyer in the important Phoenix market.

 
 

Buying more than it's selling

While Zillow's overall activity continues to rise, its purchases are quickly outpacing sales. This is to be expected in the early months of a new market, but it's now eight months since launch. This is creating a growing inventory of unsold homes: around 350 in Phoenix as of February 12th.

 
 

It's natural for iBuyers to buy more houses than they sell when entering a new market. But over time, this Buy:Sell ratio is a critical metric for any iBuyer. Houses must be sold for the business to work!

Expensive homes, longer hold time

There are early signs that Zillow may be having difficulty selling houses. For iBuyers, time is money. The faster they can turn around and sell a house, the better.

The magic number for total holding time is around three months; Opendoor and Offerpad hold for between 80-100 days. Zillow currently has around 350 unsold houses in its inventory in Phoenix. Of those, it appears that around 110 homes have been owned for more than three months.

Part of the reason Zillow appears to have longer holding times may be the price of the homes it is purchasing. On average, it is buying more expensive homes than the other iBuyers in Phoenix.

 
 

Nationally, Zillow has purchased over 700 homes with an unsold inventory of over 500 homes.

 
 

The more expensive the home, the higher proportion of unsold inventory. It takes longer to sell more expensive homes, and it looks like Zillow is more than dabbling in the expensive end of the market.

Strategic implications

The key metric to watch is how well Zillow can sell its houses. Buying is relatively straight-forward; only once a house is sold is the entire business model complete.

To succeed as an iBuyer and appropriately manage its risk, Zillow needs to hold its houses for a minimum amount of time (on par with the other iBuyers), and avoid building up a large inventory of unsold homes.

It's still early days and Zillow has been quite aggressive in growing as fast as possible. But with its one year anniversary four months away, the pressure is on to demonstrate a consistent ability to buy -- and sell -- houses.

REA Group, Domain, and the non-battle for top spot

It's earnings season! In the past week, a number of portals announced their financial results, including REA Group and Domain, the two top Australian portals.

Why it matters: The numbers reveal interesting trends and insights, significantly around the difficulty of building meaningful adjacent businesses, and the non-battle between the #1 and #2 players in various markets.

Adjacent businesses are tough

Like many portals worldwide, REA Group and Domain each launched adjacent businesses, with goals to expand along more of the transaction, reduce consumer friction, and capture more revenue.

But as I've written before, the businesses have very different strategies. REA Group acquired a majority stake in an existing mortgage broking business, while Domain launched a number of joint ventures and partnerships. Different strategies, different outcomes.

REA's finance business continues to chug along, building revenue and generating meaningful earnings ($5.8 million EBITDA over the last six months).

 
 

By comparison, Domain's adjacent businesses (finance, insurance, and utility switching) generate similar revenues but with continued -- and mounting -- losses. The latest six months show a loss of $4.3 million.

 
 

REA's strategy is delivering a positive financial impact, while Domain's businesses are still in a heavy investment phase after more than a year.

The "battle" between #1 and #2

The battle between the #1 and #2 portal in each market is fascinating, and Australia is no exception.

One metric to compare portals is overall revenue generation. In general, the #2 portal generates between 25 and 40 percent the revenue of the leader (read my portal report), and that number doesn't fluctuate over time. In fact, in the case of REA Group and Domain, the leader is growing faster than the number two.

 
 

Domain is the underdog in Australia, and the evidence suggests it will remain that way. Overall situational awareness is important: It would be a mistake to assume Domain will overtake REA in any capacity.

U.K. portal wars -- what's changing?

Along the same lines, the real estate portals in the U.K. recently released traffic figures for the start of the year. It offers yet another fascinating glimpse into the competitive tension between top players -- and the complete lack of movement.

The figures released are for January 2019. And while the absolute numbers are generally rubbish, it's the comparison between portals and the year-on-year growth that's insightful.

 
 

Rightmove's numbers have hardly changed, and the delta between the number one and two is still the same. For all the investment on product, marketing, and inventory -- the all important consumer habits haven't shifted.

The variable, however, is the upstart portal OnTheMarket (read my past analysis). OTM has raised over £30m and is aggressively spending on marketing in order to drive traffic to its site. Its traffic has doubled since last year -- but does it matter?

For all of the tens-of-millions of pounds spent to build an alternative to the established portals, what impact is it having after launching four years ago? Zoopla's traffic is marginally down, but it reports that leads are up over 30 percent. The top two portals are equally and exactly as dominant as they were a year ago.

Strategic implications

There are a number of key takeaways for portals around the world:

  • Launching successful adjacent businesses is hard. It takes an incredible amount of investment, and there are a variety of execution strategies.

  • The evidence doesn't suggest that the #2 portal can overtake the leader -- let alone make a dent in its leadership position. It's not a horse race; it's static trench warfare.

  • Trying to launch a new portal and compete against the leaders is at best expensive, and at worst futile. Consumer habits are hard to change.

Zoopla's private equity strategy shift

Zoopla recently announced that it has removed all non-property advertising from its listing pages. This is one of several significant strategy changes after its acquisition by private equity firm Silver Lake.

Why it matters: The benefit of being a private company is that Zoopla can be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth. This move is an example of that strategy in action.

The advertising revenue dilemma

A number of real estate portals generate revenue from non-property advertising on their listing pages. Zoopla's move puts it in line with arch-rival Rightmove by banishing banner ads from listing pages.

Note : REA Group and Domain do not have advertising on featured property listings, but do have non-property advertising on "normal" listings.

Note: REA Group and Domain do not have advertising on featured property listings, but do have non-property advertising on "normal" listings.

Banner advertising can be an important source of revenue for portals. However, it comes at the expense of the user experience. If a visitor clicks on a banner ad, their attention is diverted away from the property listing, reducing its effectiveness.

Often times user experience loses out to finances, especially for publicly listed companies under pressure to deliver revenue growth. And given that core revenue growth is slowing at a number of mature portals, the decision is even harder. But for a private company that's focused on the long-term opportunity, the decision is easy.

A shift in strategy

Aside from jettisoning nearly its entire management team, Zoopla has been up to quite a bit post-acquisition; there is the appearance of a significant change in strategy.

Zoopla's aggressive diversification strategy has been a leading factor making it unique in the world of real estate portals. It's been a world leader in acquiring adjacent businesses to dramatically grow revenues (for more on this, check out my 2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report).

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The company's narrative has centered around a cross-sell strategy, where acquisitions are deeply integrated across Zoopla's network of web properties.

I've questioned the effectiveness of the cross-sell strategy, most recently in my Future of Real Estate Portals Report. The evidence didn't suggest a runaway success when it came to integration and cross-sell synergies.

Notably (and here's the big strategy shift), Zoopla's new managing director recently stated that, "Going forward, the former comparison and property businesses of ZPG will be managed largely separately, but we will continue to achieve synergies between the two wherever it is appropriate and relevant.”

To me, that sounds like a "back to basics" approach with a deep focus on the core product: tools for agents with a fantastic consumer experience. Cross-sell synergies and deep integration across the portfolio are taking a backseat.

Which is an interesting development for Scout24, which recently purchased financial comparison site Finanzcheck for $330 million, and Domain, which has been running the Zoopla diversification playbook for some time. Oops?

Strategic implications

Public companies that are focused on short-term revenue growth are at a distinct disadvantage to private companies backed by private equity. And private equity is getting more involved in the sector:

  • General Atlantic acquires a majority stake in Hemnet, December 2016.

  • Silver Lake acquires Zoopla for £2.2 billion, May 2018.

  • General Atlantic invests $120 million in Property Finder, November 2018.

  • Apax Partners offers $2.5 billion NZD for Trade Me, December 2018.

  • Rumors circulate that several private equity firms are looking at Germany's top portal, Scout24.

It's going to be difficult to compete with private equity-backed portals given their fundamental advantage: they can be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth.

Trade Me's private equity adventure

In recent weeks, Trade Me, New Zealand's leading classifieds and marketplace portal, has received two, multi-billion-dollar buy-out offers from private equity firms.

Why it matters: There is a growing trend of private equity getting involved in portals around the world, which allows these businesses more freedom of action as private companies -- but with significant change.

Private equity and portals

Trade Me is New Zealand's leading portal, with property, automotive, and jobs classifieds and a general marketplace business. I worked there as head of strategy between 2012 and 2016.

British firm Apax Partners and American firm Hellman & Friedman have both offered around $2.5 billion NZD for the business, a 25 percent premium to the existing share price.

This news follows several other examples of private equity getting into the (property) portal business:

  • General Atlantic acquires a majority stake in Hemnet, December 2016.

  • Silver Lake acquires Zoopla for £2.2 billion, May 2018.

  • General Atlantic invests $120 million in Property Finder, November 2018.

Slowing growth

Since its public debut eight years ago, Trade Me has grown revenues 100 percent and net profit 39 percent.

Revenue growth has slowed over the years, especially recently, in a story reminiscent of Rightmove's growth dilemma.

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The stock price has seen a steady rise with its ups and downs, but has been relatively flat since 2017.

In August of 2018, Trade Me announced a special dividend to return $100 million in capital to investors. This comes on top of the normal dividend, which represents around 80 percent of profits. Returning capital at that scale can be a signal that the company has run out of ideas.

Many businesses believe it is more beneficial to reinvest profits to improve efficiency, expand reach, create new products and services as well as improve existing ones, and further separate themselves from competitors.

Like Rightmove, Trade Me is in a difficult position. With growth slowing, it is less likely to make big investments for fear of depressing earnings and upsetting investors. It's a delicate, public-company balance. Enter private equity...

Upside potential, with change

Private equity invests in businesses for one and only reason: to make money. It's clear that these P.E. firms have evaluated Trade Me's business and believe there is significant upside potential under new ownership and management.

But significant growth comes with significant change. When Silver Lake acquired Zoopla in the U.K., nearly the entire executive team was let go as part of the restructuring. It's the same story in Sweden, when General Atlantic appointed a new management team after acquiring a majority stake in Hemnet.

Strategic implications

If consummated, a private equity takeover of Trade Me would have a number of implications for the business, competitors, and the entire online ecosystem:

  • A private ownership structure will allow Trade Me to be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth.

  • Private equity firms demand a return on their investment, and this transaction will be no exception. Expect costs to be trimmed, earnings maximized, and a more aggressive posture on pricing and monetization.

  • If you're competing with Trade Me, expect a dramatically different business to emerge that's tougher, less conservative, and more willing to throw its weight around.

Trade Me has long had a friendly, home-grown feel in New Zealand. New owners -- and new demands on the business -- may change the equation.

Zillow's billion dollar seller lead opportunity

Last week, Zillow announced its latest financial results, and the stock dropped 25 percent (losing $2 billion in value). But the story everyone is missing is the Zillow Offers iBuying business, and the huge potential of seller leads.

Why it matters: Last week I was quoted on MarketWatch saying, “If you’re thinking about Zillow doing iBuying and you’re not thinking about seller leads, you’re thinking about it the wrong way.” Seller leads are the real billion dollar opportunity.

Slowing premier agent growth

Here's the reason why Zillow's stock tanked 25 percent last week, in one chart:

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Zillow's premier agent program accounts for over 70 percent of its revenue, or nearly $1 billion. Growth is slowing down. I'm not sure why this surprised anyone on Wall Street; I've been writing about it since early this year (Zillow's revenue growth slows and Zillow's strategic shift to iBuying and mortgages). I believe it's the primary reason Zillow has aggressively expanded into adjacent businesses.

The value of seller leads

Zillow's iBuyer business continues to grow, and the latest results crystalize the opportunity in seller leads.

Zillow says that since launch, nearly 20,000 homeowners have taken direct action on its platform to sell their home. Of those, it has purchased just about 1 percent of homes (around 200). That leaves about 19,800 leads who remain interested in selling their homes.

If Zillow simply sold those leads at $100 a pop, they're worth nearly $2 million.

But the real opportunity is giving those leads to premier agents in exchange for an industry-standard referral fee, about 1 percent, if the property sells (similar to the Opcity business model).

Here's the kicker: Zillow claims about 45 percent of consumers that go through the Zillow Offers funnel end up listing their home. That's a high conversion rate reflective of a high intent to sell; about 10 times higher than Opcity's conversion rate.

Assuming a 1 percent referral fee, a $250,000 home, and a conversion rate of 45 percent, those 19,800 leads are worth $22 million in revenue to Zillow, almost all profit.

Compare that to the estimated profit of its iBuyer business (1.5 percent net profit), which, on 200 houses, is $750,000. The value of the seller leads is worth almost 30 times the profit from flipping houses!

Total addressable market

Zillow says that based on its current purchase criteria, if Zillow Offers were available in the top 200 metro areas in the U.S., sellers of nearly half of the homes sold in 2017 across the entire nation would have been eligible to receive offers from it to buy their home directly. That equates to around 2.75 million homes annually.

Last quarter, Zillow said that it received offer requests from around 15 percent of the total for-sale stock in the Phoenix market. Interestingly, that number increased to 25 percent in September and 35 percent in October. That's a reflection of the strong lead generation power of Zillow Offers across its various web properties.

Based on these numbers, if Zillow goes national (200 metro areas) and sees 35 percent of the for-sale stock, it would receive 962,500 offer requests each year.

The billion dollar opportunity

Taking the latest numbers, which have been validated to the tune of 20,000 offer requests over five months in two markets, the total opportunity becomes clear with a national rollout.

Seller leads can be a billion dollar business for Zillow if you believe the current numbers. Even if a national conversion rate is lower, or the % of for-sale stock fluctuates, it's still worth several hundred million dollars in revenue annually.

Should Zillow even buy houses?

Given the value of the seller leads, should Zillow even be in the business of buying houses? Yes, if it wants a credible product for consumers. The real question is: What proportion of houses should Zillow actually buy?

Zillow's "big picture" is 5 percent national market share, which equates to buying around 10 percent of all offer requests (it is currently buying around 1 percent of offer requests). At a 1.5 percent net margin, that's around $1 billion in profit.

But to reach that scale, Zillow would need to spend $68 billion to purchase 275,000 houses annually. Assuming an average holding time of 90 days, it would need a credit line of $17 billion to fund the effort. Big numbers.

A more realistic target would be to only purchase around 1 percent of requests. Nationally, that would be 27,500 homes, which is only around double what Opendoor is currently doing, so it's feasible.

In any case, the point is clear: Zillow doesn't need to actually buy and sell a lot of houses for this model to generate significant profits for the company in a national rollout.

Strategic implications

Zillow is a lead generation machine, and its recent foray into iBuying is no exception. 

If you're in the industry and your value proposition to agents is seller lead generation, there's a new game in town. Zillow will be able to generate a massive volume of seller leads with higher intent than almost any other source. If successful, this will have significant implications across the industry.

Further analysis

If you're looking to dive deeper into the world of iBuyers, consider the following: