Opendoor's pivot to agents

According to a report on Inman, Opendoor is launching a new preferred agent partnership program where it is co-listing a growing portion of its for sale properties with partner agents.

Why it matters: This is a significant pivot for Opendoor, aligning it closer to agents in a major way. It signals that working with the traditional industry -- rather than trying to disrupt it -- is an important part of its growth strategy.

Working with agents

Opendoor's new preferred agent partnership program brings the company much closer to agents. As opposed to the company's hallmark of buying and selling direct to consumers, with a do-it-yourself open home model, this latest move represents a big pivot.

Before this program was announced, the way Opendoor sold its homes was fairly uniform: it would list direct without an agent, offer self-guided tours, brand everything Opendoor, and not pay seller agent fees since it was selling direct. But things have changed:

An unknown question is how Opendoor is compensating co-listing agents. There are three possibilities, listed in order of likelihood:

  • The agent receives a referral fee (likely 1 percent) for representing Opendoor.

  • The agent receives a fixed fee ($1,000) for representing Opendoor.

  • The agent receives no direct compensation, but benefits from potential leads while hosting open homes.

Why the pivot?

This is a big move for Opendoor, and it would only make a change if there was a business benefit.

Opendoor is moving towards an agent-centric model, where it's co-listing and co-branding with a traditional real estate agent (and the traditional process it is aiming to disrupt). That's a non-trivial shift. And assuming Opendoor is compensating co-listing agents as outlined above, there's a significant economic shift as well.

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Opendoor is in the business of buying and selling houses. So any pivot must enhance that capability, leading to two possible reasons for the change:

  • Sell more houses, faster.

  • Attract more agents representing sellers (buy more houses).

For a co-listing arrangement to make business sense, it must enable Opendoor to buy or sell more houses. Either its existing process isn't quite where Opendoor wants it to be, or there's an external reason to cozy up to agents...

The Zillow factor

There's one other factor to consider, and that's the relatively recent arrival of Zillow to the iBuyer game. As a reminder, Zillow's angle is to include agents in each step of the process, using its premier agent network to represent all sides of the transaction.

Opendoor's latest move puts it squarely at parity with Zillow in terms of agent involvement and the value proposition for agents.

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Now, if you're an agent, the benefits of working with Opendoor are the same as working with Zillow. For Opendoor to make this degree of change, and give up image and economic value in order to appeal to agents, it must really want to work with agents!

Strategic implications

There's a long history of would-be real estate disruptors that attempted to disintermediate the traditional industry, only to change their minds and pivot back.

It's hard to go against real estate agents. There's just so many of them, and psychologically consumers want to keep using them. Many disruptors start with anti-agent tendencies but eventually come back to the fold. It's easier and more profitable to work with the industry than against it.

This is not a full-scale retreat on Opendoor's part; far from it. But it's the strongest signal yet of the importance of agents to its current growth strategy.

2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report

Looking for more? Download and watch my Global Real Estate Portal Intelligence Briefing, a 60-minute webinar to dive deeper into the key highlights, trends, and insights from my latest report. I'll walk you through the key takeaways and observations from my research, in addition to answering questions.

Why incumbents can't beat Zillow (and the power of network effects)

Recently, several large incumbents have announced big consumer plays aimed at Zillow: Rocket Homes' new consumer portal, and Keller Williams acquiring SmarterAgent as part of its consumer strategy.

Why it matters: Zillow benefits from practically unbeatable network effects in the consumer space. Both of these moves ignore basic strategic principles of playing to your strengths, and picking battles you can win.

Network effects and wide moats

In his best-selling book Zero to One, Peter Thiel provides an elegant definition of network effects: “Network effects makes a product more useful as more people use it. For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, it makes sense for you to join Facebook, too.”

Online marketplaces such as Craigslist, LinkedIn, and eBay are classic examples of businesses that benefit from network effects. The more people that use them -- buyers and sellers -- the more valuable the service becomes.

Businesses that have the benefit of network effects are incredibly difficult to displace. As Tren Griffin writes on a16z, "Nothing scales as well as a software business, and nothing creates a moat for that business more effectively than network effects."

Zillow benefits from the power of network effects. By developing the most popular means of searching for real estate, it attracts buyers and sellers in a virtuous cycle. It has cemented an incredibly strong position with a near-impenetrable moat from competition. This is Zillow's key strength.

Comfortably number one

Logically, the most likely competitor to challenge Zillow's dominance is realtor.com. It is the runner-up portal backed by a multi-billion dollar international media company (News Corp) that also owns several top portals around the world.

But as I've shown in the past, Zillow's ever-important traffic dominance remains constant, undisturbed by realtor.com or anyone else.

 
 

If anyone could dislodge Zillow's dominance, it would be realtor.com. But it hasn't; not for lack of trying, but rather an understanding of network effects and the futility of such an effort (remember, it owns the top portal in Australia and knows the power of network effects better than most). News Corp doesn't want to overtake Zillow because it knows it's impossible.

Strategy basics: play to your strengths

Sound strategic planning requires two key elements: leveraging your strengths, and playing where you can win.

A business should build its strategy around an understanding of its key competitive advantages and operational strengths. Those strengths should be applied in areas where it can win (typically where its competitors are weak).

To illustrate this point further, the following chart looks at four examples of Zillow and realtor.com smartly leveraging their strengths and exploiting their competitor's weaknesses.

Less experienced strategists can be reactionary. They see a threat and attempt to counter it, on a battlefield where they are at a distinct disadvantage to a competitor. Keller Williams and Rocket Homes have done just this; choosing to do battle with Zillow on its home turf, where it is strong and they are weak.

Keller Williams and Rocket Homes

Zillow's strength lies in its massive consumer reach through its search portal. This business benefits from strong network effects and has a wide moat to protect it from competition.

Keller Williams is building a new consumer-facing app to "compete directly with search giants like Zillow and Redfin." Rocket Homes is launching a portal to "rival Zillow," which will "let consumers search for homes and apply for loans."

In their efforts build end-to-end homebuying platforms, both businesses have decided to go from positions of strength (mortgages and agent reach) to ones of weakness (consumer listing portal). It's the most difficult battle possible.

What Rocket Homes and Keller Williams are missing in their end-to-end platforms -- the consumer search portal -- is nearly impossible to deliver because of Zillow's dominance and the power of network effects. There's a certain futility in going after Zillow (or Facebook, or Ebay, or Craigslist).

Strategic implications

Keller Williams and Rocket Homes (part of Quicken Loans), are both incredibly large and powerful businesses; Keller Williams has the largest network of agents, and Quicken Loans is the largest retail lender in the U.S. But in the changing world of real estate, they aren't playing to their strengths.

All businesses should know their strengths. Deeply understand your competitive advantage and what value you offer -- and focus on that. 

By going directly after Zillow, Keller Williams and Rocket Homes demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the power of network effects. There's simply no purpose for these new consumer portals to exist, because they don't meaningfully benefit consumers.

In the accelerating race to build end-to-end real estate ecosystems, businesses should focus on leveraging their strengths to gain advantage over competitors and deliver true value to consumers.

Zillow, Opendoor, and controlling the consumer journey

Last week I conducted the iBuyer Intelligence Briefing -- a conference call on the latest iBuyer news, trends, and insights -- with listeners from around the world.

After the call, one particular question lingered: Which part of the industry controls the starting point of the real estate transaction, portals or iBuyers? Who has the advantage, and what are the implications for iBuyers?

Zillow's lead generation machine

Zillow announced its Zillow Offers program in Phoenix earlier this year, and started buying houses in May. It is heavily promoting the program across its site. While looking in the Phoenix market, a prominent message is displayed on all active for sale listings.

 
 

And if a visitor looks at an off-market listing (like their own home), this is the call-out at the top of the listing.

 
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In its latest quarterly results, Zillow revealed how effective the promotion was: "Since launch, we have received more than 10,000 offer requests from potential sellers." And: "...in Phoenix, for example, we are seeing about 15% of all dollar value that's being sold in Phoenix any given month." That translates to about 1,600 offer requests per month.

Opendoor is on record saying that more than "one in two sellers who received an Opendoor offer" will accept it. It's currently buying around 300 houses per month in Phoenix, so that's about 600 offers made per month.

 
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There's a difference between an offer being requested, and an offer being made. What's clear, though, is that Zillow is generating a massive amount of offer requests each month, at volumes that rival (and exceed) Opendoor.

Most importantly, Zillow's leads are coming with zero incremental customer acquisition cost, while Opendoor and other iBuyers must advertise directly to consumers to generate leads.

The Zillow effect

The ultimate question is whether Zillow's entry into the market is having an effect on Opendoor. Is Zillow soaking up demand from consumers, to the detriment of Opendoor?

 
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The chart above shows a clear picture: the number of homes that Opendoor is purchasing in Phoenix has plateaued. But there are two possible explanations for what's going on:

  • Zillow is having an effect on Opendoor's traction in Phoenix by soaking up consumer demand.

  • Opendoor is slowing its buying activity for other reasons (we've seen this before).

It's too early to say if Zillow is having a direct effect on Opendoor's business in Phoenix. Opendoor may slow its buying activity for a variety of other reasons, namely a potential market slowdown.

But what's clear is the leading position Zillow holds in the consumer journey and its massive reach give it a competitive advantage in acquiring customers -- which has long-term consequences.

Strategic implications

Back in February, I wrote the following: "The most logical response from a major player such as Realogy or Keller Williams would be to launch their own iBuyer program." Which is exactly what happened last week. More competition is coming to the market.

As incumbents, portals, and other new entrants enter the iBuyer market, they have the potential to soak up consumer demand and adversely effect Opendoor's business.

But for Zillow in particular, the evidence is clear: Real estate portals are in pole position to capture consumer demand for iBuying services, because they are at the start of the consumer journey. Will other global portals follow Zillow's lead?

Zillow will beat its Q3 homes revenue guidance

With September wrapping up, we can look at the latest iBuyer numbers out of Phoenix and see how Zillow is doing.

Why it matters: Based on the data in Phoenix alone, Zillow will beat its Homes revenue guidance of $2 - $7 million. But other indicators, including a lower-than-expected margin and higher purchase prices, are worth watching.

Q3 Revenue beat

During its last earnings results, Zillow provided Q3 revenue guidance for its Homes unit of $2 - $7 million. Based on our proprietary data set for Phoenix, Zillow sold 30 properties in Q3 for $9.3 million in revenue. So in Phoenix alone, Zillow will beat its revenue guidance.

Thirty sales over three months is a modest amount. By comparison, Opendoor sold 26x that number in the same period. Zillow is clearly still in its ramp-up period and has some ways to go.

This result highlights a few other observations:

  • Guidance is hard. Zillow is still finding its way in this new endeavor, and is having to constantly readjust its assumptions. It’s a positive sign, but clearly highlights how new to this business Zillow is.

  • Zillow's full-year revenue guidance of $20 - $40 million in Homes revenue is achievable (it simply needs to sell the same number of houses in Q4 to hit the low end of that range), but a lot depends on traction in other markets. I would expect Zillow to revise this guidance during the next earnings call.

Buying momentum up

In Phoenix, Zillow continues to expand its operations on a month-to-month basis. The number of homes purchased is increasing by about 40% month-on-month — to over 60 in September. By comparison, Opendoor is buying around 5x as many houses in that same period (solely in Phoenix). Zillow is clearly serious and committed to this new initiative.

Unsold inventory

One of the potentially worrying indicators, however, is the amount of unsold inventory Zillow has in Phoenix. While the number of properties it is buying is increasing, the number sold is low.

To-date, Zillow has purchased over 150 properties and has sold 30.

In September, the ratio of homes bought to homes sold is 0.14 — down from 0.34 in August. Comparatively, that ratio for Opendoor is 1.01 and 0.95 for Offerpad.

 
 

Clearly Zillow is still ramping up its operations so it’s natural to expect a lag between buying and selling properties. But even accounting for a 90 day holding time window, the September number should have been larger (I would have expected a buy:sell ratio closer to 0.50). All eyes are on October.

There are a number of other interesting indicators worth watching:

  • A lower-than-expected margin (the difference between what Zillow buys and sells a house for).

  • A median purchase price that is materially higher than its iBuyer peers (but is starting to drop).

Is Compass really a tech company?

Earlier this month, The Real Deal published an excellent article about Compass. And the article included one of my favorite things: numbers.

Why it matters: Opinions aside, the latest numbers allow us to compare Compass to its peers, and really answer dual questions: Is Compass doing anything novel in the industry, and is it really a technology company?

Comparing growth rates

I'll be comparing Compass to two of its peers: Redfin and Purplebricks. Both businesses, which I know well, represent the most successful new models in real estate that are changing the way people buy and sell houses. They are successful in terms of overall revenue and transaction volumes, demonstrating market traction at scale.

Overall revenue growth for all three firms is growing impressively. It's undeniable that Compass' revenue growth is accelerating.

 
 

The core of the Compass business model is making acquisitions. Armed with $800 million in venture capital, it is aggressively buying up agents and brokerages.

Transaction volumes are all increasing. Again, Compass' projected growth in 2018 is impressive, but that's what happens when you buy market share. By comparison, Redfin and Purplebricks are growing organically.

 
 

Is the Compass model novel?

The Compass investment thesis centers around technology. It claims that it is a tech company (with tech company valuations), and is building the "first modern real estate platform" that provides "real estate agents tools that increase efficiency."

The data has yet to prove out this thesis. Starting with another tech company, Redfin, the numbers show that it is clearly a more efficient business than Compass -- because its operating model is different.

For Compass 2018, I've included two numbers: 7,480 is the total current number of employees, while 4,800 is the midpoint between 2017 and 2018. Given that Compass is growing so quickly, it makes sense to look at both to calibrate the comparison.

The data above is total number of employees. If we look at overall agent efficiency, as I did earlier this year when comparing Compass, Redfin, and Purplebricks in the U.K., the contrast is more pronounced.

The evidence shows that, at best, Compass agents may be incrementally more efficient than the industry average, but Redfin and Purplebricks agents are exponentially more efficient.

Compass' growth strategy is novel: raise a massive amount of capital and use it to acquire market share. But the operational model of the business is fundamentally the same as every other traditional brokerage -- as the data around efficiency shows. It's not really changing the industry in the same way that Redfin, Purplebricks, or Opendoor are -- it's just moving market share around.

Is Compass a technology company?

Analysis I conducted in early 2018, as part of my Emerging Models in Real Estate Report, showed that -- roughly speaking -- about 10 percent of the staff of global leaders was technical. Compass was the outlier at 4 percent.

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Using the latest data (7,480 total employees and a 200-person tech team), that percentage has dropped to 2.7 percent.

Even if you calibrate for Compass' fast agent employee growth through acquisition, the overall percentage is still considerably lower than its peers.

Strategic considerations

There are a few final points to consider when looking at Compass:

  • Being a tech company is not a binary thing, but what is clear is that Compass is less of a tech company than its peers.

  • As opposed to Purplebricks and Redfin, Compass' customer is the agent. The technology it is building is for agents, not consumers.

  • True, exponential efficiency gains come with technology combined with a novel operating model. Technology alone won't deliver it.


Opcity, lead conversion, and the journey down the funnel

Last week, News Corp, owner of realtor.com in the U.S. and the majority owner of REA Group in Australia, announced the $210 million acquisition of lead qualification service Opcity.

Why it matters: With this acquisition, realtor.com dives deeper into the lead conversion funnel in a major way. Opcity features a referral fee business model where customers are worth 36x more than a lead -- which highlights why the U.S. portals are diving deeper into the funnel.

Lead generation vs. lead qualification

Zillow and realtor.com are both lead generators. They drive traffic to their web sites, advertise real estate agents, and generate leads in the form of consumers who are looking to buy a house. This is the lion’s share of their revenues and the core of their business models.

The conversion of leads to actual, paying customers is left up to individual real estate agents, and nominally occurs offline. But this is changing.

In Zillow’s last earnings update, it shared its goal of "moving beyond lead generation and actively evolving toward being a deeper funnel real estate industry partner.” It launched a new, super-charged concierge service where Zillow sales reps qualify leads before matching them with a premier agent.

News Corp’s acquisition of Opcity is the same move: deeper down the funnel. Opcity takes raw leads, qualifies them, and then matches them with an agent. It does not charge per lead, like Zillow or realtor.com, but charges a referral fee for any leads that turn into paying customers (typically 30%-35% of a buyer’s agent commission).

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The cost per lead on Zillow ranges from $20 to $220. I estimate the average to be around $55 per lead. For Opcity, assuming a $250,000 home, a buyer’s agent commission of 2.75%, and a 30% referral fee, each customer is worth around $2,000 — or 36x higher than the value of a lead.

Providing a superior experience, to everyone

The rationale for Zillow and realtor.com to move deeper down the funnel is simple: a better experience.

In the case of both Zillow's concierge service and Opcity, consumers are able to speak to a human being faster, and are matched (not just sent) to an agent faster. Agents are matched with pre-qualified consumers, saving them time and energy. Plus the return on investment for the concierge model is far superior to simply buying leads.

At first glance the Opcity and referral fee model may seem like a bad deal. Why would an agent pay 30%-35% of their commission (around $2,000 for an average transaction) for a referral when they can buy leads for a fraction that price? 

It comes down to the math. Buying leads and converting them to customers costs an agent, on average, around $7,500 per customer -- compared to $2,000 for a customer through Opcity.

It all comes down to the conversion rate. Operating at scale and singularly focused on doing one job, Opcity and Zillow have the scale and technology advantage to convert leads more quickly and efficiently. They have call centers, teams, data, and a long list of agents if the first one contacted doesn’t answer the phone. It's no surprise their conversion rate is higher.

A big revenue opportunity

So how big is the opportunity from a revenue standpoint? (The analysis below is based on Zillow, simply because there is so much more data available, but the same logic applies to realtor.com and Opcity.)

Back in FY16, when Zillow last reported the figure, it generated around 17 million leads during the year. If we assume Opcity’s 4% lead conversation rate (between 3x-5x the industry norm of 1%) and a 30% referral fee, those 17 million leads are worth $1.4 billion in revenue to Zillow (about 50% higher than the ~ $930 million in current premier agent revenues today).

Both Zillow and realtor.com can better monetize their leads if they qualify them and adopt a referral fee structure. Realtor.com now has that option through Opcity.

Given the industry upheaval it would create, it's unlikely that Zillow would change its fee structure. Rather, it will likely approach the same commission rate through the existing premier agent program and share-of-voice bidding system (similar to Google AdWords). Zillow will get there in the end, but through a different path: by providing more value to agents and growing the revenue per lead.

Implications for real estate portals

The core of this entire model is the buyer lead, which only works in markets where there are buyer’s agents. In international markets like the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand — where there are only listing agents — buyer leads are not nearly as valuable.

A similar lead qualification service still has merit for seller leads, when consumers are looking for a listing agent (see HomelightOpenAgent, or REA Group’s Agent Finder service). But real estate portals generate significantly fewer seller leads with a lower intent.

To sum it up for portals: Pay close attention to lead qualification if you operate in a market where you can monetize buyer leads. It's a superior experience with a big revenue opportunity.

Strategic implications

For anyone involved in this sector, there are a number of key takeaways:

  • A concierge, lead qualification model provides a superior experience for consumers and agents. And for agents, it delivers a superior return on investment.
  • Real estate portals like Zillow and realtor.com can monetize qualified leads much better than raw leads. More value to agents = more revenue.
  • The recurring theme here, which I discuss often, is the importance of people in the process. Augmenting -- not replacing -- humans with technology is the winning formula.
  • Lead conversion is important! Small teams can't compete, but the larger platform plays (Keller Williams, Compass, etc) can absolutely build products (technology + people) that improve lead conversion at scale. But are they?

If you work for a real estate portal or lead generator and want to capitalize on the lead conversion opportunity, I can help. I currently advise a select number of real estate portals on an exclusive basis (to avoid competitive issues). Drop me a line if you’re interested in exploring the opportunity for your market.

Analyzing the top portals' financial results

Over the past month, a number of the biggest real estate portals around the world have released financial results: Zillow Group, REA Group, Domain, News Corp, Scout24 Group, and Trade Me.

Why it matters: While the results themselves are fairly dry and self-congratulatory, it does give a glimpse into business performance. When viewed as a whole, the results show a number of interesting trends, and give me a chance to highlight the insights behind the numbers, and the numbers behind the story.

Revenue growth comparison

Overall revenue growth sets the foundation for this analysis, and it's quite varied around the world.

The Australian portals are seeing exceptional growth due to the magic of vendor-funded marketing. In the U.S., both Zillow and Realtor.com are starting to slow down, with Zillow investing in adjacent revenue streams. And in Germany, ImmobilienScout24 sees a positive result after a period of relative flatness.

What blows me away, however, is the massive result in Australia. REA Group and Domain recorded huge revenue gains, and nearly all of it from depth products.

The growth strategy isn't rocket science. REA Group generated $100 million in additional revenue by selling bigger photos.

It's worth noting what is driving the revenue growth in each market: more customers, or a higher average revenue per advertiser (ARPA). In the case of REA, Domain, and Trade Me Property, it is all ARPA, which are customers (agents and home sellers) paying more for each listing. However, IS24's revenue growth is entirely driven by an increase in customers and flat ARPA.

In other words, the portals in Australia and New Zealand are fully penetrated but can still raise prices. In Germany, IS24 is struggling to increase revenue per customer, but still managed to sign up more customers over the past six months.

In my latest report, The Future of Real Estate Portals, I introduced the following portal value curve. In essence, it states that product development is becoming more expensive, delivering less value to customers.

The key takeaway is where the revenue growth is coming from: low effort, high value products that promote agents and properties (essentially larger photos displayed more prominently). That's where the big gains are coming from.

The higher-effort products (predictive analytics, lead qualification, etc) aren't a significant contributor to revenue.

Catching the leaders

On a recent call with an investment analyst, we discussed the opportunity for a runner-up portal to overtake the leader. Can Domain take market share from REA in Australia? Can Realtor.com catch up to Zillow in the U.S.?

The evidence suggests that the answer is a resounding no.

The data from the past two years shows an uncannily steady state between the leading and runner-up portals in both markets.

In the core residential listings business, Domain has remained at 27% the size of leader REA. Both business are growing at the same rate; nothing is changing.

In the U.S., the runner-up portal, Realtor.com, has actually lost a small amount of ground when it comes to growth. Zillow is growing revenues faster.

In the important realm of traffic and consumer eyeballs, Zillow and Realtor.com have remained constant for the past three years. Even with all of the hoopla against Zillow for raising prices in NYC, agent revolts, and increased pressure by Realtor.com, it hasn't meant a thing in terms of overall traffic and revenue numbers.

There's a big difference between a catchy headline and the facts of a situation. Always look for the facts.

Mixed results in adjacent revenue streams

The final area of interest is around portals' expansion into adjacent revenue streams. If you follow my work, you know this topic is of particular interest to me. You may read more of my thoughts, specifically around Zillow, in my analysis of Zillow's Strategic Shift.

The question is no longer whether real estate portals are expanding into adjacent revenue streams, but how they are doing it. There are a variety of strategies at play, with vastly different results.

In Australia, both REA Group and Domain are expanding in different ways. REA bought a mortgage broker in 2017, Smartline, while Domain has launched a trio of new services (mortgage, insurance, and utility switching) via joint ventures. The financial results couldn't be more different.

Both business units are generating decent revenues (more so in the case of Domain, because the overall revenue base is smaller), but only one is profitable. REA's acquisition of an existing business running at scale is returning immediate profits, while Domain remains in the start-up zone of continual (and significant) investments: $27.1 million in FY18.

A deeper look at REA and Domains' mortgage products highlights one final observation. Both are quite similar: well-integrated on the listing pages, a robust loan calculator, and then...

Spot the difference? REA's (top) call to action is a phone number, while Domain's (bottom) call to action is the start of a long online form (without even the first field pre-populated like it was on the calculator -- shame!).

This highlights the importance of consumer psychology in transactions of this magnitude, a topic I recently wrote about in How Psychology is Holding Back Real Estate Tech. REA recognizes the importance of actual human beings in this process, and puts them front and center.

If you have an interest in Zillow's recent acquisition of a mortgage brokerage, look no further than REA Group's Australian acquisition to see how it might play out. Purchased over a year ago, the business is profitable, generating good revenue at good profit margins.

Strategic implications

These latest financial results highlight a few key takeaways:

  • Revenue growth is still primarily driven by core premium products that increase exposure for agents and property listings.
  • The runner-up portals are staying in the runner-up position. There is no data to suggest they are catching the leaders in their markets (this shouldn't be a surprise).
  • Launching into adjacent revenue streams is not a sure thing. Initial investment is very high with no guarantee of success. There are a number of different paths to take, and the initial evidence suggests acquiring existing businesses is the most effective strategy.

How Psychology is Holding Back Real Estate Tech

I was recently on the opening panel at Inman Connect, where the topic was the future of real estate. The conversation centered around the role of technology in the real estate transaction, and the future role of agents (watch the full video).

When I think about the modernization of the industry and technological adoption, my position is that what’s holding us back is psychology, not technology.

It's the psychology, stupid

The big U.S. real estate incumbents can’t stop talking about technology. Each week brings a new announcement about plans for new tech platforms, investments, and initiatives. And while industry gurus love to talk about the impending perfect storm of technology that will revolutionize the industry, I think they’ve got it wrong, and are repeatedly missing a key point.

That key point is human psychology, and the principle is loss aversion. In cognitive psychology and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people's tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5. (Read more about loss aversion on Wikipedia).

In other words, consumers will prioritise avoiding costly mistakes over making (or saving) more money. 

It’s relatively easy for technology to disrupt high-frequency, low-value transactions. The risk (or potential loss) is low, both due to the small value of the transaction and the frequency with which it occurs. Think services like Uber, Airbnb, and Netflix.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is more difficult to disrupt low-frequency, high-value transactions with technology, because the potential loss from a mistake is so much greater. People typically go to specialists to help with these transactions: divorce lawyers, investment bankers, and expert consultants.

A real estate transaction, by comparison, is off the charts: it is ultra low-frequency, ultra high-value. The potential loss that occurs from making a mistake is huge.

The psychological desire to engage a specialist in these high-value transactions is loss aversion at work. People are willing to pay top dollar to secure a form of insurance on the transaction; someone to hold their hand through the process. Even when cheaper, tech-focused alternatives are available.

It's not technology holding the industry back, it’s psychology. And no software platform, artificial intelligence chatbot, or mobile app is going to change that.

The role of technology

When it comes to real estate, technology has a dual role: making agents more efficient, and providing a better customer experience. It’s not about replacing agents or removing the insurance of having a specialist involved.

This is where the incumbents — with their regular announcements of big technology plays — are at a disadvantage, and the newcomers have the advantage.

It's the businesses that are built from the ground up around efficiency that have the advantage. More efficient agents means less agents. For a big incumbent to make this change would require an entire retooling of the business, and firing a massive amount of staff and agents. It's too disruptive, and classic innovator's dilemma.

The best way to illustrate this point is agent efficiency: how many deals a typical agent closes each year.

Compass, for all its talk about using technology to make agents more efficient, has yet to demonstrate a significant impact. On the other hand, businesses built from the ground up that utilize technology to improve agent productivity are seeing dramatic gains in efficiency: a 7x improvement at Redfin and a 10x improvement at Purplebricks in the U.K. That's exponential improvement vs. incremental improvement, and is the real eye-opener in the industry.

Strategic implications

Successful new models in real estate understand the key point: smartly combine people and technology. They understand of the role of technology (efficiency and experience), and the role of psychology.

Investors and entrepreneurs assuming that tech will disrupt the real estate industry in the same way it has with low-value, high-frequency transactions are taking a myopic view. It's psychology holding us back, not technology.

If you're interested, be sure to check out the video from the full panel discussion (around 25 minutes) from Inman Connect 2018.

A Deeper Look at Zillow's Instant Offer Numbers

Zillow's Q2 financial results include some insight into its Instant Offers business and traction to date, but the data is five weeks old. Let's take a look at the most updated data; it's more interesting.

All of the data below is for Phoenix, is based on public records, and is accurate as of August 8, 2018 (yesterday).

A quickly growing business

Zillow announced that it bought 19 homes during the second quarter (through June 30). The current total is 62. That's an additional 43 homes purchased in July and the first week of August. A good ramp up.

Of those 62 homes, 10 have sold, with the remainder either under contract, for sale, or coming soon.

Zillow is purchasing more expensive homes than its iBuyer competitors in Phoenix (Opendoor and Offerpad). The average purchase price for the 62 homes Zillow purchased is $324,000, 25 percent higher than Opendoor.

It's worth noting that the median purchase price is materially higher than the estimates being used by analysts and what was suggested in Zillow's Q1 announcement, $257,000.

For the iBuyer model to work, the home must be sold for more than its purchase price. I call that price appreciation. As a percentage, the price appreciation on the 10 homes Zillow has sold is 3.3 percent.

But because Zillow is purchasing more expensive homes than its competitors, when translated to a dollar value the amount is about equal to Opendoor at $9,600 per home.

Keep in mind that this number is not the net profit per transaction. It does notinclude any of the costs associated with buying and selling a home, including agent fees (which are considerable), buyer concessions, finance, holding, and repair costs.

Moving fast

The 10 homes Zillow sold moved very quickly. The sample size is small so it shouldn't be used as an assumption for the business at scale.

Having said that, of those 10 homes it has taken an average of 20 days to get a contract, and an additional 22 days on average to close. These sales are not indicative of long-term numbers. They are quick sales by definition so they have unusually low times on market.

Strategic implications

A few takeaways to keep an eye on:

  • Zillow is ramping up fast, buying 43 homes in the last five weeks. It's serious.
  • Zillow is buying more expensive homes than its competitors and what the market predicted. It's still early days, so let's see if this changes over time.
  • As a dollar value, price appreciation on the ten homes sold is in line with expectations and local competition.

Real time data

You may have noticed the market reacting strongly to Zillow's Q2 announcement, which contained five-week-old data. If you're a serious investor and don't want to live in the past, drop me a line.