How vulnerable is the $100+bn property portal industry worldwide?

by Alistair Helm in ,


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In less than 25 years, a whole new industry has been created. Property Portals, these digital platforms that span the globe, aggregate property listings that serve as the primary advertising for the real estate industry. To the consumer this industry provides the most convenient method for searching properties for sale or rent, whether residential, commercial or industrial. Hundreds of millions of consumers every day.

In aggregate this industry of publicly traded and private companies approaches a collective market cap of something like $100+ billion across every corner of the globe.

The largest of the players would be Zillow with a market cap just nudging $10bn as it begins to eke out a decent (adjusted) EBIDTA which rose to 22% from just 2% the year prior on revenues of $1.1bn. This profitability however looks paltry as compared to the profit powerhouse of Rightmove in the UK which consistently exceeds 70% EBIDTA margins on revenues of $340m which is why it supports a market cap of $5bn.

The list goes on through the likes of the REA Group, ImmobilienScout24, VivaReal, Schibsted and many hundreds of others (including in NZ Trade Me and Realestate.co.nz). Suffice to say this business model of aggregating listings of real estate companies for consumer search supported by premium advertising and listings subscriptions makes for a very lucrative business, one that the incumbents will defend through constant innovation, as well as acquisition. However no industry is ever safe from disruption, especially digital platforms.

Whilst I don’t contend that the demise of these property portals is imminent, I do foresee a risk. A risk every bit as real as the global newspaper industry which became the victims of the property portal success as through the 90’s into the new century their real estate advertising goldmine, began to crumble and today has all but disappeared.

So what is this risk and where will it likely come from?

To understand the risk you need to simply look at the portals’ role. They are an aggregator of both sides of the market in which they operate. They aggregated advertised listings and they aggregate a consumer audience. Their global success has been the ‘winner takes all’ model as the aggregation of the largest audience (although in most countries there is a #1 and a #2 leaving the rest in their wake), audience advantage guarantees dominance in listings, so begets the audience.

But stop for a minute and reflect as to the future of search, after all this is what a property portal is, a search engine. The technology revolution for search is voice. The improvements of the past couple of years has been incredible and the next few years will take us forward beyond our current estimation. The reason why, is the accelerated adoption of ‘home’ devices. The Amazon Echo, The Google Home and the Apple HomePod. For a moment ignore the latter and concentrate on the first two. They are the global powerhouses of search and artificial intelligence, coupled with the global reach that would surpass the local audience of any property portal.

So imagine a future state. You’re on the couch and with your Google Home you ask “Hey Google – what properties might I like to see this weekend” – the screen of your choice (TV/ Tablet / Glasses) then starts to display homes for sale open this weekend.

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Let’s look at the mechanics of this scenario. Google Home is paired to your Google account so it knows so much about you – where you live, where you work, where the kids go to school, how far you drive on weekday and weekends, where your relative lives and your friends. Google knows what your style preferences are and what you have bought in the past few years to renovate or decorate your home, it also knows details of your finances and likely as not your mortgage.

So when you ask Google to show you what properties you would want to see this weekend, you don’t need Zillow / Rightmove / REA as intermediaries or their ‘simple’ search filters – location / beds / price.

Google has the listings inventory of every real estate company in every country, they have collated it for years in search logs. They have deep attribute knowledge of every house that has been advertised for over 15 years at least; they also every house’s estimated valuation. It knows the level of your interest in types of houses and more important the best match of you to your future house. So Google will deliver a portfolio that is personalised to a very fine degree for your review. However it will never stop learning leveraging its vast AI capability to do this. Every comment you make when you see a property in this portfolio will be a key signal to adapt the portfolio to better meet your needs by style, condition, location and attributes. Every comment is also a signal which helps other Google customers who benefits from your comments. Should a new property hit the market via the local agency that is the perfect match, it will add this to the morning update it provides before you leave the house in the morning, and schedule a catch up with the local agent optimising you and your partners diaries.

This capability is real and achievable not just by Google but also by Amazon as they have a significant advantage in consumer engagement in a retail sense and richer installed base of Echos. Already more than 1 in 10 US homes has a voice activated home device and that number will only accelerate this year.

What is the goldmine for these two behemoths?   Well Amazon for one, has made that clear just this week – they are after the mortgage market. Real estate is at its heart actually just a vehicle for the far more lucrative finance industry as the largest consumer asset base globally. As for Google, well as an advertising company I think they can come up with ways to monetise the connection between the agent and the buyer that will boost Google’s stock by a healthy $100bn or more!

How do property portals defend against this future threat?

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The smart ones recognise it and are heading down ancillary market routes. Zillow has been after mortgage origination for years, they have recently tested the iBuyer market, but I think the larger bet which has been on their radar for a number of years signalled by their Premier Agent platform is to become Zillow Realty as a broker of scale supporting hundreds of thousands of agents with an infrastructure to allow them to be truly independent contractors with no franchise aside from the Zillow brand. Interestingly Zoopla in the UK has already started earning more revenue from their uSwitch business than the portal space, they can see that the business model of a property portal may just have been an opportunistic industry that is surpassed by the next tech revolution.

Interestingly for those that have the memory of the early internet period there will be a familiar ring to the word portal, after all there was a time in the late 90’s when the river of gold of the early web day flowed from everywhere to Yahoo. Every pre-dot com start up gave up huge equity and most of their revenue to Yahoo to be the access point for their category of product or service as everything for the consumer started at Yahoo – how that once invincible portal has deflated over the past 20 years to a shadow of its former self, valued in ’98 at over $110bn and recently selling to Verizon for $4.5bn. An object lesson for today’s property portals perhaps?


Technology empowered real estate solutions - the low price operators

by Alistair Helm in ,


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My recent article questioning (and answering) why real estate agents had not been killed off, as the internet has disinter-mediated so many other businesses; was published on the NBR website and generated a number of interesting comments. Amongst the more predictable with a focus on private sales vs agents, this comment grabbed my attention:

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The article I wrote, specifically focused on the role of the agent, and how this component of the real estate process continues to be successful, and in my judgement will be so in the foreseeable future. There will be challengers within this industry. In fact there have been challengers in the past, and so I thought it worth examining some of these technology empowered aspiring challengers, so as to more fully answer this comment, and thereby provide a broader picture of the new more digitally focused real estate landscape internationally.

Researching many operations across the main markets of the UK, US and Australia / New Zealand, has highlighted what I think are three key categories of challengers to the (traditional) real estate process. These are what I call 1. The low price operators / 2. The true innovators / 3. The opportunists

Given the number of models to examine, I propose to separate this analysis into 3 separate articles. I'll start here with the first being the low price operators.

Low Price Operators

The commenter in the NBR, cited two UK based real estate operations - Yopa and Purple Bricks. These are but two of what are many operators in the UK market offering an online focused / fixed fee solution. Most charge around £800 for what they claim is a simple, and far more efficient model than traditional estate agents. Take your pick.

 The UK top 10 online estate agents as reviewed by The House Shop - click to read full article

The UK top 10 online estate agents as reviewed by The House Shop - click to read full article

The key thing as ever in examining overseas models is context. The UK real estate market is very different to both the New Zealand and Australian. Firstly there is no equivalent of the Real Estate Authority legislating and overseeing the licensing of agents. More significantly though is the fact that the UK industry is what I judge to be 'low touch' service offering; meaning that as a vendor you engage a local real estate office to market your property (rather than a specific agent). They advertise the property online on the leading portals and handle enquiries and schedule viewing, but largely don't physically leave their office, as you the vendor, will host the interested buyer. The UK process is by comparison to NZ highly protracted (at least in England and Wales - Scotland is very different) in that an offer to buy is not legally binding until the settlement day and as a consequence often up to a third of all "sales" never settle and fall over in the final days and weeks leading up to settlement.

For this 'low touch' service real estate offices typically charge from 1% to 1.5% of the sale price and agents are largely employees of offices. For this reason the online service of the likes of Purple Bricks, emoov, easy property and Yopa are not that far removed from the traditional model. Instead of calling in at a local office, you sign up online and the service provider advertises the property and receives the enquiries and schedules with you the viewings. All this for around eight hundred pounds, compared to an estate agent charging say 1.5% of the average sale price of £225,000 amounting to just over £3,000.

The thing is, most of these operations have been around a while - especially emoov and easy property. It was not until Purple Bricks started to talk about a stock market listing just over 2 years ago and at the same time, investment funds started investigating real estate as a new sector to find a home for large amounts of cheap money, did media pick up on the potential of these startups; and as we all know, where investment money flows, so marketing budgets explode and consumer awareness grows. However as reported by TwentyCI a UK based property data company, whilst these online estate agents have grown year-on-year in absolute terms they barely amount to 6% of the total market. By comparison the NZ private selling market is c. 12%. Added to this is the fact that Purple Bricks (now a listed PLC) and others have recently in the UK tripped-up over a lack of transparency around the fees charged which are not refundable if the property does not sell, as well as finance charges for the deferment of the fees, creating a flood of media coverage likely to impact their growth.

Returning to the comment in the NBR, as to the notion that Savills investment in Yopa is a sign of the burgeoning of this sector in the UK - I would judge it is simply a smart each-way bet by Savills to see if the segment does challenge the incumbents. As for LJ Hooker in Australia, I judge that they got a little too enthused or better put, 'carried away' on the belief that they needed to launch a low price service and that is why they launched Settl which based on the information at the time was due to launch in the second half of 2016, however as yet no service is available - possibly LJ Hooker have got cold feet.

As to any Artificial Intelligence (AI) integration which some of these online agencies purport to offer. They are largely leveraging automated valuation models (AVM) and a rudimentary buyer / seller matching AI which as anyone who understands the principle of a two-sided market place, is only effective when you achieve scale on both sides of the market and none of these operators have anything like enough scale. The smarter use of AI in my view as an example in the UK was the acquisition by Rightmove (the UK's leading property portal) of predictive analytics company The Outside View in 2016, this company's smarts will leverage Rightmove's massive scale advantage of close on twenty years of data to undertake deep AI analytics to be the best at predicting the future sellers in the market thereby powering agent tools as a new business for Rightmove.

Moving away from the UK, Purple Bricks launched in Australia last year and now offer a service through local property experts (who have to be licensed) and who are a point of contact with the consumer through the process for which a fee of $6,000 (VIC / NSW) is charged. A US entry for Purple Bricks is currently underway. Interestingly the recent UK issues of transparency around the liability of consumers to pay the fees even if they don't sell, has now plagued the Australian operation with a $20,000 fine in Queensland as a solution to the avoidance of possible court action after alleged possible breaches of the Australian Consumer Law and the Property Occupations Act.

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New Zealand is not alone and has low price models - 200Square currently has a fixed fee of $4,500 and Tall Poppy have a fixed fee - well actually a sliding fixed fee: $500,000 property price: $12,000 / $1m price: $20,000 / $2m price: $30,000. There are also many operations in NZ charging 1% - most of these price based competitors have been round for many years and of course you may remember the 2007 flash of "The Joneses" with their "flat fee.. not fat fee" of $8,000.

Regardless of whether these various operations are labelled as online estate agents or fixed fee operations, they all stand behind one positioning strategy - they are low priced operators. As any marketing or MBA course will tell you, being the lowest price player in the market is not a sustainable place to build a long term business. A low cost operator now that is a sustainable platform for sure, but these are not low cost operators. The true low cost operation in this industry is the traditional business (as far as in the NZ model) because traditional real estate franchise groups don't employ salespeople, they are made up of local teams of independent commission-only contractors. Low price operations have by their very presence always to be looking over their shoulder to new competitors trying to undercut them, instead of building long term value in their brand and reputation.

Technology has the ability to drive out cost and improve efficiency, but when it comes to the real estate process as outlined in detail in my earlier article, efficiency through technology comes at a cost to the customer, largely that cost is in the loss of a trusted individual deeply engaged in the process end-to-end. For the low price operators such individuals tend to focus on being a pure lister (in the case of Purple Bricks) or a generic customer service answering contact points in the case of the other online agents.

Next article will focus on The True Innovators and finally I will examine The Opportunists


How come the internet has not killed the market for real estate agents?

by Alistair Helm in ,


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This seems to me to be a commonly voiced question. Whether you read the local New Zealand concern voiced as part of a recent REINZ research reportthat questions the ‘you’re doomed’ view of tech” or listen to the renowned team at Freakonomics respond to the question ‘How has the internet not killed the market for Realtors yet?’ as part of their FREAK-quently Asked Questions

The fact is the internet has been around long enough now that doomsayers forecasting that real estate agents would go the way of travel agents and taxi drivers are clearly wrong. Here in NZ as well as many other countries, we have not seen massive, significant or even modest disruption of the role of real estate agents in the real estate process as a function of technology.

I recall the quote I used for many years in industry presentations as a wake-up call to agents to embrace technology rather than fear it:

Agents will not be replaced by technology, they will be replaced by agents with technology
— Peter Williams - CEO Deloitte Digital 2007

It has long been my view that technology has a lot to offer the real estate transaction process, but wholly replace the role of the agent. Forget it. It is not going to happen.

As to why, the simple answer is well wrapped up in this summation that speaks to the true role of an agent:

The transaction process for a residential property is for the majority of people a highly infrequent event. It’s a lengthy and complex process.
It’s a deeply emotional event.

It’s an event that commits people to significant financial liability and most importantly it lies at the very core of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

That is why people entering the process want and need the support of a real person, someone on hand, someone they can trust, someone who is proficient with the process and will be their guide, their confidant, their confessor and their advisor

Let me unpack this statement so as to provide clarity, as to why, when you look at the component parts, technology can improve and has improved efficiency and brought greater transparency to the whole process, but when seen as a whole, the process, particularly when it comes to selling a property is way-too-much to allow disintermediation through technology to completely replace the agent of the process.

It is important at this stage to clearly define the real estate process in the NZ context as a seller-side service, as is the case in similar markets like Australia and the UK. It is also fair to say that the buyer side has been significantly affected by technology - easier access to inventory and democratisation of property data both of which have empowered buyers.

As an aside the US is a very different market with both buyer-side and seller-side agent services which makes the transaction far more expensive and complex as it supports twice as many agents, as selling agents cannot advise buyers and visa versa. Added to which the US system still heavily relies on an archaic listing database structure – the less said about this the better!

Let me now share my thoughts on those key components of the process – both real and emotional and thereby better demonstrate the influence of technology as an enabler but not a disrupter.


Infrequent

It is not unheard of for people to live in the same house for decades, equally some people seem to move every few years. For me, I’ve moved 10 times in my adult life which averages out to just less than every 4 years. I understand the average is somewhere between 8 and 12 years. This infrequency leads to a lack of 'learned experience' for the majority of buyers and sellers. The fact is they seldom get to develop skills and experience into the process of selling a property which often leads to a sense of uncertainty and that nagging doubt “that something's changed since the last time we moved?”


Lengthy

For most people selling a property is inextricably linked to buying a property. The elapsed time for a completed move of house is generally measured in months rather than days or weeks. Often people start to consider moving 6 to 9 months before actually physically moving. This protracted process means that people often become distracted by everyday matters especially as the process builds up a head of steam as the critical decision-making date of putting a house on the market has a habit of creeping up on you. So just when you thought you had the time to manage everything yourself, you more than ever need someone to offload onto.


Complex

Buying and selling property is complex. It needs to be. Property rights are at the core of modern democracies. It is the land and the legal rights pertaining to owning land that underpins the property owing process and ensures that you alone own the land upon which the property sits, whether that be a clear freehold title, a more complex unit title, cross-lease or leasehold title, the appropriate correctly documented filings need to be executed correctly and legally. Certainly, digital documentation processes and potentially a blockchain structure will ensure greater surety and efficiency, but this will only be as an aside to the overall process. We are blessed in NZ with one of the most digitally developed system of land registry which means that searching titles and recording title changes is measured in minutes. Many countries suffer from fragmented and un-digitised systems that leads to what is termed “the closing” process commonly taking weeks.


Financial

Property has always been a very large financial transaction, more so these days where typical property prices are up to 10 times the average salary and often far more in the major cities. Such financial transactions are still largely underpinned by mortgages which obligate buyers to 20 years or more of repayments. Certainly, digitised systems and artificial intelligence has and will, ever more in the future, change the process of mortgage origination to the point when applying for a mortgage or changing a mortgage term will be as easy as a PayWave transaction.


Real person

Sure, we are being better served by bots and voice activated artificial intelligence when it comes to booking an Uber or checking on the delivery of a courier, but we are humans not robots and we crave the ability to look eye-to-eye with a person we empower and trust to represent us. Someone who has shown their credentials and who through recommendations and referrals we believe has our best interests at heart to see the process through to the end surmounting any obstacles that may appear on the way – that person is the local real estate agents we select. Someone who is part of the local community part of who we know, someone who will be there now and in the future.


On-hand

It is staggering how human-like the latest Artificial Intelligence human interface is in answering questions, another 5 years and we will be easily convinced we will be talking to a real person on a screen or even in a hologram. This will be great for shopping and informing our everyday lives but when it comes to property purchasing I suspect it will not be until we actually trust AI to transact with another AI, in a very distant future world where every action is AI driven; then we will see the gradual replacement of agents. Until then I think regardless of tech-savviness or age, people selling property want to look deep into the eyes of the local agent who sits in front of them and tells them how this process works and how they will be in good hands.

 


Trust

That indefinable quality that often tops people’s list of real values we seek in people we want to work with and be with. Real estate agents sadly often fail to reach even half way to the likes of doctors and engineers or police on trust ranking professions, but you have to ask yourself what erodes that trust in agents? Is it the experience of you or your friends, or is it a perception created through the media of the few bad-apples that certainly damage the reputation of the many thousands of agents that day-to-day support thousands of customers? Sure, if the industry can’t keep working to eradicate the bad-apples, then trust will continue to be eroded but would you trust an artificial intelligence at the end of a phone line or online interface, more than a real person?


Process

The process of property transaction often seems easy when viewed from the outside. Stick an advert online and in print, host an open home or two, and wait for people to make an offer. Shuttle back and forth between buyer and seller working towards a compromised price and bang. Couple of hours work for c.3% of the selling price. How hard can it be – surely a piece of software can bring the buyer and seller together?

Well the perception and reality could not be further from the truth.

Firstly any business offering the service of real estate for a fee requires to comply with the Real Estate Agents Act 2008 – all parties in the role need to be licensed which requires significant initial training to reach qualification and then on-going training. The property transaction process starts way before any property advert is posted anywhere and requires a deep understanding of legal obligations and background investigations on the property as an agent is acting as a representative of the seller with all the legal implications that can entail with personal and professional liability.

The process of identifying and facilitating the prospective buyers and guiding them through the process has professional obligations as well, and such matters are complex and demanding with the agent at all times seeking the best outcome for their client (the seller) whilst recognising the professional responsibility to the buyer.


Guide

An agent is a critical guide to the process helping all parties understand what happens and when. This requires experience and coordination. Certainly software systems have and will continue to manage and visualise the critical timeline and the path needed to be taken with appropriate notifications and critical-path planning , however as we all know diary alerts and notifications are simply that, notifications, if you don’t have someone overseeing them and acting upon them, they will get ignored or forgotten and the process of real estate transaction needs to be a well-choreographed process guided by a dedicated person with experience.


Confidant & Confessor

Emotions cannot be wholly removed from the real estate transaction and as such you need someone to share your deep concerns with, whether you set out with this intention or not. As the seller you have in your agent a professional who has an obligation of client confidentiality which allows them to help you to succeed in the sale whilst appreciating the possible emotional challenges that lie behind the reasons for the sale, many of which may be the last thing you need or ever would want potential buyers discovering. However agents cannot abdicate their professional responsibility to buyers, they have to truthfully, accurately and honestly represent all the facts pertaining to the property they are acting as agent for – any misrepresentation and they are personally liable.


Advisor

An agent is clearly an advisor in the property process and more than ever technology plays a large part in improving the analysis and representation of property data to better inform all parties, especially when it comes to initial listing price expectation and then on through the process. However, no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated could advise a seller on the options available at the time of say a tender submission when the unique circumstances and market conditions influenced day-to-day by impending and actual transactions of prospective buyers change a market by the actions of these self-same participants as ruled by their head and their heart. The fact is Artificial Intelligence and algorithms are powerful tools that are incredibly effective at crunching masses of data at scale – think of millions of property records and thousands of property sales to come up with automated valuation models, but when it comes down to a couple of properties and a handful of buyers in a local area, no algorithm will be able to advise a seller or buyer in a way that creates confidence and facilitates outcomes that get people to where they want to go with their lives and the houses they want to live in.


A smart professional real estate agent is a role that is made up of a multiplicity of individual roles. Technology can be a powerful enabler to better support many of these roles, but replace them all in one unified system to facilitate property transactions end-to-end? No way. The best agents need to embrace technology and let it be their differentiator.

No country anywhere in the world has yet experienced a radical or significant disintermediation. This is not because the market is not attractive for investors nor so opaque that innovators cannot dissect the roles and processes and seek to reinvent them. The core fact is that real estate is not a global market that has liquidity and substitutional homogeneity. Every real estate transaction happens in a hyper-local environment that involves a tiny subset of customers and every transaction is in some ways ephemeral - never to be repeated or modelled for future. At its heart and to use the language of tech start-ups 'real estate transactions don't scale as a process'. Real estate companies can and do scale, but that is not the same thing and maybe the subject of a future article.