The rise and rise and rise and rise of property portals

by Alistair Helm in


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The announcement last month of the acquisition of Zoopla the #2 property portal in the UK by Silver Lake Partners, the US private equity firm for £2,200 million (NZ$4,180 million) was a clear statement as to the confidence the financial markets and their investors have in the business models of digital real estate marketing.

Zoopla is not the leading UK digital property portal. That accolade goes to Rightmove which according to its own stats has 70% of the UK total audience for property searches. Zoopla was only launched in 2008. At that time Rightmove had been in operation for 8 years and had gone public two years earlier. Rightmove in 2008 was generating over £50m in revenue.

Zoopla though was never one to daunted and was ever ambitious, lead by the charismatic and driven CEO Alex Chesterman. Through the first 6 years, the business grew through acquisition of other real estate websites and property publications building a formidable position as the #2 player leading to the IPO in 2004.

The IPO valued the company at £990 million, half the then value of Rightmove. In a savvy move Zoopla offered real estate agent customers the opportunity to buy shares at a 20% discount; a smart move to side step a challenging move by a new industry owned start up OnTheMarket which required loyal agents to sign up to only one of the other commercial portals to try and break the duopoly. Those agents who did and hung on to their IPO shares will likely see a return of 177% in 4 years.

This stellar rise and exit for Zoopla is not an exception in the market of property portals. I thought it would be interesting to do some analysis of the key players around the world to see just how valuable these businesses have become over the years. Many of the leading portals have been in operation now for close on 20 years.

Restricting this review to the UK, Australia, USA and New Zealand is not truly reflective of the global market that sees many massively successful operators – the likes of Seloger in France, Scout 24 in Germany, Zap VivaReal in Brazil to name but a few; however I have observed and researched extensively these key businesses over the years, so feel comfortable commenting on their performance and strategy.

 

3 Leading Property Portals - NZ$30 billion in value

The top 3 portals in my opinion globally are the REA Group, operator of Realestate.com.au in Australia (and other countries), Rightmove in the UK and Zillow in the USA. Together these three businesses have a collective market value currently of over NZ$30 billion. Five years ago those same 3 portals had a market value of just NZ$11 billion. I have for reference included New Zealand’s own Trade Me for reasons that will become obvious as I proceed.

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This scale of growth is spectacular. What is even more spectacular is the relative rise in the market value of these companies measured against their own domestic market index. I have simply indexed the growth in share price to the index at June each year.

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The performance of the REA Group is stunning, eclipsing the performing the ASX market by close on 4 times over the past 6 years. Zillow doubling the Nasdaq index performance and Rightmove outpaced the FTSE 100 by more than double. Sadly though our own NZ digital portal of Trade Me with a broader portfolio than just property has not attained such stellar growth and has fallen behind the NZX index over the same period achieving just half of the market index growth over the past 6 years.

 

Australian international benchmark

The REA Group is now not just an Australia real estate digital portal it has operations in Asia and now the US. This latter move driven by its largest single shareholder News Corporation (owns 60% of REA Group) which acquired the #2 property portal in the USA (Move.com) in partnership with REA in 2014.  However in terms of profitability at EBIDTA level the performance of REA relies almost entirely on the profits of Realestate.com.au, and they keep rising year-on-year with revenue growth in the last financial year of 16% - this is a 20 year old company that added A$92m of incremental revenue last financial year to total A$671m.

REA Group though are not alone in carving out a global powerhouse performance to better all comers, they are actually part of a triumvirate of Australian digital behemoths – REA Group, Seek and CarSales – each are the global benchmark for their category of property, jobs and motors. By no small coincidence the 3 core classified platforms of our own Trade Me.

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Just like the REA Group, Seek and CarSales have significantly outpaced the ASX market index over the past 6 years, close to doubling the ASX for CarSales and higher for Seek.

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Financial Indexing of Portals

Some further financial indexing provides valuable insight into the relative performance of these global leading portals for property and other classifieds.

In terms of absolute market value the comparison is staggering. REA Group still remains the most valuable property portal keeping Zillow at bay, and a significant 50% more valuable than its jobs portal partner and 3 times the value of the auto portal.

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The inclusion of Trade Me Property is purely as a means to compare the property operation of Trade Me with its peers in other countries. I have purely used the % representation of property revenue as a surrogate for value representation. Sure I know full well that a digital business based on a 4.7 million population of NZ is never comparable with the population of Australia, UK or US; I'll come back to that benchmark shortly.

When it comes to true grunt, any financial expert will tell you that value is only a reflection of profit and this is where the appeal of digital portals comes to light. The EBIDTA margin of these portals is impressive … if you turn a blind eye to Zillow.

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Rightmove is the king of money making – for ever £1 it receives as revenue it spend just £0.27 on running the business allowing it to reinvest 73 pence. Trade Me shows its might just as effectively, with a very impressive 58% EBIDTA margin, ahead of REA and its Australian counterparts whose 31% and 45% are still worthily impressive margins.

This metric of margin is critical in comparing digital portals. The very appeal of digital businesses is scale. The simple principle being that the core cost of a digital platform should cost no more to service for a million users than for 10 million or 100 million. That is why digital businesses can generate such EBIDTA margins. However this is where things get interesting. Why is it that Rightmove serving a UK market of 66 million people can achieve 73% EBIDTA margins whereas Zillow serving a 326 million population can barely scrape 1% margin? Equally how can Trade Me serving a domestic only market of 4.7 million hope to deliver 58% margin?

The answers to these two questions are complex and not directly related. The US market is nothing like Australia, UK or NZ when it comes to property marketing, there is no such thing as paid for subscriptions for listings or vendor paid marketing; leaving Zillow to monetise agent advertising and client leads.

As for Trade Me the very impressive performance of 58% margin may possibly be part of the reason that its market value has not attained the stellar rise of its peers, as a function of stifled ambition and lacking investment courage?

The final metric I will provide is the relative performance of these portals on a per head of population basis.

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Here we see the same stellar performance of REA extracting a market value which equates to over $500 per person in Australia. Trade Me as a group delivers an impressive $406 per person in NZ,  but the truer comparative metric is the equivalent market value of the property sector (based on share of revenue) delivering a market value of just one tenth that of REA. Having said that the surprise is the relative performance of Rightmove at $130 per person in the UK. This potentially portends to the view that the upside for Rightmove is still significant, although the danger is made in assuming the UK real estate marketing landscape is similar to Australia which it is not.

The overriding clarity that these data points highlight is the enormously successful digital property portal businesses that have been developed globally over the last decade, but more significant is the powerhouse operations of digital portals across the Tasman over the same period. What can we as NZ’ers somehow learn from this and more importantly what can Trade Me learn to help it chart a more dynamic path to growth as a true NZ icon in the digital portal space?


Real estate marketing – create a local presence through data

by Alistair Helm in


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I am embarking on my new career as a newly licensed real estate agent and looking to create a point of difference in my local market. This challenge is faced by literally thousands of new salespeople each year in NZ.

In 2017, there were 2,084 new license applications received by the licensing authority – the Real Estate Authority. That’s over two thousand aspiring new salespeople prepared to challenge themselves to make a career in real estate. The hard fact is that around half of all new salespeople fail to make it to their first anniversary. It is, as I have outlined before, a highly competitive industry; an industry where tenure and relationships hold huge value and getting started is a massive uphill challenge.

So set against this backdrop, I have been mapping out my own strategy as to how I am going to create a local presence in my own market – the Auckland suburb of Devonport. I want to share my approach, as for many years in my prior roles at both Realestate.co.nz and Trade Me I have advocated the importance of digital profiling as a means to build presence and to be found online; as prospective customers actively prospect for you and your skills; in stark contrast to the time-honoured tradition of real estate prospecting via the well-trodden path of door-knocking and cold calling.

My strategy is to position myself around knowledge and insight in the property market. Sounds familiar! As I am sure most real estate agents would propose that they can reference this positioning quoting the latest REINZ of QV stats on the property market from a national or regional perspective. However I am going for a more tightly defined hyper-local market of my suburb. I want to be recognised as a local expert able to talk confidently and write articulately about the trends of the hyper-local property market segmenting house sales separate from units sales and from townhouse and apartments sales.

In addition to sales stats and the median prices I am going to analyse and comment around the trends on the inventory and new listings in the suburb by property type.

This is a tall order and requires a lot of data analysis, but I judge that to establish this level knowledge and insight is critical to creating a highly differentiated credible and trustworthy platform in the minds of my prospective customers.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks putting all this together into a single site that I have created. A specialised property website for Devonport and I am launching it now

Devonportproperty.nz

The site is a visually rich destination with a clear focus as a call-to-action of a monthly property report, added to which there are tracking charts that demonstrate the key trends by property type setting out the last 5 years.

I have combined this rich data and commentary with a visually engaging design which allows me to showcase the images of Devonport – all of which are my own photo collection, taken as I have walked the streets of Devonport over the past months. It’s great to combine the two passions of property analysis and commentary with a passion for photography.

At this time as I am still awaiting my full license to practice real estate so the "about" section merely profiles me, but once officially licensed I will be clear as to my role as a licensed real estate salesperson.

 


So what's been happening over the past 3 years?

by Alistair Helm in ,


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I have been meaning to sit down and reflect what has happened in the NZ real estate market over the past years since I parked up Properazzi back at the end of 2013, and took on the role of Head of Product with Trade Me Property.

As would be expected, some significant changes, and some small changes. So here’s my thoughts.

 

Data

Back in 2013 the best property insights you could research as to historical sales prices and values without reaching for your credit card was at best the monthly aggregated median price by suburb or by region. At the end of 2014 a radical transformation occurred which must have sent shivers down the spines of QV and Core Logic, as first Homes.co.nz, and then shortly afterwards Trade Me Property liberated property sales records giving us for the first time the ability to search for sold prices on any property in the country.

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Homes got the early lead as Trade Me offered the data only on the mobile app, but the gap was quickly filled as Homes launched their app and Trade Me brought data to the website. Homes stepped ahead with an automated valuation model (AVM) for a majority of properties from launch with Trade Me matching with the launch of Property Insights in late 2016.

This is without doubt the game changing event of the past 3 years. Nothing comes close; and nothing has done more to assist buyers and sellers gaining a perspective as to an estimated valuation and historical sales records for all properties. It is appropriate to note that both Homes and Trade Me offer AVM’s only when there is sufficient comparable data. They have both employed sophisticated computer algorithms that churn through property data to create estimated values coupled with confidence factors which means that they are delivering around 60% of all AVM's within 10%. That is to say they can predict the likely sale price to within 10% in 6 out of 10 cases, which is pretty good as a global benchmark.

This democratisation of data has, as would have been expected, been a challenge for the real estate industry. However 2 years on, the majority of agents and agencies have recognised that a better-informed customer is an engaged customer; one they are happy to advise as to the local nuances of the market with the local up-to-date knowledge that can help steer them towards a much closer market appraisal than a faceless computer based AVM.

New Zealand has at last caught up with so many other countries that make available property sales information; thereby saving consumers money and alleviating uncertainty.

 

Digital marketing

This area has been on reflection slow to change (or stubborn to change?). The same two adversarial players of Realestate.co.nz and Trade Me Property are still the main players in town, but not for long I suspect. NZME are lining up their new portal OneRoof (more of this to come) and at the same time Homes, in mirroring the “Zillow playbook” has pivoted from property sales data and estimated valuation to now provide on-the-market listings of property for sale and rent from a growing number of agencies as they head to becoming a fully fledged property portal.

Whilst the Chinese language market is not large, it is relevant and in Auckland significant. Hougarden launched in 2011 has grown and grown to deliver a great digital service, especially as they severed their listings data-feed relationship with Realestate.co.nz back in 2015 and have now become a standalone portal.

In terms of user experience, I have to say that the key players have been slow to evolve, Realestate.co.nz has a new site which they seem nervous to commit to (more to follow on this matter) and I wouldn’t blame them. Trade Me Property has tweaked their website but their main focus has been on their mobile apps which continue to evolve streaking ahead of Realestate.co.nz which has hardly touched their apps in the past 5 years. I am clearly a party to this performance having had responsibility for all digital products at Trade Me over these year, whilst not a defense I would say it has been a learning experience as to the pace of product development at such a leading digital company (more to follow).

In the broader context of digital marketing, Facebook has made huge inroads, attracting the digitally savvy agents who seek to use the platform for marketing properties and more especially themselves as brands – many specialist marketing agencies have sprung up to assist such agents and clearly significant sums of money are now flowing into this area and likely to accelerate in the coming years.

Bottom line is that the past 3 years has not amounted to a radical step forward in digital marketing, more of small tweaks.

 

Industry structure

Little has changed in terms of industry structure. There are more licensed salespeople in the market today than there were 3 years ago. The latest data from REAA shows 12,714 salespeople in November, up from around 11,000 3 years ago. For these salespeople the market is a lot tougher, as back in 2013 annual sales totalled 80,000 and was on an upward path to peak at 95,000 property sales, today it is back down to 74,000 sales per year and heading down.

New players have entered the market mainly focused on trying to challenge with a fixed price model vs commission fees but the reality is that the top 5 real estate companies still represent close on two thirds of the market, a position little changed from 3 years ago.

One aspect of the industry of positive note is the stricter adherence to governance through the REAA and the complaint procedure process. The chart below tracks the annual total of complaints brought to the disciplinary tribunal (being the highest level of discipline within the structure of the REAA) – misconduct being the most serious finding, which for 2017 shows the lowest level since the organisation began. (The 2013 peak was probably more a function of the backlog workload throughput that the REAA took on in the early years and not so much a reflection of a single year).

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I guess the other elephant in the room that has focused the minds of the real estate industry over the past 3 years has been the investigation by the Commerce Commission into allegations of price fixing. This investigation was triggered back in 2013 by the actions and comments made by some companies in the industry in reaction to the decision by Trade Me Property to amend the pricing of listings. The outcome has been costly for the industry with close to $15m in fines levied against 13 regional and national real estate companies.