[Updated 4:15, 5/22/2017]
Earlier this month, when Zillow announced a record high quarter, projecting to surpass a billion dollars in revenue by the end of this year, many wondered whether the company, with its 75 percent online real estate audience market share and 171 million monthly users, can “Uber-ize” real estate agents, cutting out traditional brick-and-mortar brokerage middlemen in the same way Uber bypassed taxi dispatchers.
The answer is perhaps yes, but it’s not quite that straightforward.
Zillow essentially makes its money from selling leads to agents who usually work for brokers — like Coldwell Banker or Re/Max — that provide them with marketing, insurance, sales and transaction support in exchange for a “desk fee” or a cut of their commission income.
So-called “super agents,” who spend over $60,000 a year buying leads from Zillow and driving the company’s growth, are already spending more with Zillow than with Re/Max in desk fees, prompting accusations that Zillow is effectively collecting a “brokerage fee” without legally being a broker.
Between marketing support, lead generation, and lead management technology, real estate search portal Zillow now delivers more value to agents than most brokerages do. Given this position, Zillow has a golden opportunity to commoditize the brokerage value to the agents.
Traditionally, brokerages have flaunted their trusted brands as a key value to agents. But even as brokerages spend billions in marketing, with the Internet today providing most of the vital information brokers once did, as many as 97 percent of homebuyers and sellers now consider their branding to be irrelevant in hiring an agent.
Given that 3 out of 4 home shoppers now start their search with Zillow, the company sees a well-timed opportunity to close the “search-to-transaction” loop. If Zillow is able to assume all the roles of a broker without legally being a broker, then brokers could find their role increasingly limited until, like notaries, they exist only to fulfil a simple legal function: an agent must be affiliated with a broker to be paid.
Zillow’s acquisition of real estate transaction platform Dotloop for $108 million in 2015 may have been the first step in creating such an end-to-end home transaction platform. The next step would be to offer digitally the functions of a traditional brokerage such as hiring agents, scheduling showings, etc., to fully close the lead-to-transaction loop, significantly reducing the time agents waste chasing fruitless leads.
Today the vast majority of home shoppers submit leads via Zillow but most end up making their actual purchase through an agent hired offline. As a result, Zillow’s 75 percent online audience market share generates a mere 5 percent of the typical agent’s commission income.
By having home search, agent hiring, and closing in one platform, Zillow can improve lead conversion and can pass efficiency savings to consumers in the form of rebates similar to Redfin. In fact, Zillow could morph into Redfin on steroids since it commands 5X more traffic, and Zillow’s 85,000 tech savvy, on-demand agents could service leads nationwide under the Zillow banner. By giving these agents many of the services they currently depend on brokerages for — liability insurance, sales support, and back office support, for example — Zillow can sever most of that dependence. Zillow will provide these services via various outsourced third-party partners, at least initially.
Zillow presently receives less than one percent of the $100 billion brokerage ecosystem it supports, and the company has realized that, until it can exert control over both quality of service and amount of commission directly, its vast wealth of hundreds of millions of users will remain under-monetized, and perhaps vulnerable to future disruption. Seen in this light, Zillow’s slow but steady march toward becoming a shadow brokerage was all but inevitable.
But some speculate Zillow may have an even bigger prize in mind: It could become the largest closed-loop transaction platform for $30 trillion of residential real estate assets, generating leads for mortgages, home furnishings, construction — a play potentially worth tens of billions.
Zillow, it seems, has been building a bridge to brokerage as a first step to that end.
Lately, Zillow was accused of undermining the MLS by allowing agents to skip MLS and post offerings directly with Zillow. It has been surmised that once Zillow captures 85 percent of the online real estate audience (vs. its current share of 75+ percent), many agents will post to Zillow directly, giving the company a key data edge over its remaining competitors and the brokerages. However, as of February, 2017 Zillow no longer allows manual entry but instead requires the MLS and brokerage to send listings directly to Zillow. Zillow also took away agents’ ability to edit or correct a listing and passed that ability to the brokers, so brokers must now send their feeds to Zillow so they can make those changes. Someone within the industry said, “It’s like turning children against their parents.”
Zillow also last year implemented a so called “self serve” pricing scheme in which leads go to more advanced, higher spending “super agents,” apparently to weed out the weaklings and create a group of high performing entrepreneurs who will one day bear the Zillow mantle of “doers with technology,” dedicated to saving homebuyers both time and money.
Some claim that the company is also preparing for the possibility that it may have to compete directly or indirectly with its brokerage customers. Last year, Zillow further pivoted away from serving brokers by providing independent agents with preferential pricing. Less than 10 percent of Zillow’s revenue currently comes from the large brokerage firms, lowering the cost for Zillow to burn bridges with brokerages.
Many see Zillow’s announcement earlier this year of investing up to $50 million in next-generation agent productivity and CRM tools with its 250-member software development team as a further sign the company is developing digital brokerage capabilities.
However, getting into this business directly could also invite confrontation and potential lawsuits from its own brokerage customers and regional MLSs. Many believe Zillow can provide all brokerage capabilities and capture some of the lucrative $100 billion dollar annual brokerage market without ever having to become a legal brokerage entity itself.
Word on the street is it’s already happening.
Mir Haque is a tech entrepreneur and business consultant. He was recently VP of strategy at Realtor.com and previously worked at McKinsey & Company, Deutsche Bank, Adobe, and Google.