LendingTree founder and CEO Doug Lebda wouldn’t dare compare training for the upcoming Ironman CEO Challenge in which he’s expected to participate this summer with the daily tasks of running a publicly traded online company. The two challenges are much too different.
But Lebda shared his thoughts about the online real estate and lending exchange, rising interest rates and the changing marketplace today during an Inman News audio conference.
He thinks LendingTree is well positioned to take on rising interest rates despite the shrinking refinance market because lenders will have the capacity to take on more business as their share of refinance loans shrinks. That means they’ll turn to channels like LendingTree to grow their share of purchase loan business, Lebda believes.
“Decreases in the refinance volume for our business are somewhat offset because in a refi boom, lenders typically have all the volume they can handle,” he said.
One challenge lenders face as interest rates rise is the need to transition from a focus on refinancing to purchase originations. A key part of that transition is strengthening communication between the lender and the real estate salesperson. LendingTree has positioned itself as a bridge to facilitate that relationship.
“About 50 percent of our customers coming in for a purchase mortgage haven’t yet identified a property,” Lebda said.
That’s one reason why a real estate agent and consumer matching service made sense for LendingTree, he added.
LendingTree’s online lending exchange includes more than 200 lenders, while its real estate services arm includes more than 700 real estate brokers and 10,000 real estate agents. Media mogul Barry Diller’s Interactive Corp acquired the company last year in a deal valued at around $700 million.
Lebda said one of the biggest changes post-Interactive’s acquisition has been the shift to a long-term focus. The company was smaller and more cash-constrained before it was acquired.
“Now we’ve had to think bigger about where we can take this business over the long term instead of focusing on the short term,” he said.
LendingTree now has the backing to invest about $70 million in marketing this year.
The company made some major purchases in the real estate space in the last year. In December, it bought RealEstate.com, one of the most desirable domain names in online real estate. It also bought Domania, which provides customer acquisition, retention and marketing services to real estate, banking and mortgage companies.
Real estate is among the fastest growing segments of LendingTree’s business and accounts for about 10-15 percent of its overall revenue, according to Lebda.
“We see our task here as connecting consumers and Realtors…Consumers come to browse information about real estate and to most likely get preapproved for a mortgage, which we’ve found really enhances the value of the customer to the Realtor,” he said.
Interactive Corp plans to beef up RealEstate.com’s listings inventory to 1 million listings this year, according to the corporation’s first-quarter earnings report.
For-sale home listings are often viewed as the necessary foundation for a successful online real estate business. However, Lebda described the existence of home listings on LendingTree as “definitely important, but not crucial.” He views listings as the starting point for consumers, but not the final destination. At the end of the day, consumers still need Realtors and he doesn’t think that’s going to change.
“We think that what consumers want in a real estate destination site is a one-stop shop to have access to all the tools and information they need to navigate what many see as a complex transaction,” he said.
A listener during the audio conference asked whether LendingTree would add settlement services to its online exchange or consider adding a service for home builders. Lebda said the company would like to provide connectivity to settlement services, but didn’t disclose any specific or immediate plans to do so.
As far as home builders goes, Lebda doesn’t think there’s an immediate fit for LendingTree because the majority of home builders already have a mortgage lender they use to preapprove potential home buyers.
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