Editor’s note: This is the third part of an occasional series. Inman News Publisher Brad Inman is chronicling his real estate observations in Europe as he meets up with real estate industry officials abroad. His travels will take him to London, Prague, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, among other destinations. See Part 1, "Brits get thumped like U.S."; and Part 2, "Online listings battle sweeps U.K."
AMSTERDAM — Allegedly, the first recorded speculative financial bubble occurred in the Netherlands in the 1630s when, according to Wikipedia, tulip contracts sold for 20 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. When tulip prices came crashing down so did the economy, according to reports that have not been sufficiently documented for historians to conclude exactly what occurred.
During a visit to Amsterdam with more than 50 local real estate leaders, those in attendance were a bit skeptical of that history, but were keenly aware of and on top of every aspect of the current financial mess — watching it with concerned eyes as the housing downturn spreads to a country that historically has guarded against outrageous levels of leverage. Thrift, not debt, is generally prized here.
The economy has been growing at a strong rate since 2005 and the most recent unemployment figure was pegged at 4 percent with an inflation pace of only 1.5 percent. But the global banking mess has spread to the Netherlands, where the government injected $13.4 billion in banking powerhouse ING over the weekend and promised to back bank loans.
Thrift, physical fitness and an informed optimism still characterizes the Dutch persona, but certain wariness has set in as the global financial mess unfolds. All eyes seem to be on the U.S. election, which has captured the imagination of the people here who seem informed on every aspect of the election campaign, including the nuances of the Bradley effect. In Amsterdam, sentiment runs very high for Obama.
Unlike the U.K. and the U.S. where the leverage/debt binge went unchecked, the Dutch were more cautious. However, higher debt-to-income ratios on mortgages and rising home prices are haunting the market today as sales slow as much as 20-30 percent, according to local experts. But the economy is the looming concern as banks face troubles here like elsewhere. One local industry leader did not hesitate in placing the blame: "America made the stupid loans and our banks were stupid enough to invest in them."
What occurred in the U.S. two years ago and in the U.K. in the last year has hit Holland in the last two months, according to executives at FUNDA, the leading online real estate company, which was formed in 2001 by NVM, which is the largest association of agents. FUNDA has 70 percent of the market.
The online business model in the Netherlands is free listings, supported by ads and upgrades such as pictures, videos and more details on the property.
At one time, FUNDA generated 70 percent of its revenue from advertising, but today 40 percent comes from ads and the remaining is from featured listings products such as pictures.
In the last year, FUNDA has been challenged by Trulia-like companies that crawl for listings and that have begun to generate growing consumer traffic. One challenger is JAAP, which began spidering the Web for listings last year and was instantly in business with an easy-to-use property portal, challenging FUNDA.
The Dutch place a high premium on the design of Web sites, consistent with their tradition of producing some of the most innovative artists and architects both in style, efficiency and user experience.
Like the listings wars in the U.S., the scraping of listings led to lawsuits and palpable tension that is still evident today in the Netherlands between some tech start-ups and NVM. Lawsuits failed to stop scraping, but there were some limitations (just like the proposed NAR/DOJ settlement) with both sides declaring victory. Today, even FUNDA crawls for listings to fill out its share of the market from 70 percent to nearly 90 percent. However, the scraped listings get an inferior location below the NVM listings. The listings issue has played out in Europe, just as in the U.S., with openness and ubiquity winning out in the end.
However, the business models are unclear for tech companies who win the listings war — now what, they ask?
Home valuations are very controversial here, riling the public and the media over both accuracy and privacy, according to Huub van Mierlo, business unit manager of home valuation start-up Brixter.
He recently went on a national television show to defend his home valuation site, which is loaded with powerful tools for consumers to understand house values. He contends he was roundly attacked on the show, but his traffic soared afterwards, which prompted a big Dutch smile when he told the story.
The real estate industry — both online and traditional — is bracing for tough economic times, but a faltering market has not discouraged the innovators.
Tech expert and real estate marketer Boris Geheniau, who has organized local developers into creating their own portal, explains "a start-up is about the three Fs — fun, friends and finance — and now we must spend more time on finance."
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