Editor’s note: This is the third part in a multipart series highlighting the history and current state of low-fee real estate brokerage models.

CORRECTIONS: The story has been edited to delete incorrect information about Redfin’s minimum commisssions in Chicago and Atlanta, and to identify Mary Tennant as president and COO of Keller Williams Realty. Also, this article contained an error in the description of Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman’s title, and has been updated — David Eraker is Redfin’s founder. 

Some of the biggest names in the discount real estate brokerage business — ZipRealty and Redfin — are geared to serving buyers rather than sellers, offering them access to deeper listing data via Virtual Office Websites, or VOWs.

But after making headlines as discounters, both companies have moved away from that label, preferring to be seen as "technology based" or Internet brokerages.

Now that they are established players, ZipRealty and Redfin have made a point of de-emphasizing the rebates and discounts they offer to clients. Both companies would rather sell consumers on their agents’ knowledge and expertise, and the wealth of information provided by their VOW portals.

Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman declined a request for an interview, saying in an email message: "We don’t consider ourselves a discounter or a limited-service company; we are technology-powered, and we aim to be better than traditional brokerages. Our (market) share has increased every year."

Brokerages affiliated with franchisor Help-U-Sell, who charge a set-fee for providing services to buyers and sellers, have also shied away from the "discounter" label.

Redfin offers buyers commission refunds of up to 50 percent, but charges a $6,000 minimum fee. In other words, a homebuyer closing on a $400,000 home with a 3 percent commission to the buyer’s agent would receive a full 50 percent rebate of $6,000. But the rebate on a $250,000 home would be only $1,500.

In most markets, Redfin won’t even represent buyers interested in homes priced under $200,000, because the commission on the sale wouldn’t cover the brokerage’s $6,000 minimum fee (The minimum fee is $2,500 when buyers work with Redfin partner agents).

ZipRealty CEO Lanny Baker, who took over the top executive post at the brokerage in September, said Redfin has done "a really good job of segmenting the market," with the trade-off being that it’s not serving all comers.

ZipRealty has embarked on an experiment in several markets where it’s stopped offering its standard 20 percent commission rebate to buyers and is instead "promoting the experience, skill and connectivity of the agents," Baker said.

As of Jan. 31, ZipRealty is no longer offering rebates in Austin, Texas; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Vancouver, Wash.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the National Association of Realtors fought a three-year battle over the association’s policies governing the online sharing and display of property listings, which culminated in a 2008 settlement that protects the rights of VOW operators and prohibits brokerages from withholding listing data from them.

After the settlement was finalized, Kelman announced that it would help Redfin expand into new markets using its "partner-aided" strategy, in which the company obtains listings and provides services in a market through its own agent or agents, while also providing referrals to partner agents. Redfin has expanded from eight markets to 16 since the settlement was finalized.

ZipRealty — ranked by Real Trends as the nation’s fifth-largest brokerage in 2009 by closed transaction sides — represented buyers 91 percent of the time in 2010. That’s after ZipRealty managed to boost seller representations by 15 percent in 2010, according to the company’s most recent annual report to investors.

Redfin is privately held, and specifics about its business are harder to come by. But like ZipRealty, Redfin has said a key part of its strategy is to attract homebuyers by offering online access to more in-depth listings data than traditional brokerages typically provide to consumers on their public-facing Internet data exchange (IDX) sites.

Although multiple listing service rules require that consumers register in order to gain access to VOW data, registration typically involves little more than providing an e-mail address — a useful step in converting a website visitor into a client.

According to Web metrics firm Experian Hitwise, ZipRealty’s VOW portal gets more traffic than any other real estate brokerage or franchisor’s website, and is among the 10 most visited real estate portals on the Internet. Redfin’s website has also appeared sporadically on the Hitwise list of top 20 real estate sites.

That’s despite the fact that ZipRealty offers listings data in only 25 markets, while Redfin gets listings from MLSs in 16 markets.

"We are very respectful of what the Internet companies have done," said Keller Williams’ president and COO, Mary Tennant. "It’s a new frontier."

Tech-based brokerages like ZipRealty and Redfin say that their websites are so good at generating leads that agents don’t have to spend as much time prospecting for clients. That boosts agent productivity, because agents can spend more of their time providing services to clients and closing deals.

But Tennant noted that full-service brokerages have adopted similar strategies. Keller Williams helps its agents generate leads by equipping them with their own customized Internet Data Exchange (IDX) websites, said chief products officer Bryon Ellington.

To help its agents make the most of the leads it helps them generate, Keller Williams has collaborated with several software vendors on eEdge, which the company claims is the first system capable of handling lead management, contact management, marketing and transaction management on a single, integrated platform.

ZipRealty and Redfin are both barred from offering rebates in Oregon. According to the Department of Justice’s Competition and Real Estate website, nine states prohibit buyer’s brokers from rebating sales commissions to consumers: Alabama, Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee.

Baker said a focus group revealed most consumers were not even aware that ZipRealty offers rebates. Although "parts of the market are hugely attracted to a discount," Baker said, some consumers are suspicious if "you say you are offering the best agents, and the best technology, at a discount."

Some full-service brokerages have attempted to capitalize on such fears, denigrating the services of limited-service and discount brokers as cut-rate.

"Most of the time, lower commissions are tied to a lower level of service," reads one such typical warning on the website of a brokerage doing business in Wisconsin and Illinois, Prudential Towne Square Realtors.

"If all you want is to be listed with the multiple listing service and a sign in the front yard, then a cut-rate commission may be right for you," the website states. "If you want an agent who will actively promote your property to other real estate agents and spend money on advertising, then you probably are not going to get that level of service with a reduced commission."

Other consumers view a discount as irrelevant, Baker said, because they believe a skilled agent earning a full commission will more than pay for themselves at the negotiating table.

"With a 20 percent rebate, we don’t know how many people it’s motivating, and how many it’s turning off," Baker said of the experiment with rebates. When the results are in, "You’ll see us come back with a more targeted model of service," which could also include bigger rebates in some markets than ZipRealty offered in the past, he said.

While rebates helped set ZipRealty apart from the competition and grow, the company believes it has other attributes that are stronger selling points today.

"One of the most critical things for us to do is significantly advance the marketing of our agents," Baker said. Since moving to an independent contractor model last year, Baker said, "We are attracting better agents than at any time in the company’s history."

The company is also experimenting with ways to make more consumers aware of its website’s capabilities. Users in the Houston, Sacramento and Portland markets can now access more information without registering.

"The goal is not so much to open the website, but to make it more effective and efficient," Baker said, in part by creating more doorways that generate different types of leads.

The website hasn’t been used as effectively as it could to market the company’s agents, for example, or help consumers find agents who specialize in the type of property or neighborhood they are interested in, he said.

"Bam! You came through the door, you have an agent," Baker said of the website’s somewhat arbitrary system of assigning leads. Baker was also critical of ZipRealty’s agent-rating system, which he said lacks the granularity found on sites like Amazon.com.

Baker said he draws inspiration from the practices of online companies like Amazon.com more than other real estate brokerages.

"Zappos, Amazon, Priceline, CarMax, Open Table, Schwab — those are the ‘people’ I aspire to be," Baker said.

ZipRealty posted a $15.5 million loss in 2010, growing from a $12.9 million loss in 2009, and began the year by announcing it was closing offices in 11 markets that accounted for about 13 percent of the company’s revenue. The company shed 900 agents, leaving it with 2,500 agents in 18 states and Washington, D.C.

The company has also embarked down a new avenue, providing leads to brokerages in two of the markets where it no longer has agents: Atlanta and Tucson.

In Atlanta, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Metro Brokers feeds ZipRealty listings for display on the company’s VOW site, and ZipRealty sends the leads generated by those listings back to Metro Brokers. In return, ZipRealty earns a referral fee on closed sales.

ZipRealty has a similar deal with Long Realty Co. in Tucson, "combining their local presence with our technical prowess," Baker said. "We help them grow market share, and they help us convert leads."

Redfin is employing a similar strategy to expand into new markets, opening offices with limited staffing to gain access to the MLS, and then referring leads to "partner agents" at other companies who provide 15 percent commission rebates subject to a minimum commission of $2,500.

Asked if ZipRealty will pursue more "Powered by ZipRealty" partnerships, Baker said the company remains "laser focused on getting results" in Atlanta and Tucson.

"There is nothing proactively going on with anybody right now," Baker said. "I am gratified by the inquiries we are getting from around the industry. Until I get results, I can’t even answer those phone calls."

On the listings side, Redfin charges sellers 1.5 percent of a home’s sale price with a $6,000 minimum, while ZipRealty offers a "competitive fee" for the market, typically 1 percent below the going rate, with a $2,000 minimum.

In its most recent annual report to investors, ZipRealty said landing more listings "represents a significant revenue growth opportunity for us, and we plan to build our local referral networks, name recognition and reputation for local knowledge and expertise to drive the growth of our home listings business market by market."

The company is already working on tools like "Buyer Buzz," which lets homeowners test the water by asking registered users of the company’s VOW site for feedback on what their home might be worth.

"The reason we are so buyer-agent-skewed is the way the company is set up and the website functions," Baker said. "I would love nothing more than to deliver products and services to sellers that would bring them in spades — there is no beautiful, compelling site for home sellers."

Instead of forcing sellers to use tools designed for buyers, a website tailored to sellers would be able to perform some of the tasks performed by savvy agents, he said — like alerting sellers when a home that was used as a "comp" to price their home has sold or is off market, or when new homes similar to theirs hit the market.

Baker said he thinks providing a window into the site’s traffic patterns and user behavior could also benefit sellers.

"When somebody has printed out driving directions to a certain property, we can say, ‘Here are the others they are printing out, too. Here’s the ones that turn up in search results the most,’ " Baker said.

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