Seattle-based brokerage Redfin is launching consumer reviews of mortgage lenders and title insurance companies — businesses that the company says it’s considering getting into itself.
Redfin’s local review site, Open Book, will also feature client reviews of inspectors, home stagers, landscapers and handymen in markets where the brokerage operates.
Service providers with the highest customer ratings and "a proven track record of delivering great service" will be certified as Redfin partners. A number of companies have already been certified based on endorsements by Redfin agents.
The partnerships are "not revenue-generating" and are clearly disclosed with a certification badge, a spokesman for the company said in an email.
In a blog post announcing the launch of Redfin Open Book, CEO Glenn Kelman said, "There are no kickbacks from anyone we include or recommend. In fact, there’s no revenue model at all for Open Book, not now nor in the foreseeable future."
Many brokerages operate mortgage or title companies, or generate revenue through affiliated business arrangements (AfBAs) with lenders, title insurers and settlement services providers.
AfBAs are legal as long as the brokerage’s relationship to the affiliated business is disclosed, and consumers are not required to use the companies. Under anti-kickback provisions of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), any payments to brokers must be based on its ownership stake in an affiliated business, rather than on client referrals.
Redfin also acknowledged that it’s considering getting back into the mortgage business, and providing title insurance to clients.
In a job posting advertising an opening for Redfin’s "first-ever general counsel," the company described the job as "unusually broad" — in part, the company said, because "we operate separate legal entities to offer our customers lending, title and escrow services."
Asked if Redfin has an ownership stake in any affiliated business, a spokesman for the company said the "legal entities" described in the job posting referred to a defunct business, Redfin Mortgage Inc. Online records in Washington and Delaware show that company was incorporated in 2006.
"For now, we’re talking about the defunct mortgage business" in the job posting, Redfin spokesman Matt Wakefied said in an email. "In the future, it might be a title business."
Wakefied also provided a statement from Kelman on Redfin’s plans.
"A general counsel’s first task would be to make sure Redfin Open Book respects laws governing how real estate brokers and their partners work together," Kelman said in the statement. In Washington state, Kelman said, "We have to be careful about using Open Book to rate the partners we already have."
Kelman said it’s "likely" that at some point Redfin will get into the title insurance business itself.
"It’s a business we have evaluated from time to time without taking action, and more recently we have looked at it again seriously," Kelman said. "We don’t employ title officers now and haven’t yet tried to hire any, but at some point we probably will operate a title subsidiary just as many other brokers do."
Kelman called mortgage lending "an even more ambitious and speculative undertaking." When Redfin tried offering mortgage services in Seattle a few years ago, "we had trouble generating enough volume to get good rates for our customers. No one at Redfin right now is working on starting it up again," he said.
But Kelman said Redfin is looking for a general counsel "capable of handling the legal complexities of such a business, particularly since we already have a mortgage business subsidiary that we abandoned years ago."
If Redfin does go into the title insurance or mortgage business, he said, "the employees of those businesses would be reviewed in Redfin Open Book alongside everyone else, in the same way we review our own real estate agents alongside partner real estate agents.
"Regardless, we will continue to work with the partners we already have. And by law, we wouldn’t be able to offer our agents incentives to use a subsidiary, or give that business preferential treatment."
Redfin also holds seminars at offices around the country educating consumers on mortgages, the escrow process, and inspections.
Redfin operates in metropolitan Atlanta; Austin; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Portland, Ore; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; New York’s Westchester County and Long Island; and in a number of California markets, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.