Ready for the ultimate challenge? Put together a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the box cover. Then make it interesting — flip an hourglass and race with your mates against the sand.
That adrenaline rush is exactly how I have felt the past few weeks, trying to piece together what the real estate industry might look like in the coming years. I am certain it is morphing, quite fundamentally, and not around the edges. But even as the pieces begin to fall into place, the future is like an abstract impressionist painting, the toughest kind of puzzle to assemble.
To be sure, these changes are being driven by a new guard of leaders, business models and inventions revolutionizing the way homes are bought and sold. Old guard franchisors and broker owners are not behind a coming transformation but neither are the discounters or startups peddling bots as alt-Realtors.
I have been on a raft of briefing calls with Inman Connect speakers the last few days — Robert Reffkin at Compass, Eric Wu at Opendoor, Anthony Hsieh at loanDepot, Ryan Schneider at Realogy, Amy Bohutinsky at Zillow Group, Sean Black and Jamie Glenn at Knock, and others.
Now, I am beginning to see how the the puzzle may take shape. Here is my early take.
The first shift: Online home search
Beginning 20 years ago, the house buying process was unequivocally altered by online home search. Buyers took the house hunt into their own hands. Agents slowly relinquished some of their clout, as consumers grabbed control of what homes they wanted and where they wanted to live.
When I hear people contend that nothing has changed for the consumer, I think they must be on some scary opiate peddled illegally in Tijuana. In fairness, it is true that search did not alter the process of buying and selling a home, but it certainly shook up the steps of finding a house.
The dawn of online search was also an eye-opener for agents and brokers who began to feel the technology squeeze on their value proposition. Over the last two decades, agents and brokers moved several degrees away from the center of the transaction.
It explains in part why the industry began to migrate to a listing model, as buyers became more self-sufficient — only deploying an agent when they were ready to buy.
Now get ready for a more seismic shift.
Enter the big dogs: New financial players
Let’s start with financing, which has always been a hurdle to creating a more efficient market on top of the clumsy and time-consuming process of selling. Buyers and sellers are slaves to a long drawn-out sales process and a clunky, dated mortgage approval and closing.
Enter new financial players with big bucks eager to get in the middle of the lucrative real estate market. It starts with digital mortgage operators like Quicken and loanDepot but more importantly with a crop of big Wall Street investors who look at things quite differently from the old-guard mortgage lenders.
Knock’s co-founder Sean Black describes it as the “institutionalization” of the homebuying and selling process, offering what today’s transactions cannot: a smooth, certain, fast and transparent consumer roadmap.
With help from its licensed real estate experts, Knock, as an example, is representing buyers, often existing move-up homeowners. Using the latest technology, these salaried employees help buyers find homes. The Silicon Valley startup then purchases the house in cash on behalf of the buyer, using its private equity debt lines. Knock then moves the buyers in and gives them (temporary renters) a $10,000 home improvement credit. This cuts out the entire messy loan approval and closing process.
Then the tech startup lists the buyers’ existing home and sells it the old fashioned way on the MLS. Once it sells, the seller pays off Knock, who holds title to the new home until the old one is sold. Their debt line is in effect being used as a bridge loan to create this instant purchase.
Fintech is coming to real estate, get ready.
While this may sound confusing, the consumer experience is not.
Think about it, a click-to-buy home purchase. No hassle, no friction.
A click-to-buy and sell real estate world
Is this merely a pipe dream by some budding entrepreneurs? I don’t think so. Knock has helped 2,000 buyers and sellers in a single market, Atlanta, and it is spreading out now to 10 markets with a $33 million war chest and access to private equity debt to finance its home purchases.
Different than the discounters and a generation of robo sell-it-yourself kids who tried to disrupt real estate, these new models are full commission. But they deploy a new set of tricks, technology and processes that will alter how homes are bought and sold.
The discount crowd pitched low rates with less service; this new generation of innovators is peddling certainty, speed and transparency with more customer support.
This will become a click-to-buy and sell real estate world. With agents? Yes, but in a slightly different capacity — not squarely at the center of the transaction but more on the sidelines, as the institutional players with new tech partners make things happen quickly with certainty for the buyers and sellers.
The same thing is happening on the sell side by Opendoor, OfferPad and Zillow Instant Offers. Sellers are a click away from a sale.
Opendoor’s program with homebuilders explains its value proposition. A homeowner wants to buy a newly built home but is strapped with an existing house, which always plagues the sale by the builder.
Now,the builder can say, “no problem,” “click here” and Opendoor — in partnership with the builder — buys the existing home instantly.
Over time, the future will become a click-to-buy and a click-to-sell world — a one-stop shop — all wrapped into a new marketplace. Be prepared MLS, a new structure is taking shape, driven less by data and more by a friendlier, friction-free consumer experience. The multiple listing service data will still drive search but no longer be the only marketplace.
Keeping up with the fast, furious and certain real estate transaction
Will agents be cast aside, working as salaried licensees? No, but for the majority of agents who could never quite cut it with the sales hustle and the lead and referral game, there will be new opportunities that better fit their profile and skills.
Consider that all of these new tech companies, as well as Zillow and realtor.com, are recruiting agents like mad.
As for the best agents, they will begin to align themselves with the funders who are making deals happen quicker.
What is Compass doing with that $450 million funding round? Lots more than hiring engineers. And what is Zillow cooking up with its Instant Offers experiment? Creating exciting stuff for its Premier Agents.
Last week, Concierge Auctions sold a $30 million house at an auction in Dallas with top-producing Realtors alongside both the buyer and seller.
Good Realtors are like heat-seeking missiles, they find a lucrative target.
Any chatter about disruption invariably leads to the fearmongering that agents will be disintermediated. I always felt the folks yelping about that were like the high school kid who set off the fire alarm, spreading their contrived fear to get attention.
But besides the agents, every other player in the old-guard real estate value chain had better work hard to offer their version of the fast, furious and certain real estate transaction. The industry may quickly bifurcate into two groups: one offering a click to buy and sell model and one doing things the old way.
A future may be here sooner than you may think. The puzzle is not that complicated to put together after all and the sand may be running out.
See you in New York City.