To fulfill their strategies and build a viable business that makes money, iBuyers will need to operate walled gardens under their control.
This research study addresses a fundamental question in real estate: Do iBuyers like Opendoor and Zillow make fair market offers on the homes they purchase? This has been a point of contention since the iBuyer business model launched, with opponents claiming that iBuyers purchase houses at well below market value, while iBuyers claim they provide consumers fair market offers.
To provide a definitive answer, this comprehensive study is both deep — reviewing over 20,000 iBuyer transactions — and broad — utilizing multiple methodologies to draw insights from the data. The evidence suggests a clear answer to an often confusing question.
Methodology and data
This study uses three methodologies to establish an evidence-based view of iBuyer offers relative to market value:
• Purchase price-to-AVM
• Price appreciation
• Rejected offer versus market sale
The data consists of over 20,000 iBuyer transactions conducted in 2018 and 2019 where an iBuyer purchased and then resold a property. The transaction data is sourced from public records, which are the legally required disclosures on any property transaction. Multiple sources were used to establish consistency, and thanks go to Remine and Attom Data for making their unique expertise and data sets available.
The data used is not merely a sample; it is comprehensive, covering over 95 percent of relevant iBuyer transactions. The study includes over 60 different legal buying entities that iBuyers use to purchase homes. While all major iBuyers were tracked, this analysis focuses on the leading two: Opendoor and Zillow, which account for 86 percent of total iBuyer volume.
Method #1: Purchase Price-to-AVM
Purchase Price-to-AVM is a straightforward comparison of the price an iBuyer pays for a house and what an AVM (automated valuation model) determines a house is worth at the time of purchase. This study uses the First American AVM.
A review of the transactions undertaken by Opendoor and Zillow between January and September 2019 reveal a median Purchase Price-to-AVM of 98.6 percent, or $3,800 on a $270,000 home.
(For those interested, transactions in 2018 reveal similar results +/- 0.1 percent. I am focusing on 2019 because in a rapidly changing industry, the most recent transactions best reflect the current practices of each business. Zillow was in start-up mode in 2018.)
The Purchase Price-to-AVM also varies by market, with consumers getting offers closest to AVM in the three Florida markets of Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
While an AVM is not a definitive proxy for true market value, like a Zestimate, it is a data point and does provide helpful context in determining the fair market value of a house. The outliers are most likely problems with the AVM, rather than an iBuyer purposely over- or under-paying for a house by a significant margin.
Method #2: Price Appreciation
Price appreciation is the difference between what an iBuyer buys and subsequently resells a house for. Each of these “flips” occurs within a short time frame (typically 90 days). The difference between these two numbers reveals clues around the market value for a house.
A review of the transactions where Zillow and Opendoor purchased and then resold a house in 2019 reveals a median price appreciation of 3.3 percent, or $8,900 on a $270,000 house.
In 2019, the average annual home price growth is 3.8 percent, according to Black Knight. Assuming an average holding period of 90 days, that’s 0.9 percent of price appreciation that naturally occurs in the market. Subtracting this from the 3.3 percent median price appreciation leaves 2.4 percent associated with the purchase and resale of the house.
The remaining 2.4 percent price appreciation delta is not solely a discount to market value; it must also account for the improvements made to each home. It’s reasonable for iBuyers to command a premium on the houses they own and resell, in the same way a certified pre-owned car commands a premium. These houses have been through a rigorous repair process with new carpets and paint, and refurbished up to a generally high standard.
Zillow’s per home renovation and repair costs are $12,000 (source: Zillow’s third quarter 2019 shareholder letter). Opendoor’s average average repair cost is between 2–2.5 percent of a home’s value. In each case, a significant amount of money is being invested into each home before resale, which should theoretically and practically lead to a higher home resale value.
Therefore, if we subtract the price appreciation that naturally occurs in the market (0.9 percent) and assume that half of the remaining price appreciation delta is a relative discount to market value when an iBuyer purchases a house, and the other half reflects a resale premium, the actual discount to market value is 1.2 percent (half of 2.4 percent), or $3,200 — very similar to the 1.4 percent discount derived from the Purchase Price-to-AVM methodology above.
Price appreciation over time
Price appreciation is a fluid metric, and is changing over time and by market. On a yearly basis, the median price appreciation delta has dropped from 5.2 percent in 2018 to 3.3 percent in 2019. And it’s not simply a factor of iBuyers moving into more expensive markets; in absolute dollar value, the median price appreciation dropped from $12,300 in 2018 to $8,500 in 2019.
The trend continues in 2019. On a monthly basis, median price appreciation has dropped a full percentage point between January and September of 2019.
The resulting trend is clear: iBuyers are making less and less money on the “flip” of a house.
There are a number of reasons for this trend. The iBuyers have always publicly stated that they aim to offer consumers a fair deal, with no desire to buy low and sell high. The iBuyers are attempting to make offers as close to market value as possible, and are improving over time.
The change also reflects increased competition in the space. With Zillow launching its home-buying program in 2018, competition is heating up in a major way. Both Opendoor and Zillow are attempting to grab market share as fast as possible, and one way to do that is by offering more attractive offers to consumers.
Median price appreciation varies by market, and could be an artifact of overall market appreciation, iBuyer market maturity, or local competitive pressures.
Method #3: Rejected Offer vs. Market Sale
Many consumers request an iBuyer offer, but not all accept it. Of those that request an offer, reject it, and then go on to sell their home traditionally, it is possible to track the difference between the original iBuyer offer and the eventual sale price.
A recent Zillow study looked at 3,200 homes where a seller declined a Zillow Offer and then went on to sell traditionally within 120 days. On average, Zillow was offering 99.8 percent of the eventual sale price — an implied discount of 0.2 percent.
The Zillow statistic has not been verified by an independent third-party and its comprehensiveness is unclear. Even so, it is a useful data point in this analysis. Opendoor declined to discuss its metric for this study.
Summary of evidence
The evidence in this research study strongly suggests that iBuyers are offering close to fair market value for the homes they purchase. Multiple methodologies based on independent, third-party data suggest a discount to market value of around 1.3 percent — or $3,500 on a $270,000 house.
It is important to remember that this is the median. In any statistical study, there will be outliers, examples of homes where the discount to market value is higher or lower.
Total cost to the consumer
Whether iBuyers make fair market offers on houses is a different question than if iBuyers make fair offers to consumers. To answer the latter question — which is not the focus of this study — all of the associated costs and fees need to be included.
The average iBuyer fee is around 7.5 percent — 1.5 percent higher than a typical real estate commission. However, the average holding costs for three months (which can range from 1–2.5 percent of a home’s value) shift from the consumer to the iBuyer, making the true cost difference negligible.
Which leaves the discount to market of 1.3 percent, or $3,500 on a $270,000 house, as the primary monetary difference between an iBuyer and a traditional market sale. Ultimately, it is up to consumers to decide whether that discount — in exchange for convenience, speed, and certainty — is worth it.
Strategic implications for the industry
So what is revealed about a business that buys and resells houses, but doesn’t make money on the flip? Buying houses is a means to an end. But what is the end, and how will iBuyers make money?
The answer is that it’s not about the house, it’s about the transaction. And iBuyers can make money through ancillary services like mortgage and title, and in Zillow’s case, seller leads. This should concern any mortgage and title incumbent; iBuyers are your new competition. And to maximize consumer adoption of these new services, iBuyers must control the transaction, and the expert advisor in the transaction: the real estate agent.
The results of this study — that iBuyers are buying homes at close to market value — is seemingly positive for consumers. But long term, to fulfill their strategies and build a viable business that makes money, iBuyers will need to operate walled gardens under their control: Sell to an iBuyer, buy an iBuyer home, finance with an iBuyer Mortgage, and use an iBuyer Agent. And this exclusive, closed ecosystem will likely have a significant impact on the real estate industry going forward.