Despite Housing Slide, Real Estate Sites Sell
It was late October, and Redfin, an online real estate brokerage firm based in Seattle, had received just three months earlier a $12 million investment led by the marquee venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. In the interim, the mortgage industry melted down, foreclosures spiked and housing sales slowed to a crawl. Now, one of Redfin’s biggest markets, Los Angeles, was battling a series of wildfires and Redfin’s sales had stopped cold.
Redfin was not the only victim of bad timing. Venture capitalists poured about $50 million into three other real estate Web sites last year — Zillow, Terabitz and Trulia — only to watch the market enter a historic slide.
Now, although most of the real estate industry wishes it could fast-forward through 2008, these online start-ups are surviving nicely. Each company recently reported strong sales and increases in Web traffic. Trulia surged to the top by the end of 2007, from sixth place in 2006, according to Nielsen Online.
Although these sites are not growing as quickly as they might have during a bullish market, they are at least growing.
“In September, we thought it was maybe the beginning of a very long downturn,” said Glenn Kelman, Redfin’s chief executive. “But for whatever reason, the last few months have been very strong for us.”
Executives of Trulia, Zillow and Terabitz said they, too, were encouraged by recent results. Online real estate companies, they added, could be today’s version of the online travel agencies that flourished after the Sept. 11 attacks: a cheap alternative for suppliers looking to market a product that is suddenly in low demand.
In this case, brokers and agents have seen their marketing budgets shrink in lock step with their commissions as they struggle to sell homes.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of brokers are feeling some pain right now,” said Pete Flint, chief executive of Trulia, a real estate search service based in San Francisco. “They’re spending less on advertising than they were, but they’re spending a significantly larger portion online, because it’s cheaper, and it’s where the audience is.”
Mr. Flint would not disclose sales figures, but he said traffic was growing more than 10 percent monthly, “and revenues are growing much faster than that.”
Redfin is a slightly different story because it does not accept advertising from brokers and agents. Rather, the site competes with traditional brokerage firms to offer people a way to buy and sell homes without face-to-face contact with an agent.
Buyers and sellers communicate with Redfin’s agents — in effect, customer service representatives on the Web — by phone and through e-mail to negotiate deals and arrange house visits, among other things. Customers pay far lower fees to Redfin than they would pay to traditional agents.
With home sales slowing, Mr. Kelman said that “we had to get very serious about figuring out what works and what doesn’t for sellers.” The company’s analysts pored through sales data and found that, among other things, listings that make their debuts on Fridays draw 7.7 percent more visitors than those introduced on Thursdays. In addition, listings priced at $351,001 receive significantly less attention online than those listed at $350,000, because of how real estate search engines filter their results.
The company began disseminating such tips to clients in December, around the same time Redfin’s results began improving. Since late September, the site’s share of real estate sales in which Redfin represented the buyer rose by 23 percent in Seattle, to nearly 2.5 percent, and jumped by 176 percent in the San Francisco area, to nearly 1 percent.
Zillow, which in September raised $30 million from Legg Mason Capital Management and others, attracted 20 percent more visitors in December 2007 than in December 2006, according to Spencer Rascoff, Zillow’s chief financial officer.
“Our growth actually accelerated in the back half of the year,” he said. “In a down market, buyers, sellers and agents need more tools.”
The amount of advertising revenue that Zillow generates for every 1,000 pages on its site has more than doubled from a year ago, Mr. Rascoff said, as the site has added more sales agents and advertising products that allow marketers to reach homeowners at specific addresses. (People wishing to see Zillow’s appraisal of a home type in the address).
Terabitz, which raised $10 million from Tudor Capital in July, builds and maintains online portals for real estate brokers and agents. The business only began selling its services in September, but Ashfaq Munshi, Terabitz’s chief executive, said he was pleased with the progress. The company this month introduced its first six brokerage sites, including that of Century 21 Abrams, Hutchinson and Associates, www.century21ah.com, which serves Middlesex and Mercer Counties in New Jersey.
Whether the success of the newcomers will spread to more established sites is an open question, said Kenneth Cassar, an analyst with Nielsen Online. “There’s dichotomy with what’s going on in this category, when it comes to visitors and advertisers,” he said. While the number of visitors is up, the number of ads run on real estate sites dropped 31 percent last year when compared with 2006.
In past years, Mr. Cassar said, consumers who visited these sites were usually in the market for a house, a new mortgage or goods to help them complete a remodeling. “Today, they want to understand the impact of the broader market on their local market,” he said. And as consumers find mostly bad news on that front, they are not exactly great targets for marketers who want to sell them new couches, new homes or a new mortgage.
“But people still need to live someplace and move from time to time,” Mr. Cassar said. “So there will be a consistent base of activity that’ll keep a number of these players quite happy.”
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By BOB TEDESCHI
New York Times Online
Published: January 28, 2008
TALK about an uh-oh moment.