Zillow to start buying homes


  • A growing number of companies are looking to simplify and speed the process. Zillow, Opendoor and others are buying homes directly from consumers in select markets across the country, pitching a hassle-free experience in which you pick your own closing date. (123rf)
















By Andrew Khouri Los Angeles Times








• The service just launched in California






Selling your home can be a headache. There’s the real estate agent to find, the open houses to hold, the bids to weigh. Then, at the very end, there’s the wait for something that may not even happen: financing.

A growing number of companies are looking to simplify and speed the process. Zillow, Opendoor and others are buying homes directly from consumers in select markets across the country, pitching a hassle-free experience in which you pick your own closing date.

Opendoor, which says it pioneered the concept, has been operating in the Portland area since October.

“We don’t currently have any plans to announce about expansion into smaller markets in Oregon, but we’re currently in 22 markets and will be expanding to 50 markets by 2020, which could include more metro areas in the Pacific Northwest,” said Cristin Culver, head of local communications.

Deschutes County’s roughly 1,800 real estate brokers are safe from the new form of competition for now.

Meanwhile, Zillow, Opendoor and others are competing for listings in Southern California. Zillow announced it will bring its direct-buy program to California for the first time, beginning early next year in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Zillow Offers will then be in eight markets across the country, including Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver. It plans to expand further but declined to say if that includes more California markets.

Other similar companies — known in the industry as i-buyers — are already there. San Francisco-based Opendoor advertises its services in the Inland Empire and Sacramento.

CashCall founder John Paul Reddam is a director of a company called Owning, which has scooped up properties in Huntington Beach, Lakewood and elsewhere in Southern California.

Those are the latest attempts to shake up a home-buying process that’s remained largely the same for decades.

“What they see is a massive opportunity,” said Rick Palacios, director of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine. “I have had to sell a home. It took three escrows and it’s a pain.”

Like the others, Zillow’s pitch is convenience. Would-be sellers enter their address online, answer a few questions about the home and send in some photos.

Zillow says it takes that info, its online “Zestimate” and the advice of a local real estate agent, then spits out a preliminary offer within about two business days.

After Zillow conducts an in-person walk-through, homeowners get a confirmed offer.

They can pick a guaranteed closing date, anywhere between seven and 90 days after signing a deal.

Zillow said it typically charges the equivalent of 6 percent to 9 percent of the purchase price as a fee, compared to the roughly 5 percent to 6 percent total commission charged in a normal transaction.

It makes needed repairs and puts the home on the market. The fee varies with the cost of repairs, estimated hold time for the properties and other factors.

Culver said Opendoor’s commission is lower because, unlike Zillow, it does not pay agents on both sides of the transaction.

Opendoor pays market value and charges a service fee, which averages 6.5 percent and is comparable to the commission a seller would pay a listing agent, she said.

A major risk for i-buyers is a declining market, in which falling home prices mean they’re suddenly holding scores of houses that are worth less than what they purchased them for.

Already, markets are softening, with home sales declining and price appreciation slowing in Southern California and elsewhere in the U.S.

Jeremy Wacksman, president of Zillow, said the company isn’t banking on a rising market to make money. Instead, Zillow is banking on rapid turnover and scale.

In the Inland Empire, Zillow said it’s looking to purchase homes priced from $200,000 to $600,000 that don’t need tons of work, but noted it can be flexible.

It wants to resell the homes within 90 days after purchasing them.

Brad Berning, a senior research analyst with Craig-Hallum Capital Group, said the Inland Empire is a good market to launch in California.

It is possible to purchase more homes, because the area is cheaper than the coast. Vast tracks of similar houses were built in recent decades, making it easier to run an algorithm and come up with an accurate market value.

Berning estimates that by 2021, i-buyers could account for about 10 percent of the existing home sale market.

They provide a measure of certainty, a rare commodity in the usual home-selling process.

For instance, they offer the option of picking a quick closing date or putting it off for a while — flexibility that makes it easier to find another home. Zillow said if someone wants to close faster than seven days or take longer than 90 days, it’s not guaranteed but is possible.

“We have closed on a house in as little as five days because we wanted to help the seller who was in a time crunch,” Zillow spokeswoman Jordyn Lee said.

Palacios of John Burns Real Estate Consulting said the certainty of selling quickly has drawn the interest of major home builders, which can have sales fall through if buyers can’t unload their old home.

Lennar Corp, for example, has invested in Opendoor, and the two companies pitch a “seamless experience” in which you can sell to Opendoor and purchase a “Lennar dream home.”

Palacios called that partnership a “natural handoff.”

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