(Bloomberg)—The booming U.S. housing market has investors sprinting to companies that use technology to help Americans buy and sell homes, unleashing a wave of blank-check mergers, acquisitions and now an initial public offering.
Compass, the eight-year-old real estate brokerage led by former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker Robert Reffkin, filed late Monday for a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. It stands to be the highest-profile housing IPO to come during a pandemic home rush that’s been stoked by record-low mortgage rates.
The filing came only hours after CoStar Group Inc. boosted its offer to acquire CoreLogic Inc. to more than $7 billion, a deal that would throw the commercial real estate data provider into the ring with Zillow Group Inc., Redfin Corp. and Opendoor Technologies Inc. -- housing-tech firms that have seen their shares soar in the past year.
The companies are all jockeying for a piece of the estimated $80 billion in annual commission revenue in residential real estate, plus billions more that can be made renting apartments, originating mortgages and selling home insurance. Questions abound about many of the businesses chasing that prize, but their current ability to tap capital markets is likely to permanently change the way Americans find, buy, sell and rent housing.
“Investors have this infatuation with anything that combines real estate and tech and are pouring tons and tons of money into it,” said Mike DelPrete, a real estate tech strategist. “Compass was one of the early beneficiaries.”
On one level or another, most of these companies are chasing the idea that buying or selling a home is the most expensive -- and most important --- transaction in most people’s lives, and the current process is costly, complicated and high-stress. But while the industry has looked primed for disruption for nearly two decades, no company has landed on a sure-fire way to improve the process or make money.
Compass, which raised more than $1.5 billion from SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund and other investors, is approaching the opportunity with an appeal to real estate agents, touting software for scheduling home tours, designing marketing materials and communicating with clients. It has invested heavily in engineers to build artificial intelligence that pulls agent tools together, arguing that the technology can save agents time, help them provide better service and make them money.
Last year, the New York-based company was involved in residential real estate transactions totaling $152 billion -- or 4% of the U.S. market, according to its IPO filing. Its revenue jumped 56% from a year earlier to $3.7 billion. More than 19,000 agents use its platform, Compass said.
It remains to be seen whether public market investors are willing to value Compass like the tech company it says it is, or if they will view it as a traditional real estate brokerage. The startup, valued in the private market at $6.4 billion in 2019, reported a $270 million loss for last year as it invested heavily in research and development.
Rise of iBuyers
Other companies are appealing directly to consumers. Zillow and Opendoor, which went public in December through a merger with one of Chamath Palihapitiya’s special-purpose acquisition companies, are seeking to lead the most dramatic changes to the process of buying and selling a home. The companies, sometimes known as iBuyers, are flipping homes at a scale never seen before, buying houses for cash, making light repairs, and putting them back on the market.
Unlike traditional flippers, who seek to buy low and sell high, the iBuyers are aiming for small profits and lots of transactions, and seeking to buttress their income by selling adjacent services like mortgage origination and title services. These are complicated businesses, combining massive data operations with large home-renovation networks, and neither company has proven that they can stick the landing.
Zillow lost more than $240 million its iBuying business in 2020. Opendoor, which reports earnings on March 4, recorded a net loss of $199 million through the first nine months of last year.
Ultimately, those companies, Compass and others are betting that they can make buying or selling a home a more appealing experience, bidding to win consumer loyalty at a moment when the lion’s share of the millennial generation is still approaching homeownership.
“Is it going to be a race to the bottom where they fight each other to the death?” said Clelia Warburg Peters, a venture partner at Bain Capital Ventures. “There may be an aspect of that. But the size of the prize is getting bigger, not smaller.”
CoStar is converging on the U.S. housing market from a different direction. The company has long been a dominant player in commercial real estate data, offering property listings, analytics tools and other services.
In November, it agreed to spend $250 million to buy residential-listing portal HomeSnap, a move widely read as a preliminary step to compete with Zillow in providing consumers a place to find for-sale listings. The company, which has grown through a series of acquisitions, is hunting bigger game in its pursuit of CoreLogic.
The housing analytics company, which makes software that powers the multiple-listing services that have served as the backbone for home listings for more than a century, would give CoStar a stronger perch from which to compete with Zillow, Redfin and other real estate portals -- if CoStar CEO Andrew Florance can persuade CoreLogic to abandon an earlier agreement to be acquired by funds managed by Stone Point Capital and Insight Partners.
“They are laying the groundwork to have a seat at that table,” said Ryan Tomasello, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but they’re building an interesting arsenal to get there more quickly than people would think.”
© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.