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Brokerage Benchmark Report: Over past 10 years, firms are outperforming expectations

While profitability in the residential brokerage industry is not easy to come by, most leading brokerage firms, regardless of size, business model, brand or region, are finding ways to remain profitable.

A special report from RealTrends on the financial and operational results of brokerage firms from 2012-2021

Brokerage firms have done well managing operating costs over he past 10 years. According to a RealTrends analysis, firms have seen their Return on Revenue (EBITDA — Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization — margin on Gross Commission Revenue) decrease from an average of 4.5% in 2012 to an average of 3.7% in 2021.

They did; however, experience an increase in Return on Gross Margin (EBITDA margin on gross margin/company dollar), from 20.1% to 33.3%, during that same period.

For this special report, RealTrends compiled the data on over 2,000 different brokerage firms, from 2012-2021, and looked at the trends in each key category of revenues, cost of commission, operational expenses and several other metrics that help define the performance of a brokerage firm.

Gross margin declined. Gross margin, which is the percentage of gross commission revenues left to the brokerage firm after payment of commissions to agents and teams, has declined from an average of 22.4% to an average of 11.0%, or a decline of a staggering 50.8%. Margin compression is a real thing folks!

Agent productivity declined. Agent productivity declined by 17.7%, from an average of 8.9 transactions per agent to an average of 7.3 per agent. Much of this is attributed to the increase in the number of low cost/lower productivity brokerage firms that now are a larger share of firms than in 2012.

Reduced operating expenses. Brokerage firms have reduced their overall operating expenses by 7.0% in order to remain profitable. They reduced spending in three of the main categories of operating expenses, which are Personnel costs (down 10.2%), Occupancy costs (down 1%) and Advertising/Marketing costs (down 60.9%). General & Administrative costs did however see an increase during this period (up 12.8%). 

Per-office gross margin increased. Gross Margin per office increased 16.9%, while Gross Margin per agent decreased 37.5% during the same period. With brick and mortar less important these days, firms are able to pack in more agents, albeit less productive, per office.

Due to the decrease in costs at the operational level, brokerage firm’s saw a 3.8% increase in EBITDA per agent, rising from $3,132 to $3,252.

Examining agent productivity per office

In order to adapt to decreasing margins, both top line and bottom line, and decreasing agent productivity, one major theme has been to increase agents per office. Over the last 10 years, the average brokerage office has increased agent count by 87%, from 54 agents per office to 101 agents per office. 

This has resulted in sides per brokerage office growing by 54% with volume growing by 158%, which has increased revenue per office by 138%. Higher office productivity has ultimately resulted in EBITDA per office increasing by 94.3% over the last 10 years.

Low-cost office vs. traditional brokerage firms

When we examine all these same factors for just traditional brokerage firms, their growth was much lower than their peers from low-cost brokerage firms — while at the same time their returns on gross revenue and on gross margin were higher.

This correlates with other data we have that supports the proposition that low-cost brokerage models are growing and increasing market share faster than contemporary traditional brokerage firms, but are doing so at the cost of profitability whether measured on a per-agent or a per-transaction basis.

It is also important to note that the results of this study do not include any results from related core services, such as mortgage, title insurance, escrow, property casualty insurance, home warranty income or property management results. In many cases, regardless of the model, these related services provide a material increase to the EBITDA that brokerage firms earn.

Staggering implications on technology investments

This benchmark data also has staggering implications on brokerage firms’ technology investments. As mention per-person productivity (PPP) has slipped by 17.7%. While technology certainly has increased some agents’ PPP, the data suggests that investment in technology by itself has not lifted the industry or overall brokerage firms’ results as might have been expected.

Interestingly, the lack of growth in PPP has been more than offset by the growth in the average sales price of the product being sold (home sales).

Overall, many key metrics point to the business of brokerage being squeezed by the increased costs to recruit and support their agents and teams. This factor has been consistently to the detriment of brokerages’ financial performance.

While profitability in the residential brokerage industry is not easy to come by, most leading brokerage firms, regardless of size, business model, brand or region, are finding ways to remain profitable.

RealTrends ranked firms grow at faster than NAR data

Of the approximate 2,000 brokerage firms in the benchmark, a majority were multiple office firms. They grew their total sales volume, transaction sides and gross commission revenues at faster rates than the national figures published by the National Association of Realtors

These brokerage firms in the aggregate also support data from the RealTrends 500 and Nation’s Best rankings that show strong growth of national market share of leading brokerage firms over the past ten years.

Newer firms grab market share

It is also the case that, during this ten-year period, the growth of new entrants was exceptional.

Firms such as Compass, eXp, Fathom, HomeSmart and United Real Estate, all newcomers in this timeframe, grabbed nearly 400,000 closed transactions sides from incumbent real estate brokerage firms during this period.

As we noted, profitability in the residential brokerage industry is not easy to come by. But over the past 10 years, the majority of leading brokerage firms, regardless of size, business model, brand or region, are finding ways to remain profitable.

Methodology

RealTrends Consulting has provided valuation services to over 4,000 brokerage firms in the past 35 years. In the last 10 years, the firm has completed over 2,000 valuations. Valuations have been provided to brokerage firms of all models, all regions and all brands, whether nationally branded or independent.

We compile data from each of these valuation reports to create a benchmark analysis as a part of our valuation process. This compares similar data from each firm for whom we provide valuation services, which ultimately provides the clients of RealTrends Consulting a tool to diagnose where they stand compared to peer companies based on region, size and business model.

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