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Everything must go: Zillow’s race to end iBuying

Rich Barton - HW+
Zillow CEO Rich Barton.

Much digitized ink was spilled over the death of Zillow Offers, Zillow’s dismal foray into instant homebuying.

Zillow did a “horrible” job pricing homes, assailed the co-founder of rival Opendoor. Company managers displayed rank “overexuberance,” lamented Zillow employees. And Zillow CEO Rich Barton griped about a price forecasting algorithm “far more volatile than we ever expected possible.”

But for some real estate agents, Zillow now selling off the homes it bought is something else – a lucky break in a market of skyrocketing prices and historically low inventory.  

“Zillow wanted to get rid of the house as quickly as possible,” said Brittanie Chambers of eXp Realty in Lakewood, Colorado. “It was a really smooth process.”

Said Mike Miller of You 1st Realty in Colorado Springs, “They just freaking wrote a check and called it a day.”

How agents describe Zillow Offers’ wind down, which began in November, evokes a kind of joyless irony for Zillow, which Barton has called more than a business but a company, “helping movers dream.”

“Zillow is doing what it said, after losing $1.5 billion in three years,” said Mike Del Prete, a real estate industry consultant and University of Colorado Boulder scholar-in-residence. “It’s an unremarkable wind down.”

But other observers see Zillow cleaning house quickly, giving the 17-year-old, Seattle-based company a more promising future.

“They’ve moved much faster than original expectations,” said John Campbell, managing director of equity research at Stephens Inc. and a Zillow investor analyst. “I think they’ll be largely wrapped up by the end of the second quarter.”

The short winding road

When Barton announced the wind down, Zillow held 18,000 homes it owned or was in contract to acquire. In February, Barton told shareholders, “More than 85% of the homes we expected to resell during the wind down process are currently under contract to sell or have reached an agreement on disposition terms.”

Zillow’s iBuying division lost $206 million in earnings before income, taxes, depreciation, and amortization in the fourth quarter. The company declared a related $405 million write down in quarters three and four.

A February shareholder letter signed by Barton and Allen Parker, Zillow’s chief financial officer, stated, “We expect the $800 million of cash equity that was in the inventory at the end of quarter three will more than cover the realized losses on inventory, operating cost and the cash portion of restricting cost of the wind down.”

Barton and Parker have portrayed the iBuying wind down as a severe storm and not an existential threat for residential real estate’s most recognized brand. There are signs storm clean-up may soon end.

Zillow declined to provide any subsequent updates on its remaining inventory, stating those would come on May 5 when the company holds its first quarter earnings call. But Zillow operates a website “Zillow-owned homes for sale” that, as the name suggests, catalogues any homes the company purchased – which would all be homes acquired through Zillow Offers, a company spokesperson confirmed.

As of April 26, there were just over 100 homes still listed for sale. The spokesperson pointed out that does not quite mean that of the 18,000 homes in inventory, all but almost 17,900 have been sold.

For example, homes not on market could be shopped for bulk purchase by single-family landlords. That is what Pretium Partners did on three different occasions, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, purchasing 3,200 homes total. The last batch of 1,200 homes sold for $450 million, Bloomberg reported, or $375,000 a home.

Where Pretium bought these homes, and if the investment management company might purchase more abodes is not clear, as New York City-based Pretium declined to comment.

No other single-family landlords have emerged as a bulk buyer. “I have not heard of anyone buying additional properties from Zillow, either our members or someone else,” said David Howard, executive director for the National Rental Home Council, a trade group for large single-family home landlords.

A growing number of U.S. homes are investor-owned, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting and Redfin among other sources. But “investor-owned” mostly does not mean a firm coolly transacting mega-deals on the 32nd floor of a downtown Manhattan skyscraper. It means anyone who owns a home that is not their primary residence.

“The lion’s share of investor activity is mom-and-pop small investors,” said Rick Palacios, director of research at John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

A random sampling of Zillow’s iBuying wind down supports this notion. Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, HousingWire examined snapshots of the Zillow-owned homes for sale website from earlier in 2022.

The unscientific results show that the company rapidly pared down inventory in markets including Charlotte, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Minneapolis-St. Paul one home at a time. In Charlotte, for example, there were 78 Zillow-owned homes listed for sale in the last week of February, but just four the last week of April.  

The rapid sell off did come with a cost. A sample of 12 homes in the aforementioned markets indicate that Zillow purchased the abode for an average of $398,447, listed the home for $395,000 and sold the home for $391,936.

That’s 1% less than what Zillow bought the home for, a loss significantly exacerbated by the marketing, staffing, carrying and administrative costs that accompany each sale.

Indeed, beyond the need to psychological move on from iBuying, Zillow was also motivated by practical expenses like ensuring an empty, Zillow-owned home is not vandalized.

“My client was ready to buy a home for $285,000, but the appraisal came in for $275,000, and Zillow automatically lowered it to what it was appraised for,” said Teresa Mutakabbir, of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Elite Properties.

Mutakabbir said that she spoke to several Zillow representatives all of whom were “very responsive.”

“There was a different person for each issue, from scheduling inspections to getting ready for closing,” said Chambers of eXp Realty in Colorado. “But they were there each step of the process.”

Another practical expense for Zillow: Letting go of some of those responsive employees.

A job to do

“I would like to sincerely thank our dedicated employees who have been executing the wind down process,” Parker, the CFO, said during the February earnings call.

The gravity of Zillow winding down iBuying was arguably best quantified not in homes, but the 25% of Zillow’s 7,999 full-time employees that Barton said in November would face layoffs.

How these layoffs are carried out is not clear. Zillow actually reported that as of Dec. 31 it had 8,005 full-time employees, suggesting they had added half-a-dozen workers total since the iBuying wind down.

A company spokesperson said that Zillow’s layoffs of 2,000 people are, nonetheless, proceeding apace. And the affected workers have been mostly notified, the spokesperson said, and are clear about their remaining roles and severance package.

Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification – or WARN – filings with state employment departments are one way glean information about companies laying people off. Depending on the state, companies typically must tell labor and employment agencies at least 60 days before mass layoffs commence.

WARN notices uncovered 327 Zillow employees notified of layoffs: 80 throughout Colorado; 78 in Seattle; 72 in DeKalb, Georgia; 41 in Tampa, Florida; 32 in Dallas; and 24 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

For real estate agents, the experience of working with Zillow Offers has occasionally been frustrating. Lei Lonnie Watts of RE/MAX in Colorado Springs said dealing with Zillow could mean getting routed to different people too often.

But for the most part, agents said that dealing with a handful of Zillow employees instead of one listing agent just took some getting used to.

“I found that it was easier to email with them than to talk to them on the phone,” said Miller of You 1st.

“Plus,” Miller added, “It was easier to get the house under value.”

Zillow’s wind down has taken place in a market where home prices continue to appreciate, especially in the Sun Belt cities for which Zillow Offers was most concentrated. For agents, submitting an offer to Zillow was a rare reprieve from endless bidding wars.

“I almost wish I had lowballed them a little bit more,” Chambers of eXp said. “It’s too bad there’s not more of these Zillow homes on the market.”

Instead of trying to get the best price, Zillow took advantage of the market to make things less bad.

“Given the market conditions with prices still running double-digits higher versus last year and the rough inventory conditions, I think it’s safe to assume that they’ll get more for these homes than what they’ve factored in inventory write-downs,” Campbell of Stephens said.

At a time when many real estate (and, for that matter, non-real estate) stock prices declined, Zillow has proved no exception. At close of the market Friday, its stock traded at less than $39 per share. That compares to $139 a share one year ago, and $66 per share right after the company announced its iBuying wind down.

Once valued by Wall Street at over $48 billion, Zillow’s market capital Wednesday was $9.9 billion.

Still, Campbell said, ending iBuying can let Zillow focus on improving its Premier Agent advertising revenue program, mortgage and closing services, and, “Help support a much better multiple in time.”

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