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Exploring innovative single-agent business models

The Thousand rankings are in and these three real estate professionals buck the norm with innovative single-agent business models. Spoiler alert: They’re controversial, but it pays to know your competition.

Uber and Lyft challenged the traditional business model of taxis. Airbnb and Vrbo took on the traditional business model of hotels. Of course, residential real estate also is home to tradition-bending business models like Homesnap, Orchard, Redfin and Zillow.

Innovation doesn’t just happen among the brand-name players in residential real estate, though. But, these single-agent business models, despite being controversial, have done just that. Ben Caballero of HomesUSA.com, Ralph Harvey of ListWithFreedom.com and Jason Saphire of EntryOnly.com have achieved success in both sales volume and transaction sides by operating single-agent business models that depart from the norm. All three men rank highly on RealTrends’ latest The Thousand list.

So, what makes Caballero, Harvey and Saphire highly successful? You can chalk it up to a combination of ingenuity, technology and determination.

Ben Caballero, founder and CEO of Dallas-based HomesUSA.com, No. 1 in sales volume and transaction sides

Ben Caballero opens the door for high-volume homebuilders to sell their homes.

In business since 2007, HomesUSA.com handles new-home sale listings for dozens of builders throughout Texas so builders can avoid the day-to-day tasks associated with the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) — changing construction dates, updating photos, monitoring days on market and so forth.

“What we do is we make it very easy for them to initiate a request for a new listing or change an existing listing,” he says.

When it comes to those listings, HomesUSA.com focuses on both speed and accuracy, Caballero says, and on keeping builders informed. Every Friday, HomesUSA.com provides its homebuilder clients a rundown of all their homes in the MLS grouped by subdivision, complete with information such as commission rates and the sale status of each home.

Sixteen IT and data professionals work on the platform, along with Cabellero and several marketing folks. All sales run through Cabellero.

“Builders’ core competency is building homes, and a lot of them, all they know about the MLS is that they think they should have their homes in MLS,” Caballero says. “We have builders that say they don’t know what they would do without us. They’ve embraced us and made us part of their operation.”

It’s a business model that clearly produces results. Caballero racked up nearly $2.47 billion in sales (breaking his own world record) and 6,438 transactions in 2020. HomesUSA.com collects a flat fee for each listing.

That’s an eye-popping accomplishment, to be sure. Yet Caballero isn’t satisfied with maintaining the status quo. For example, HomesUSA.com strives to accommodate builders’ requests to tweak the platform, he says, enabling builders to fine-tune their marketing efforts and budgets.

Budgetwise, Caballero believes HomesUSA.com, one of several single-agent business models in the rankings, represents a solid investment. According to research conducted by WAV Group, HomesUSA.com saved its builder clients in the Dallas-Fort Worth market an average of $776 in commission per listing from 2017 to 2019. For the three-year period, those savings exceeded $8.2 million.

“In Texas, new homes are selling faster than ever, average prices are setting new records, and new homes are at or above their asking prices,” Caballero said in a June news release. “This is a builder’s market, and builders are working harder and faster than ever to bring new inventory onto the market to help meet demand.”

You can bet that HomesUSA.com (soon to be rebranded as BuilderForce) will be working harder and faster to help bring that inventory to market.

Ralph Harvey, president and CEO of Boynton Beach, Florida-based ListWithFreedom.com, No. 3 in sales volume and No. 2 in transaction sides

Ralph Harvey believes that as tech-equipped real estate consumers grow more savvy, they’re increasingly less willing to pay high commissions to sell their homes. That’s why ListWithFreedom.com offers flat-fee MLS listings to home sellers in 28 states and the District of Columbia.

“We think that the sellers see a value in Realtors,” Harvey says, “but they don’t see the value being 5% to 6%.”

Harvey asserts that consumers view full-service agents “as being grossly overpaid for the service that they’re providing. They’ll tell you their opinion is that a Realtor goes out, takes the listing, goes back to the office, puts it in MLS, goes to Starbucks and waits for somebody to call.”

ListWithFreedom.com supplies four tiers of service, ranging from the $89 basic listing package to the $295 super-premium package, with a variety of add-ons available at an extra cost. That potentially saves the seller tens of thousands of dollars in commission that would typically go to the seller’s agent, Harvey says. If a ListWithFreedom.com listing leads to a sale, the seller pays commission only to the buyer’s agent.

Last year, Harvey amassed nearly $590.4 million in sales volume and 1,794 transactions.

ListWithFreedom’s service covers just the MLS listings. Sellers are responsible for tasks such as open houses, showings and contract negotiations. They aren’t entirely alone in the process, though. Sellers can interact with ListWithFreedom’s team by phone, email or chat, or through the website.

ListWithFreedom.com’s phone system links to its software system so that when a client calls the company, the software recognizes their phone number and automatically pulls up the client’s file.

“We are a technology company working in the real estate space. So it’s all technology-driven, and it allows us to work at a very high volume,” Harvey says.

ListWithFreedom.com couples that technology with what Harvey calls “outstanding” customer service.

“Because of the system we built and the multiple ways that consumers can [reach] us, we’re able to interact with them 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” Harvey says.

Harvey says he and Jim Tyminski, founder, COO and CTO, regularly hash ways to streamline and improve internal and external processes. One of those ways: All documents are now handled electronically — no more emailing, scanning or faxing.

Harvey believes ListWithFreedom.com’s technology-fueled approach will grow as more and more clients share stories of their success.

“We’re the oddballs, if you will, in the marketplace. We’re still not very widely known out there,” Harvey says. “We still haven’t deeply penetrated the market.”

ListWithFreedom.com is setting out to change that, though. The company is recruiting brokers in states where it’s currently not doing business, such as Texas. “We want to keep expanding into more states,” Harvey says.

Jason Saphire, founder of Sharon, Massachusetts-based EntryOnly.com, No. 19 in sales volume and No. 4 in transaction sides

A residential real estate broker once threatened Jason Saphire’s life. Saphire has had anonymous complaints filed against him with regulatory agencies. In emails and voicemails, he’s been called a “scumbag” and a “terrible person.” And he’s been accused of “single-handedly ruining the real estate industry.”

But Saphire — who says the “scumbag” backlash has faded as his business has gotten traction — is a singular force in offering flat-fee MLS services in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. EntryOnly.com has listed more than $3.5 billion in real estate since 2006 and holds the biggest market share among flat-fee brokerage services in New England.

Saphire says EntryOnly.com has saved sellers more than $70 million in commission in its 15-year history.

EntryOnly.com lists homes for sale on the MLS for a flat fee as low as $399, with a seller paying commission only to the buyer’s agent. A seller can go with the most basic package, which puts showings, open houses, contract negotiations and other duties in the seller’s hands. However, EntryOnly.com does offer higher-level services, such as contract reviews and negotiation coaching. The premium packages cost $699 and $999.

It’s a lucrative business for Saphire. Last year, he notched sales volume of more than $318 million through 677 transactions. About one-fourth of his business comes from builders, investors and flippers. He gains most of his customers through word-of-mouth marketing, including referrals from real estate agents.

And Saphire accomplishes all of this chiefly through automation, with sellers able to conduct much of their business via a self-service platform. However, he notes that EntryOnly.com’s services incorporate a “human touch.” For instance, Saphire constantly checks email throughout the day and aims to deliver same-day responses. Saphire, his part-time administrative assistant, a few freelance web developers and an around-the-clock receptionist service are essentially the only humans behind the company.

“With my listing platform that’s built now, I could probably do 2,000 listings a year and still have the same exact staff,” he says.

Harvey maintains that his technology-dependent, user-friendly platform not only benefits sellers, but it creates opportunities for buyer’s agents to earn money. If he didn’t generate MLS listings for sellers, Harvey says that “a lot of these people would not list on the MLS, because they just can’t afford to pay the commission, or they’ve had bad experiences with real estate agents and they just don’t want to do it.”

Controversial? Yes, but these single-agent business models serve as examples of the opportunities out there for real estate agents and brokers.

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