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The Zillow postmortem

The postmortems surrounding Zillow’s exit from the algorithmic home-flipping business are starting to surface. Here’s an article from the WSJ and here’s Matt Levine’s take on it. The latter piece is very Levine-like and is called, “Zillow tried to make less money.”

The obvious story is that Zillow’s algorithms were not valuing homes correctly. But the story is more nuanced than this. In Q1 of this year, Zillow’s home flipping business was actually more profitable than it had initially expected. And that’s because its algorithms were consistently undervaluing homes. So when it did transact, it was doing so at favorable / low cost bases.

The problem was that the company was not transacting enough and there was a fear of losing ground to competitors like Opendoor. Apparently only about 10% of people who requested an offer from Zillow actually ended up accepting it. Margins were good, but volumes were too low.

So what Zillow did was tweak its algorithm to be more aggressive (see above chart from the WSJ). But this created the opposite problem: low/negative margins, higher volumes.

Once again, it shows you some of the challenges with bringing real estate online. The supply of homes is largely heterogenous and there are a lot of qualitative factors that play into what someone is willing to pay.

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