Steven Levy over at Wired recently wrote a short piece comparing Opendoor’s iBuying approach to what Zillow was doing when it was in the space. (Thank you Robert Wright for forwarding me the article.)
As we have talked about before, the fundamental problem with Zillow’s model is that it couldn’t accurately predict where home prices were going. It was losing too much money and so they shut down that side of their business.
The article talks about Opendoor’s approach and how they’ve spent the last 8 years refining a valuation model/approach that is now apparently pretty accurate. That’s positive. But here’s another excerpt that I found particularly interesting:
There’s one controversial aspect of the business model that Wong didn’t bring up. It appears that when companies like Zillow and Opendoor can’t easily sell a home, the fallback is what’s called an “institutional sale.” All iBuyers sell a small but not insignificant percentage to institutional investors with aspirations of being “mega-landlords.” While the marketing materials of the iBuyers emphasize clean sunny rooms and frictionless transactions, that segment of the market involves hedge funds like KKR and Blackstone snapping up properties for rental, limiting the inventory available for families seeking homes. Even the Biden administration has weighed in on the evils of this trend: “Large investor purchases of single-family homes and conversion into rental properties speeds the transition of neighborhoods from homeownership to rental and drives up home prices for lower cost homes, making it harder for aspiring first-time and first-generation home buyers, among others, to buy a home,” said a recent White House dispatch.
It’s interesting for two reasons.
First, these highly tuned valuation models are now being used to scale the acquisition of single family homes. No specific figures are given, but Levy speculates that some iBuyers could be feeding up to 20% of their homes to institutional buyers. Economies of scale are a challenge with this asset class. Here technology is helping.
Second, I don’t like the tone toward renters in the above White House dispatch: “[It] speeds the transition of neighborhoods from homeownership to rental.” This line in particular implies that renting is perceived as being suboptimal to homeownership and that “speeding”’ towards the former is something that should be avoided for reasons of social good.
Even the words that are used here suggest biases. A single-family home is called, well, a home. But a rented one is a rental property. I reckon that a home is a home regardless of whether it’s low-rise, high-rise, rented, or owned.