Goal of the internet: destroy middlemen
Remember back when the internet was going to destroy the middleman? The New Yorker ran a famous cartoon back in 1997 with seven business people sitting around a conference table, and the caption reads, “On the one hand, eliminating the middleman would result in lower costs, increased sales, and greater consumer satisfaction; on the other hand, we’re the middleman.”
While I doubt the cartoon’s creator had real estate in mind, real estate agents and brokerages have been grappling with how to successfully merge the off-line world of real estate with the on-line world for well over a decade. However, as 2013 begins the internet hasn’t eliminated the middleman in real estate but instead created more!
Zillow and Trulia, for example, are both advertising business that run on the display of real estate information. They are the new middlemen, and they are profiting quite handsomely – primarily by selling ads to real estate agents while providing consumers with information that may or may not be accurate. In fact, one could cynically argue that they have a strong incentive to make the listing agent information difficult for a consumer to discover, because that increases the value of the ads they are running alongside a particular listing.
I’m not here to say that Zillow and Trulia are the enemy or the answer, but to instead ask why most industries have found the internet to be a phenomenal way of reducing middlemen and costs while the internet has created more middlemen in Real Estate. To answer this, I want to compare real estate to two industries – book publishing and travel.
How publishing middlemen were destroyed
Amazon.com, for example, started out to change the publishing industry by making it just as easy to buy a book at home as it was to buy in a store. As the world quickly discovered, amazon.com actually had some advantages by being online. For example, they could stock millions of books, unlike local stores that were limited by their physical space. When amazon.com started, way back in the 1990’s, the kindle had yet to be invented, so it wasn’t even a matter of re-inventing book delivery, this was just about being able to create the world’s biggest inventory of books because they could build warehouses anywhere cheap land was available near a major airport.
But when you buy a book, you always get the same thing: a bunch of words. They may be printed on a page and bound in soft cover or hard cover or they might be digitally displayed on a screen. Regardless, though, you buy a book and you get your words. And you can read those words pretty much anytime and anywhere you want, with very little possibility that things will go wrong. And if things do go wrong? It’s probably not a big deal. Regardless of how much the book cost, it isn’t a financial investment that is a part of your retirement strategy. And no matter how good the book is, you would never invite friends over to just look at your book (you might be a member of a book club, but book clubs get together to discuss the book, not to actually look at each other’s copy of a book).
How travel middlemen were destroyed
The internet has also transformed the travel industry. While we used to go to a travel agent to plan out a complex trip and book tickets, most people do those things online now. And while a plane ticket might be more expensive than a book in the above example, a seat on a plane is, well, a seat on a plane. No one ever sees a really cheap seat and wonders, “Hey, is that seat located inside the pressurized cabin or is it bolted out on the wing?” While there are a variety of seats available within a plane – coach, business or first class – they all essentially do the same thing, and once you have consumed your plane ticket, you move on with your life. Perhaps your plane trip has resulted in the memories of a lifetime, a new client, or a visit to see a long-lost friend. Unlike a home, a plane trip or a book is a consumable item.
How middlemen have thrived in real estate
Real estate is fundamentally different for a variety of reasons, but let’s look at a few. For one thing, brokerages have never possessed a physical inventory of homes for sale. No real estate agent has ever offered to take anyone back to the warehouse to see this year’s available homes, although we have put millions of people in our cars to go visit the homes available in a specific neighborhood. But there is no economy of scale to be gained with a really big warehouse of homes, because homes don’t exist in warehouses, they exist in neighborhoods. Furthermore, while two homes may be very similar, no two homes are identical. Real estate, by its very nature, cannot be commodified.
Websites now offer consumers a wealth of information (some accurate, some less-so) about homes online, yet I’m willing to venture that there is nothing – ever – that will replace physically visiting a home you are interested in purchasing. Why? Because no matter how much information you put online, sometimes the most important things about a home are the things that you can’t see in the marketing text or the pictures. For example, is the master bedroom window under a streetlight that shines excessively bright at night? Is the home at the top of a steep hill that would not be easily accessible by a disabled individual? Does the breeze from a landfill usually blow odors towards the house? Is the next door neighbor a lunatic who throws parties until 4am on a regular basis? In other words, what makes a home desirable is not just the presence of some features, but also the absence of certain other features. Making valuation even more complex, home buyers often don’t always agree about the value of particular features.
Homes differ from both other consumer goods and financial instruments because they have an innately physical and fixed presence, and they exist in a context of other homes and people. Regardless of what book you place on either side of War and Peace, the book in the middle will always be War and Peace. But a home with two great neighbors is more valuable than a home with two horrible neighbors. Homes are also not a disposable consumer good. No one ever says, I’m finished with that home lets put it on the shelf and go buy the sequel. And while people might like to brag or worry about how their investment portfolio is doing, no one ever invites you to come over and enjoy the physical presence of their stocks or bonds.
If I had to sum it all up, I’d say the most distinguishing feature of real estate is permanence. Not only are the permanently and innately tied to their environment, people purchase homes for the long-term. Real estate is neither consumable nor disposable, which may explain why rental sites like AirBnB do well – if you get a bum vacation rental, you aren’t stuck there for the next three – five years of your life.
Regardless of the unique traits of real estate, consumers clearly want accurate information about homes online. In 2013, I think the real estate industry owes it to our clients to find a way to deliver that information with fewer middlemen.