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Zillow: This HUGE patent grab has us asking, what’s left?

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) Zillow’s latest patent bid is terrifyingly broad and will likely lead to a real estate monopoly, if it’s granted.

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Man reviewing paperwork from Zillow listing with couple looking to buy

Zillow is no stranger to controversy, largely due to their propensity for acquiring obscenely broad patents. These patents often expand Zillow’s privileges while limiting the mobility of competing real estate companies’ websites and apps, elevating Zillow’s position in the market along the way. Now, Zillow is applying for a monster of a patent—one that, if granted, would effectively bar every other real estate service from the market.

We’ve written extensively about Zillow’s overzealous acquisition of patents that, by and large, demonstrate a desire to complicate the daily operations of competing real estate services. Those patents have included the presentation of photos on real estate sites and how information is formatted, the commonality being that Zillow’s patent requests have been so vaguely worded that competing businesses are forced to alter significantly their practices.

For example, their patent regarding photo use prevents anyone other than Zillow from portraying photos, panoramas, or videos in such a way that they “simulate movement” through a house. This basically means that other real estate services will be forced to arrange their photos in a nonsensical way, thus reducing site usability and increasing the likelihood that former users will migrate to Zillow.

The real estate monolith has also sued competitors for copyright infringement, most notably going after Trulia for having the audacity to tailor search results based on “input” from a user.
This most recent patent request makes it clear that Zillow has no intention of stopping their rampage—at least, not without achieving a literal monopoly in the process. In summary, the patent would afford Zillow complete control over “validation and optimization in an online marketing platform for home sellers.”

In simple terms, the patent refers to any technology or tools used to support the process of real estate searches.

The patent summary corroborates this interpretation: “In some embodiments, the disclosed technology provides a validation tool for users of the online marketing platform to quality check the users’ home feeds in real-time through a graphical user interface of the online marketing platform. In some embodiments, the disclosed technology provides an optimizer tool for the users to optimize the users’ home feeds through a graphical user interface…”

This summary concludes with, “The users of the online marketing platform can be home sellers, which can include, for example, home builders, brokers, and their agents,” describing what one would reasonably assume comprises all possible real estate clients.

Restricting the act of searching for real estate to Zillow alone would prevent competition, full stop. With the power to sue anyone who allowed their real estate listings to be browsed or searched, Zillow would control the entire real estate market for all parties, including home builders. Obviously, this is a problem for several reasons.

The most glaring problem here is that any monopoly is cause for alarm, and the current housing market does not seem poised to benefit from a lack of variety in listing agencies—especially in the wake of COVID and the turmoil we can feasibly expect for years to come.

The patent also fails to take into consideration that Zillow, for all their innovation, did not create the features to which they’re staking their claim. While they may have used search engines with a level of effectiveness heretofore unchallenged by competitors, the fact remains that this patent’s contents cannot, in good conscience, be attributed wholly to Zillow.

Zillow’s justification alleges that homeowners who list their properties on multiple different sites face a “steep learning curve” that can hinder their progress since not all sites use the same listing process and selling tools, but the irony of this faux-concern couldn’t be clearer: By manipulating patents to purposely obfuscate listings on competitors’ sites, Zillow has created the very problem they claim to want to solve.

As this situation develops, bear in mind that Zillow’s predatory patent-trolling may dictate the course of this country’s real estate market for decades to come if they are allowed to continue expanding unchecked.

Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

Real Estate Corporate

Zillow stops their home buying, but you shouldn’t get excited about it

(CORPORATE) Zillow has put the kibosh on their home buying program, and real estate practitioners are buzzing, but no one should get excited…

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Zillow has halted purchases of homes for their iBuyer home buying program, and many real estate practitioners are buzzing on social networks to gloat and analysts are saying the company is on the rocks, but that sentiment is missing the forest for the trees.

In Q2 of last year, they only bought 86 homes to flip. Their purchase rates then rose to 808 in Q3, then 1789 in Q4, and 1856 in the first quarter of this year. Fast forward to Q2 of 2021 and they invested in 3805 properties.

That’s one serious surge in inventory they’ve invested in, which means a major upswing in their backlog to get through.

The reason for the purchasing pace change is unclear, but no one is currently immune to the supply chain crisis which is making raw materials expensive or impossible to obtain, while labor shortages in the industry are creating a scenario where hiring to finish this many flips is extremely difficult.

Current market conditions are such that housing starts and permits have slipped a bit as the nation faces the same challenges as Zillow must now endure.

Further, with their average purchase price in the second quarter hitting $322,432, average renovations, holding, and selling costs reaching $26,334, their average return is $19,636. That’s a decent return on a flip, but professional flippers can reap larger returns than $20k – but not at the scale Zillow is accomplishing.

Spencer Rascoff, Zillow co-founder and former CEO told CNBC he suspects buying will resume early next year. That seems like a reasonable supposition.

On the note of what they’re accomplishing, Nevada Realtor, Sean Gotcher, posted a wildly viral video last month on social media about Zillow manipulating the housing market and consumers finally realized the possibilities of what a power like Zillow could accomplish. Whether they do the evil thing or not is yet to be seen.

Real estate practitioners have spent the last 24 hours proclaiming the death of Zillow, which is wildly off. The company simply has a backlog and is struggling with labor and materials like everyone else in America.

And even if their iBuyer program shuts down and they stopped getting every listings feed on the planet, they’ve created a scenario where they’ve basically applied for (and yuck, been granted by the federal government) every conceivable generic patent on real estate online.

Instead of reading a headline and gloating on Facebook, practitioners need to start paying attention to the possibility of Zillow patent trolling the world – the rest is all just chump change. They really are evil geniuses, and they’re definitely going to survive this small iBuyer blip.

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Real Estate Corporate

REX Homes has second round of layoffs, closes NY and CHI markets, plans to join MLSs

(CORPORATE) REX Homes has just concluded a second round of layoffs and has indicated they will be joining MLSs as part of their restructure.

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REX Homes yesterday initiated a second round of layoffs in the past two months, has now shut down operations in Chicago and all of New York as part of a company restructuring, and intends on testing out joining local MLSs.

Layoffs are a common part of startup life, and REX Co-Founder, President, and COO, Lynley Sides assured remaining employees in a company-wide call that they are “done with downsizing efforts,” which they say they did their best to do “respectfully,” and the new goal is to move forward, focusing on the customer experience, on profitable markets, and on “winning” now that the company has “the right plan.”

The first round of layoffs was in late August and eliminated roughly 60 positions (a number which has not yet been verified by REX). No severance was paid, but the company offered resume coaching and allowed impacted staff to retain all company technology as a “creative” move, Sides said on the call.

The company has earned several rounds of private equity funding and is not publicly traded. They had not closed their Series D round of funding in August, but did shortly thereafter.

The second round of layoffs was Thursday, October 7th and impacted 34 employees who did receive severance and were also allowed to keep company technology.

Because of the timing of the Series D closing, Sides told staff on the call that they would be revisiting severance with employees cut in the first round.

She also noted that they would have preferred one round of layoffs and had hoped that would suffice, but instead took measures to cut “all costs,” including reducing marketing spends “notably,” addressing overhead, negotiating with vendors, and even subleasing some of their space to “reduce the impact of the second wave.”

It is unclear what markets they continue to serve as their website still allows users to select New York, but not Chicago, and several past and current staff say the number of areas they service have been drastically reduced in this calendar year but none agree on the actual number. Sides noted a shift toward focusing exclusively on the most profitable markets.

Sides also said on the call that REX would be “trying to join a few MLSs which is the right thing to do for our business and our customers” as they focus on the “customer experience.”

The pilot test is notable given the company’s lawsuit against NAR and Zillow, alleging a cartel surrounding MLSs and commission structures. Although a recent court ruling urged the company to not use the term ‘cartel,” the lawsuit stands.

Also fascinating is that the real estate tech startup was able to avoid all news coverage of the layoffs, market closings, or a shift toward joining any MLS.

Regardless, Sides concluded her portion of the call by assuring her teams that she remains “incredibly optimistic about REX’s future,” a sentiment others on the call echoed.

We have reached out to REX Homes for comment, as we don’t know the precise number of employees dismissed in August, the size or date of their Series D round of funding, or what markets they still serve.

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Real Estate Corporate

Viva – the startup that gives renters equity as they rent

(TECHNOLOGY) Viva launched as a pretty brilliant model – give renters back equity as they rent, foster future buyers, and build a property portfolio.

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Renting often feels like a necessary evil, one which is compounded by the fact that renters are unable to build equity – through no fault of their own. A company called Viva thinks they have a solution for this systemic issue: third-party equity.

Viva is a startup with the main goal of allowing renters to earn a certain amount of equity per month.

The process itself is fairly straightforward: Renters in Viva-managed properties have the opportunity to earn up to eight percent of their rent back in equity per month. This equity is stored in the form of a rebate that can be reclaimed once the renter’s lease is up.

I say “up to” eight percent because, according to Viva, certain tasks–mild, “unskilled” maintenance and general upkeep of the property–are assumed to be the renter’s responsibility (unless otherwise dictated elsewhere); failure to maintain a presentable property can result in a lower percentage of rent going to your equity.

While that sounds like it opens the door for picky landlords to dock renters for arbitrary issues, Viva assures them that they “expect the vast majority of all tenants to earn the full 8% every month.”

That equity can be tracked via Viva’s online portal and payment receipts from each month of rent.

Once a renter’s lease expires, they can request their equity in the form of a rebate; it can also come in the form of a housing credit should the renter want to put it toward their next property.

On the landlord side, Viva charges a relatively high 16 percent for management: eight percent for renter equity, and eight percent for general management fees.

While this sum is higher than the average 10 percent cited on Viva’s FAQ, they point out that their eight percent covers more things (maintenance and “community engagement”) than a usual maintenance fee.

Viva also posits that people who live in properties they manage will be more dedicated to maintaining those properties, thus cutting down on long-term costs.

Viva’s goal of creating a third viable option that nestles between renting and buying couldn’t come at a better time in terms of the housing market. Both renters and landlords will want to keep an eye on this venture as they develop.

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