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Research firm says Zillow/Trulia have potential anti-trust blood on their hands

While the industry reflects on Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia, one research firm cites potential anti-trust blood that could be on the companies’ hands.

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I know, I know – you’re probably sick of hearing about Zillow. It’s been one week since the jawdropping announcement that Zillow is buying Trulia and it seems you cannot log onto Facebook or read an industry news site without reading one more opinion of the proposed stock buyout. While some have questioned if the federal government will allow the plan to move forward, citing potential anti-trust issues if real estate portal giants number one and number two combine forces, another anti-trust issue surfaced this week.

Recently, HousingWire published an article stating that Citron Research shows that the combined super syndicator may not be all it’s cracked up to be from a financial investment standpoint. The article calls the new entity a “Potemkin village” built to impress and exaggerate how good things are in Zulia-ville, and not a true superpower destined to dominate the real estate portals.

In “Zuliagate – The Big Secret,” Citron Research states that “the combination of Zillow and Trulia is supposed to give the combined entity the power to triple ad revenue from real estate agents. Nothing could be further from the truth — and we have the proof.”

Citron Research’s smoking gun

Citron’s smoking gun is a 60-page slide presentation originating from a Coldwell Banker office (Coldwell Banker Pacific Properties in Hawaii) encouraging its agents to sign up for a special marketing package called Fab Plus.

For a ridiculously low price ($350 per year, and only $175 for the first year if you signed up by an April 15, 2014 deadline) agents would receive “Featured Agent Branding” which includes (from slide 52):

  • tools the competition cannot touch
  • listings fed to the largest web portals
  • agent contact information is displayed next to listings (not office contact or competitors)
  • featured listings branded to the agent, promised ranking higher in search results on Trulia, Homes.com, Zillow and Yahoo! Real Estate

Agents were promised from $2100 (agents with only a few listings) to a $23,000 value in advertising (for power listers with 100 listings) – for $175 for the full year. If you’ve bought any featured listing packages on these portals, or paid for upgraded marketing status, you know that you aren’t likely to buy even a fraction of a low scoring zip code in most areas for the pittance these agents were promised for that price.

Citron’s article states that Coldwell Banker is not the only real estate franchise offered such steep discounts on marketing packages. Sotheby’s, ERA, Century 21 and Better Homes and Gardens – all of which operate under the Realogy umbrella – received the same 95% discount off book rate. Realogy operates the five brands as separate franchise, with almost 6000 offices and over 170,000 agents. To say Realogy has some pull with negotiating marketing deals with the listing portals would be a major understatement.

Note from the Editor: Realogy includes the residential real estate brokerages Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, Century 21 Real Estate, Coldwell Banker, ERA Real Estate, Sotheby’s International Realty, Coldwell Banker, and Corcoran Group Real Estate.

Citron asserts that Realogy is the true danger

So, while people opined last week (me included) about the pitfalls of a giant Zulia controlling the market and potentially raising prices for agents and brokers, Citron asserts that Realogy is the true danger in this scenario, as it was marketed to their agents specifically to “Block competitors from advertising on your listing details page.”

For less than $15 per month, Realogy agents can assure they are the only point of contact on their own listings. The flip side is that Zillow/Trulia cannot sell those buyer leads to any other agent in their system. Meanwhile, Citron states that Realogy is investing serious dollars in their own real estate portal, as the company realizes that the best leads – most qualified – come from the corporations own sites, not outside portals.

If Zillow/Trulia try to raise prices on featured listing status, using their pricing power as feared, Realogy could terminate the agreement, throw its support towards its own portal, and even pull their listings with few repercussions.

Wall Street has not done its due diligence

Zillow stock is up 87% in the past 6 months ($144.81 close on 8/4/14), while Trulia is also up 87% in the same time period (yes, a freaky coincidence – and close of $60.98 today). The paper asserts that Wall Street has not done its due diligence with this deal, and instead of jumping on the Zulia bandwagon and driving the stocks higher, analysts need to dig deeper.

The paper ends with a scathing assertion: “Citron could publish volumes regarding internet traffic overlap, regional MLS strategies to adjust to / compete with Trulia/Zillow, customer backlash, and every other red flag raised about this company. But none of it matters if you have an undisclosed business practice, one that you have been hiding from Wall Street, that just torpedoes your own business plan.”

UPDATE: Zillow tells Realuoso, “Citron is a firm run by a short seller that publishes self-serving propaganda. We don’t engage with unethical practices of this type. As for Realogy, we have an advertising deal with them. We don’t get into the specifics of individual deals – we never have. The math in the Citron report is not correct.”

Erica Ramus is the Broker/Owner of Ramus Realty Group in Pottsville, PA. She also teaches real estate licensing courses at Penn State Schuylkill and is extremely active in her community, especially the Rotary Club of Pottsville and the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce. Her background is writing, marketing and publishing, and she is the founder of Schuylkill Living Magazine, the area's regional publication. She lives near Pottsville with her husband and two teenage sons, and an occasional exchange student passing thru who needs a place to stay.

Real Estate Corporate

Has REX Homes finally ceased operations?

After two rounds of layoffs, a restructure to join MLSs, and swirling rumors regarding leadership, staffers tell us the company has crumbled.

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Real estate brokerage REX Homes became famous in recent years for spearheading an anti-trust lawsuit against Zillow and the National Association of Realtors, accusing them of being a ‘cartel’ to edge out non-MLS participants. But it appears that as of today, the company has ceased operations.

Numerous staff reached out to us directly to indicate the company’s last day was Tuesday and that a companywide call on Friday outlined the end of REX Homes. While the entity of the brokerage still exists, we are told there are no longer offices, staff, leadership, or agents.

Staff at the Austin, TX and Woodland Hills, CA offices (both in Texas) have confirmed that as of today, the doors are literally closed. It is unclear what REX’s plans are for wrapping up any current contracts that haven’t closed.

The company’s website remains live with no notification of any service interruptions and there have been no changes to the faces that appear on the staffing page.

Many Glassdoor users have begun leaving reviews asserting that operations have ceased. To thicken the mystery, we’ve already seen several recent reviews disappear, but it is unclear if that is Glassdoor or REX’s doing.

Several LinkedIn users formerly employed at REX Homes are putting their #OpenToWork signs up, stating the company has closed – some indicate departments dissolving, others that the entire company has collapsed.

What has been especially interesting with this company is staff’s consistent fears of CEO Jack Ryan, consistently citing a fear of retribution not just professionally, but personally, and several told us we should worry about our own personal safety, having been the only news outlet covering REX’s unraveling.

Also consistent is that everyone we’ve spoken to in the last year has cited an imminent demise of the company as a whole.

In August of 2021, REX Homes laid off 60 staff without severance, and on October 7th, 2021, REX Homes had their second round of layoffs – both times, staff said they were not initially given severance pay, but report to us that after our coverage, they began seeing payment.

Also in October of last year, they shut down their New York and Chicago offices, and announced internally that they would be joining MLSs. They called it a restructure. The joining of any MLS shocked many as the premise of their structure was always that their magical proprietary tech as well as their bypassing of the MLSs to save consumers thousands of dollars.

They earned several rounds of private equity funding and never went public. Several staff told us that going IPO had been a talking point from Ryan, often used to lure them to the company in the first place and accept lower pay with the idea that shares would soon be coming their way.

Between the August and October layoffs, they closed their Series D round of funding, but never disclosed the amount, closing date, or investor. It is therefore unclear how their investors feel about the company’s status, but it is also possible that they’re who initiated the pulling of the plug.

It is also unclear what this means for their ongoing lawsuit against Zillow and NAR and how a non-existent company can pursue a class action lawsuit, but no filings have been made in the past week regarding the case.

As with all REX stories, we have reached out for comment. Because we track all emails, we have always seen them open every press inquiry within seconds, but it is of note that our current request for comment has yet to be viewed

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow seeks a patent to fill out forms electronically – sounds familiar…

(TECHNOLOGY) In yet another broad patent application, Zillow is aiming for ownership of the ability to fill out “transactional documents” electronically.

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In yet another obscenely broad patent application, Zillow is aiming for ownership of the ability to fill out “transactional documents” electronically.

The official patent application describes “generating electronic transactional documents using a form generating system” and “using a design tool that allows a user to place data entry fields over an image or snapshot of a transactional document.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because virtually every website that allows customers to e-sign anything already does this. Some concerns also address the fact that services such as DocuSign – a service in which both Google and NAR invested – and even Google Forms might fall under this category.

Should Zillow see this patent approved, it could spell disaster for a huge operational segment of any real estate sale: the actual signing of a contract.

What’s odd about this patent application is the bizarre, gaslighting-lite language it uses to pitch the idea of something that is already used widely on the internet. In the background section, the patent claims that “Most of the time the parties are not in the same physical location when the offers, counteroffers, and acceptances are signed. Fax machines are often used to facilitate the process, as well as emailing scanned documents.”

The background continues with, “Sellers, buyers, and their agents are often not in the same contemporaneous physical location. Therefore, signed documents are often faxed between parties, with original signed copies being retained for the closing.”

Using the implied inconvenience of a physical fax machine as an argument for the efficacy of electronic documents makes sense, albeit in an obvious kind of way; however, using this argument to support the notion that Zillow should be able to claim a patent that gives them domain overall electronic forms in the real estate microcosm seems particularly villainous.

It’s also worth noting that, should this patent be granted any time soon, the likelihood that the world will still be in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic is high. From the patent office’s standpoint, restricting the remote signature options of any real estate firm not affiliated with Zillow during a period of time in which purchasing property is already laborious and dangerous shouldn’t even be an option.

Time will tell whether or not Zillow is successful in achieving its bid for e-signing. Other document-signing services may be able to dispute the patent, but Zillow’s history of scooping up unlikely patents is undoubtedly on their side.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow hit with another lawsuit after iBuying collapse, claiming they misled investors

(REAL ESTATE) Stockholders are suing, alleging that Zillow publicly praised the iBuying program despite knowing it was dying, and they claim to “suffer significant damages.”

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Zillow Group was hit late Thursday with yet another investor lawsuit on the heels of the collapse of their iBuying program (“Zillow Offers”). Hillier v. Zillow Group, Inc. et al in the Western Washington District Court is seeking class action status in this federal securities lawsuit, alleging that Zillow failed to disclose to investors that they did not have the ability to price homes for their Zillow Offers program, and that paired with a known supply and labor shortage, led to an inventory backlog.

The suit claims that under these conditions, Zillow (ZG) knew they would have to end the iBuying program, which would hurt their bottom line, something investors were not made aware of. In fact, this suit notes that company leadership continued to speak positively in public, making “materially false and/or misleading statements” about the program despite their overpaying for numerous homes and selling them at a loss.

In the Notice of Related Cases filed, Braua v. Zillow Group, Inc., et al., and Silverberg v. Zillow Group Inc., et al. were cited, both of which are seeking damages for allegations of misleading investors. The Hillier suit is specifically seeking to certify a class of Zillow stock buyers who made purchases from Aug. 7, 2020, and Nov. 2, 2021.

The new lawsuit outlines the following (our words, not theirs):

  • Zillow launched the home buying program in 2018 to rapidly flip properties.
  • By close of 2019, they were in 22 markets, and the program accounted for half of their annual revenue ($1.4B).
  • On August 05, 2021, the company released Q2 earnings, citing $772M from the iBuying program, roughly 60% of their annual revenue. In the release, Defendant Rich Barton said that their “iBuying business, Zillow Offers, continues to accelerate as we offer more customers a fast, fair, flexible and convenient way to move” and “is proving attractive to sellers even in this sizzling-hot seller’s market.”
  • In October, RBC Capital Markets began cooling on Zillow, lowering their price target for the stock, warning that Zillow Offers would likely miss quarterly expectations, dragging ZG down from $91.40 on October 01 to $85.68 on October 04.
  • Shortly thereafter, in October 2021, Zillow announced they would be halting the program through year’s end, and stocks continued to slip.
  • In November, the company released their Q3 financials and simultaneously declared an end to the program and a 25% workforce cut.

It appears that the crux of the Hillier case is that leadership continued to praise the program even as it declined, right up until the Q3 earnings statements went public and it could no longer sustain the program.

“As a result of defendants’ wrongful acts and omissions, and the resulting declines in the market value of the company’s securities, plaintiff and other members of the class have suffered significant damages,” the suit concludes.

As recently as this week, InvestorPlace said, “it’s going to be a while before ZG stock could make a comeback,” noting that Zillow’s house is not in order.

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