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Trulia-Zillow fiasco reveals disjoint, opportunities in real estate agent reviews

When Zillow and Trulia merged agent reviews, it got messy and showed a vulnerability and discord in the industry. But if you look at it objectively, this is a moment of opportunity.

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Remember when there was no MLS? Neither do I, but legends of those real estate dark ages paint a grim picture. Brokerages each held their listings closely, and consumers had to go meet with each of them individually at their offices to try to cobble together a mental picture of the total market.

It was disjointed, full of misinformation, and detrimental to not only the consumers’ needs but also the efficiency of the market.

That’s where we are today with agent reviews

There are no standards, no structured cooperation, and little overlap or sharing. Plenty of companies are building their own review platforms, but they’re almost all proprietary boutiques. The platform builder wants the consumer to use its review tools, but doesn’t want its competitors to have access to those reviews.

Home buyers and sellers are asked by their agents to write reviews for them—on Yelp, Realtor.com, Zillow, (formerly) Trulia, and any agent matching service where the agent would like to appear relevant. Our clients don’t want to jump through these hoops, and they shouldn’t have to. It’s inefficient.

A clumsy attempt to clean up reviews

Zillow is flexing its muscle in the review space because it currently has the best single-location, quick, verified review platform. When it merged Trulia’s reviews into its own platform, it decided that a large portion of Trulia’s reviews had not been verified, and likely could have been gamed by the agents. They were tossed out without notice to the agents.

The act was clumsy, and the backlash from agents who’d lost their reviews was swift. The mea culpa came almost as quickly as Zillow offered to retrieve the purged reviews for any agent who requested them directly. They would not, however, be appearing on the newly merged Zillow/Trulia review platform.

All sites should verify legitimacy of reviews

While the company tripped over its industry relations in the conversion, the strategy of the purge is still a step in the right direction for real estate agent review standards going forward.

Every review platform should be following guidelines that, at a minimum, verify that the client and agent actually worked together. A company that intends to inform the public on the quality of real estate agents’ services should be intently focused on making sure those reviews are real, via mutual admission, property identification, and other means.

Zillow should be praised

Zillow should be commended for pursuing that verification. While real estate listings are gaining nationwide structural standards with RETS, reviews are just beginning the process of setting standards. Just as big of an issue, though, is that portal reviews are just that—single location reviews. Realtor.com reviews can’t be exported or integrated into Zillow’s review platform. Reviews on Homes.com can’t be integrated into the Yelp profile. It’s the same situation on almost every other portal or agent rating website. They don’t speak to each other.

Ironically, the technology companies who built portals to egalitarianize the consumer listing space are now building walled gardens of reviews to bring back the disjoint of the pre-MLS era.

Each proprietary system hopes to force more consumers into its own custom sandbox. They’re funneling buyers and sellers back into the “meet me at my office to see our exclusive listings” mode.

Good for competition, bad for the consumer

While that may be a good business decision in terms of competition, it blunts the progress toward true consumer visibility of broad agent reviews. Buyers and sellers see a small, skewed version of an agent’s reviews on portal websites, with each one portraying a different picture than the last.

Consumers won’t review us on all of the sites necessary, so we get a sprinkling of reviews here, and a dash of reviews there.

All hope is not lost

There is hope, though. As portals up the bar in terms of review verification, companies like RealSatisfied and Quality Service Certification continue to deepen our view of the kinds of quality standards that are possible on a brand-agnostic level. If standardized requirements for legitimate reviews become common practice, we may be able to cross-reference reviews on different platforms.

Each website could combine reviews as a whole, or at least reference the agent’s reviews from multiple platforms, side-by-side. The ability for a consumer to see our reviews on Yelp, Realtor.com, Zillow, RealSatisifed, etc, in one place, would be a huge boon to consumers’ ability to see who’s really keeping their clients happy.

I hope NAR will lead the charge

I’ve written before than NAR should be the driving force to make this allegiance happen. Even if it doesn’t take shape that way, tech companies in the review space should continue to develop products with these standards in mind for the good of consumers as a whole.

Agents may have experienced some hassle with the Trulia review losses, but that’s nothing compared to many more years of asking clients to do us a favor in a disjointed, time-intensive manner.

If we can improve the verification requirements for reviews, and agree to communicate cross-platform with those who adhere to those standards, we’ll be doing a great favor for ourselves and our clients.

#AgentReviews

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King Country REALTORS®. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and BellevueHomes.com.

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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Empty office REX Homes

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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