Is a growth story more important than profitability for real estate brokerages?

Like it or not, the flow of capital into the real estate industry has sharpened competition and raised the value of most companies.

Real estate brokerage firms have been releasing their third quarter earnings report, which show us the results from the billions invested in the brokerage industry over the past 10-15 years. Financial returns paint a less-than-stellar picture.

“Of the nine firms I track, there are four which were profitable in the first nine months of 2021 (eXp, Keller Williams, RE/MAX and Realogy). Compass, Fathom, Opendoor, Redfin and Zillow remain unprofitable, and it’s uncertain when they will be profitable on a recurring, consistent basis,” says Steve Murray, senior advisor to RealTrends. (Murray is not tracking Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices on a quarterly basis at this time)

Having a growth story matters more than ever

It seems clear that the investment community has, for some time, been more willing to invest in growth stories than in shorter-term profitability. The companies above that aren’t profitable are also those with the highest top-line growth trajectories. “At what point in the future they will become profitable seems of far less concern than how fast they are growing,” says Murray.

It’s also interesting to note that there are more firms with more capital investing in the core, traditional brokerage business than ever before. 

According to Murray, “In addition to incumbents like Realogy, Berkshire Hathaway and Hanna Holdings, there are pure private equity firms (those invested in firms like @Properties and LIV Sotheby’s), along with investor-backed firms like Cairn Real Estate, Peerage Realty, United Real Estate and HomeSmart.” 

Add to these the large, regional brokerage firms that are looking to acquire companies and several other ventured-backed entities that are investing in and rolling up large teams around the country, and it would appear that our industry is a very attractive place to invest.

Industry incumbents have benefited from capital

All of the money flowing into our industry — about $4.5 billion — was spend buying brokerage firms over the past 20 years. “And, tens of billions were spent buying agents — through higher splits, bonuses, relocation allowances, capped commission plans, flat-fee compensation programs, etc.,” says Murray. “It’s not as though industry incumbents haven’t benefitted from the flow of capital into our industry.” That money hasn’t all gone to newcomers.   

Real estate is a large target

In an industry that generates over $85 billion in gross revenues, where the market leaders have single- digit market shares and where the total addressable market is close to a quarter of a trillion dollars in revenue (brokerage, mortgage, title and all other settlement services), it should be no surprise that investment capital is flowing into both traditional and new models businesses. “Real estate is just too large a target,” says Murray.

He adds, “In some regards, what passes for new model businesses or services are actually just repackaged from previous offerings. Redfin’s employee model with discount services is no different than what HelpUSell, Assist2Sell and ZipRealty offered. Van Schaack, once among the finest brokerage firms of the last 40 years, was all employees.”

In addition, the iBuyers of today closely resemble the guaranteed trade programs of 30-40 years ago.  Bridge lending has been around for more than 50 years. “Low-cost brokerage was pioneered by Realty Executives in the 1960s and 70s,” says Murray. “Today’s version are more streamlined and have access to much larger sources of capital, but it’s not as if these are brand new services or business model concepts. They are mostly repackaged, automated and with, again, much larger amounts of capital behind them,” he says.

Whether these new business enterprises get to profitability or not, the flow of capital into our business has been a positive development. “While some may not like the unease this trend has brought to our industry, it has sharpened competition and raised the value of most companies,” says Murray.