Redfin, the Seattle-based real estate brokerage, is starting a program that lets house hunters bid on properties directly through its website. The move aims to bring online shopping to a business dominated by attending weekend open houses and driving around with agents.
The company recently tested the program in Boston and plans to extend it in stages across the country. It is the latest sign that technology companies are encroaching on the decidedly low-tech world of real estate sales.
Web-focused operations like Redfin, Zillow, Opendoor and Offerpad — along with brokerage giants like Realogy, which owns Coldwell Banker and other brands — have been building out “instant buying” programs that allow home sellers to solicit direct offers from the company. The Redfin program, Redfin Direct, is an effort to bring the approach to the other side of the transaction.
Real estate agents’ groups will be watching to see whether Redfin’s competitors introduce similar programs. At stake is the roughly $110 billion a year in commissions generated by home sales.
In an interview, Redfin’s chief executive, Glenn Kelman, said that in late March the company had started accepting unrepresented online bids — that is, bids from buyers who don’t have an agent — on listings in the Boston area. Sellers accepting an offer pay a 2% commission, about half of the normal fee in the area, which would translate to a saving of $10,000 on a $500,000 house.
Of the 120 homes listed through Redfin on which offers were accepted between late March and early May, five were bought with online bids, the company said.
Despite the alluring sales pitch of “a buy button for real estate” — Kelman’s go-to descriptor — Redfin Direct is considerably more complicated than e-commerce sites hawking socks or dish soap. Customers are led to a 55-question guide that details how to prepare the offer and provides advice on factors like financing and inspections based on data from the local market.
Still, Kelman said the response in Boston had convinced him that the program was worth rolling out nationally. “We’re going to expand one market at a time,” he said.
Redfin Direct is actually a return to form for Redfin. In 2006, two years after the company was founded, it placed a “buy” button next to listings on its website so that prospective homebuyers could bid online. It went nowhere.
At the time, the company was directing prospective buyers to listings held by traditional brokerages like Keller Williams. They could submit any bid and terms that made sense to them — even an offer 30% less than the asking price or a closing date three days away, Kelman said.
“People would make offers that had ‘born to lose’ tattooed on them,” he said.
Redfin started as a web-based intermediary using online maps to point prospective buyers to available homes. Over the past decade, it has built all the features of an offline real estate brokerage, acquiring home listings and hiring agents.
The company’s market share is still tiny compared with those of companies like Realogy, and Kelman said he expected that agents would handle a vast majority of home purchases for some time.
But as the generation of people who grew up with e-commerce grows, and more homebuyers get in the habit of beginning their searches on sites like Redfin and Zillow, Kelman feels it is timely, after 13 years, to bring back the online purchase option, he said.