The Motley Fool's Austin Smith spoke with Susan Daimler, the New York City StreetEasy GM for Zillow (NASDAQ:ZG), Erin Lantz, the company's VP of Mortgages, and Kathleen Philips, the COO of Zillow for a roundtable about some trends in the real estate industry. Watch the video below to listen to the four discuss the company's banner year in 2014 and what we can expect to see from the company in 2015.
Austin Smith: Hey Fools, Austin Smith and I'm joined by Susan Daimler, the New York City StreetEasy GM for Zillow; by Erin Lantz, the VP of Mortgages for Zillow; and by Kathleen Philips, the COO of Zillow. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today.
2014 was a pretty exciting year for Zillow investors, and for real estate home buyers, so I just want to talk about maybe some of the most interesting trends that you saw in your respective spaces in 2014, then maybe take a look ahead to 2015 on some of the things that Zillow investors, and home owners, and home buyers, should be looking forward to.
If we could start with you, if I remember correctly the MLS ingestion feed that you accepted from ... you're going to have to help me with the name.
Susan Daimler: New York City is totally different, so no MLS.
Smith: But you have a relationship now with one of the largest brokers.
Daimler: Oh, with Douglas Elliman?
Daimler: Yes. That was a pre-existing relationship, so that was them coming onboard and saying, "We want to see our listings and our agents be treated a little bit differently on Zillow."
Smith: How did that shake out in 2014? Obviously a unique market, a unique setup with the broker; how did it work for both parties? So many unique things about New York as a market.
Daimler: Yes, the New York market was pretty much on fire in 2014, the problem being that we really have low inventory, which is making sites like StreetEasy that much more relevant. Buyers are really getting crunched out there; really low inventory, and sellers really have the upper hand.
But in 2015 we're hoping to see a lot more condos come on the market; probably the most since 2008, so a huge influx. That will be much better for the buyer, and we'll start to see a little less pressure on pricing as well, so we're looking forward to that. That will be, obviously, great for the agent community as well.
Also, New York City is unique in so many ways -- vertical living, high density, buildings rule, there are no "For Sale" signs -- just a very, very different market. One of the unique parts also is 70% rentals, 30% homeowners, which is essentially swapped from what we see in the national picture.
Low inventory also pushes more people into rentals, so with all the new inventory coming on in 2015, we hopefully will see some pressure decrease on rental prices as well, so lots to look out for after a five-year inventory drought.
Smith: What's behind all that inventory coming online in 2015, at least that you are expecting? What's causing that? Is it home prices finally hitting a point where sellers are feeling comfortable putting their condos on the market?
I believe New York is still quite a bit above where they were after the dip, but you're the expert so I'll defer to you!
Daimler: Yes, we're still above. I think it's just a lot of new condo developments that have been in the works, that maybe went a little quiet on hiatus after the Lehman crash, then in the last four years more investors have been more aggressively buying land, building out, and we also have this huge influx of international buyers who are ready to pay $4,000 a square foot, $5,000 a square foot, which is pretty amazing.
Smith: New York brokers are very happy with this trend!
Daimler: They are. They are very happy. There was a lot of champagne in 2014, as we say.
Erin, obviously a critical part of buying a home is mortgages, which is now the part of Zillow that you oversee. Really unexpected mortgage trends in 2014 from a rate perspective; I'm curious, what sort of things did you see on your end in 2014 that were really interesting, from a mortgage origination perspective and from a buyer behavior perspective?
Erin Lantz: 2014 was the year that rates didn't rise as much as we all expected them to rise. Where we stand today -- 3.6% -- is far below 4%, which was not what most of us thought we'd be saying, a year ago.
That said, the lender mentality has shifted a bit, to a world where lenders still believe rates will go up and that the refi market is not going to be their bread and butter anymore, so even in this rate market we did see lenders prepare themselves to start migrating to a purchase market where that's where most of their business is, where they're building relationships with agents and they're figuring out how to stay engaged with consumers for 30, 60, 90 ... six months even. That's been a big shift, and I think we'll see more of that next year.
From a product perspective, last year there were two big trends that we saw. The first was the emergence of the big banks on Zillow and elsewhere. We're really pleased with the penetration we're seeing from the biggest banks in the country, like Bank of America and Citibank, on our platform.
It's been something we've been working with them for years to get, and we're only now seeing them really feel comfortable with the Internet and mobile as a channel where consumers are, where they need to be.
Smith: Never known for being on the bleeding edge of things, but better late than never, I suppose!
Lantz: Exactly. We'll take it when it comes! That's one thing that we're really excited about.
The second piece, around the consumer psyche -- and I think where Zillow has come to meet them -- is what we've seen is, consumers are more and more comfortable with shopping online, shopping on mobile; so much so that they're maybe not so interested in doing all the work themselves.
They want to do the process quickly, look for homes, look at beautiful pictures, and get a mortgage from someone they trust, rather than go through all of the work of comparing rate by rate, for many consumers.
When we started to learn that, we created a new product which is our pre-approval product, which lets consumers come to Zillow, tell us what they're looking for, and we connect them with a lender and if they want to, they can get pre-approved on the spot on their mobile device or on their desktop.
That's been an exciting evolution for us as we've learned more about the different customer segments, and we've seen that that's been a really good fit for lenders who are looking to succeed in the purchase market.
Smith: I'm really curious. Obviously purchasing a home, typically the most expensive decision people make, and Zillow as a company has been so progressive on mobile, and you're seeing a lot of success on mobile home views.
Actually applying for a mortgage, I'm curious, does that trend hold or is it still a desktop audience? And if it is shifting more to mobile, what's behind that? What's finally causing consumers ... is it just that rates are so low? What's finally causing that acceptance?
Lantz: About a third of our mortgages business, and growing, is on mobile. It hasn't spiked materially but, candidly, a third was far more than we expected we'd be at, at this point.
I think like most categories, we're seeing consumers migrate to mobile. I think mortgage will continue to be a laggard in that transition, but increasingly we're seeing our lenders, our agents, our consumers be there.
I think the big banks are a good analog to that. They're not on the bleeding edge, but they're going there and they're looking to us to help bring them onto mobile. I think it's just a matter of time, and slow adoption by consumers and from the lender side.
Smith: I'm curious, given all of the bad press surrounding adjustable rate mortgages and the meltdown, and with the big refi boom that happened but now seems to be ebbing, what does the mortgage market look like now? Are you seeing a lot of 30-years, 15-years? Are people going back to ARMs?
With rates where they are, it's such an unusual environment, and inventory's still in an interesting place. I'm just curious what that makeup looks like on Zillow.
Lantz: The vast majority of all product originated on Zillow and in the market is still 30-year fixed. That's largely a reaction to the crisis we had in the prior years. I think over time we'll see more product variety enter the market, but we're not seeing that in any material way yet.
Kathleen, if I can ask you as COO; a lot of really exciting news for Zillow in 2014. I'll let you pick your favorite headlines! What was the most exciting, most stressful ... take it wherever you want.
Kathleen Philips: I'm sure that the obvious answer would be the Trulia acquisition, but while that takes up a ton of my time, I think the most exciting thing around here are all the new people who have joined us.
We are now around 1,200 employees. It has created a ton of opportunity for us to figure out how to keep folks focused on their work, happy, that we have a set of common core values, upgrading our office space -- Susan is the head of a beautiful new office in New York City -- we've instituted a learning and development program, hired some new HR folks.
When I think of 2014, that's actually what occupies much of my mind space because we've built this amazing foundation, and next year it will get even more exciting when we hope to welcome a bunch of Trulia folks into our fold as well.
Smith: If I can touch on the Trulia acquisition, I'm just curious if you could discuss what seems to be a dichotomy in my mind. We've spoken with you in the past and you've mentioned you have a portfolio of brands which you've executed on incredibly well. You mentioned keeping Trulia distinct. Obviously StreetEasy has been very successful. You have what must be dozens of brands under the Zillow banner at this point.
But yet we've also talked about Zillow's move to heavily spend on marketing and fill all of the brand whitespace, which would seem like a strategy that would lend itself better to having one brand.
I'm curious if you could talk about, Zillow wants to fill, as we've heard, brand whitespace, but you also have a portfolio of brands. Why go with the portfolio of brands instead of consolidating everything under Zillow?
Philips: I think I would sum it up most simply by saying different consumers want different things. StreetEasy is a perfect example of that. The New York shoppers want a customized vertical living experience, and that's what we deliver with StreetEasy.
Having the multiple-brand portfolio gives us an opportunity to present consumers with lots of different options for the way that they want to shop. I'm by no means a marketing or branding expert, but that's certainly how we think about it. We know, given the success of Trulia over the years, there are consumers who prefer that brand.
We'll be able to have sort of a laboratory, where we can experiment with different brands, figure out what works. Different things will work for different groups of consumers, so we're looking forward to being able to put all those options out there for folks.
Filling the brand whitespace, I think of it a little bit differently, which is that we are providing a broad range of services for consumers. I don't think one solution is really the best way to go.
Smith: What is it that Trulia brings, besides extra inventory and impressions? Specifically, what do they serve for consumers that Zillow previously didn't, prior to the acquisition?
Philips: I don't know that we think too much about the different profile of consumers, so much as different approaches within the product. For example, Trulia has some product innovation that we have not focused on and we have some that they don't have.
We certainly have focused much more on the non-shopping aspects of the home search experience. Zestimates are a perfect example of that. We obviously spend a lot of time and effort on Zestimates.
Trulia has an estimation product. It's not as central to their offering as ours is. They have some pretty nifty information that we don't have; crime data, heat maps, things like that. We'll test and learn and see, and sometimes we'll borrow from each other, I'm sure.
Smith: Wonderful. Maybe that sets the stage well for 2015. What is most exciting for you in 2015? Is it sharing that technology with Trulia? Is it continuing to grow Zillow's page views in urban and rural audiences? You're going to be a busy person next year!
Philips: I think so!
Smith: What is it that's most exciting to you?
Philips: I think it's all of the above, but going back to the way we started this discussion, what's most exciting for me really are the new people and seeing how we can bring a new set of faces and ideas into Zillow and Trulia and our other brands.
It's been terrific as we've grown that we can provide opportunities for people who want to try out new things. Again going to New York, Susan has been the recipient of a few Seattle folks who decided they wanted to move to New York. We've had some New York folks move here. San Francisco and Seattle have exchanged some employees.
Having an opportunity to have a big new talent pool and opportunities for our own folks for movement and growth is really exciting.
Smith: Wonderful. And from the home buyer/home seller perspective, what can they look forward to in 2015, either from Zillow/Trulia -- Zulia -- as an offering entity, or in the real estate market at large?
Philips: I would say just more innovation -- we can continue to provide, obviously, tons and tons of information to folks to enable them to make better choices -- and choice, all with a focus on providing the broadest range of options for consumers as we can; buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, all of the above.
Smith: One of the questions that seems very timely at the moment is the issue of listings on Zillow. You recently announced a pending divorce with Listhub. How is that going to affect the user perspective, using Zillow and Trulia products going forward?
Philips: We're hopeful that our new platform, where we're going to ingest listings directly, will have a really positive effect for consumers.
The reason that we have built our new platform, and that we are looking to increase our number of direct connections, is so that we can get fresher data for consumers, so that we can have sellers' listings be up to date and accurate on our site, and make sure that their homes are marketed to the broadest range of people possible.
Our goal is actually just to do more of the same, better. We've been working for years on gathering direct connections, and we're going to continue to do that. We're very optimistic that pretty soon we'll have all of the listings on our site directly, and that there will be no staleness. They will be up to date and terrific for brokers, for agents, for sellers, for buyers.
Smith: So we can understand a sense of the magnitude, do you have any sort of information on how many listings you were getting from Listhub and how many you expect to be ingesting now, through your other platforms that you're building?
Philips: Yes. We expect to transition about 1.6 million listings to the new platform. If the Listhub agreement were to terminate today, we would lose a couple hundred thousand listings. We expect that we'll be able to replace those over time with direct connections, and that they'll be even better for consumers.
Smith: I'm also curious, from the agents and brokers end, since ultimately -- I know you have many customers, but they are the bread and butter of what makes Zillow churn -- what things are you going to be doing to help them in 2015 to make more out of the leads that you're providing them? What are some of the technologies and solutions that you're going to be making available to them?
Philips: Starting with the listings platform, it certainly benefits our agents to make sure that our listings are up to date and accurate, so that when they do get a lead coming in, the lead is on an accurate and complete listing. That's a good place to start.
We'll also continue to develop our Connect product, so that agents who are using a CRM will be able to directly connect with Zillow and have all of their leads go directly into their CRM of choice.
We are continuing to invest in our own CRM, that we provide to agents for free, if that's the choice that they make in terms of how they want to manage their contacts and their leads.
Daimler: We also have more tools for agents on mobile now as well, so more access for agents who pay for advertising to buy more advertising, to manage their leads on the mobile apps. That's new as well.
Smith: Mobile is an interesting question for me, as far as the agent and buyer/seller relationship goes. It seems like that's so much more of how the relationship is getting done through text messages, through calls, though email on the go.
You have obviously been very forefront on gathering leads for mobile. How is it different, from an agent's perspective, once they get a mobile lead? How do you facilitate that conversion from lead to sale in the mobile environment? You have been so prescient there.
Philips: Do you want to take this?
Daimler: Sure. We still really leave it up to the agent as to how they want to take that contact and how they want to communicate. We have 360s with agents. We talk to them all the time. We tell them what we hear from consumers, and usually however they contacted you is usually how they want to be contacted in return.
Smith: If they sent a carrier pigeon, send one in return.
Daimler: Right, send it back! Send it back, exactly. If they want to text, don't try and push them to email. If they email, don't try and call them. Just reflect how it is that they're trying to communicate with you. That's what we try and communicate with the agents.
The great agents, they know how to do it. They're great at their jobs, and they get it, and they seize that as well. We definitely see that we're getting toward good things.
Smith: Do you have any sort of conversions data on how that trend from Zillow lead to sale has progressed over time?
I'm curious, as you have made more leads and impressions available to agents, how their conversion rates on those leads have gone; if that growth in leads has meant maybe less qualified leads and they've had to fight to convert more, or if working with you in the platforms that you offer, they've been able to convert higher. Do you release any sort of numbers on that?
Lantz: We don't.
Daimler: But in addition to the conversion, there's also a visibility aspect, and we hear lots of positive feedback from agents there as well, which is we're not selling contacts. We're selling visibility. There are also a lot of agents who ... it replaces the bus stop or the park bench.
Daimler: Right! These consumers who come to Zillow all the time, who are looking in the same ZIP code for their next home, or dreaming, when they see the same agent over and over again, even if they're not contacting an agent at that moment, that occupies some brain space.
It's like, "Oh Austin. There's Austin!" Then when they're ready to do something, it might not be that they contact Austin through Zillow, but just that you're top of mind for them because they've seen you out there in their real estate space and they're like, "Oh Austin, of course. I know Austin. I'm going to contact Austin."
Smith: "That creepy guy on the benches."
Daimler: Right, so I think it even moves outside of that direct contact and into just that branding and visibility aspect as well.
Lantz: They see you. They see Austin, with all of your reviews and your past sides, so there's now real data that's behind your picture on the park bench. Over time, that give consumers confidence to contact you whenever they're ready.
Smith: Transparency in both directions.
Philips: I think the other thing that ... though we don't release conversion numbers, we hear from agents all the time that they want to buy more exposure on Zillow, so we feel pretty confident that we're delivering a ton of value to agents, particularly agents who are very focused on responsiveness and client service.
We do a lot to encourage agents to respond to clients very quickly, to give them the information that they want, and that works.
Smith: A hybrid question for the two of you; the Doug Elliman relationship that you have in New York seems very unique. First of all it's a unique market, but also as far as the Zillow broker relationship goes, it seems very unique.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the only agents you show on those listing are Doug Elliman agents?
Daimler: Douglas Elliman, yes. We call that "Featured" listings on Zillow. That's separate from StreetEasy, so it's on the Zillow website where, yes, that partnership is only Douglas Elliman are on there, listing.
Smith: How does that pave the way for agent and broker relationships going forward in 2015? Is that something Zillow's going to borrow at large and make more standardized? Have you seen that successful? Is it only successful because New York is such a unique market? I'm curious how that scales for the rest of the organization, since it seems like that's what selling agents would really prefer.
Daimler: I think it's both market-specific, and also brokerage-specific. Just dovetailing off what Kathleen said, the thing we care most about is responsiveness and that if someone does contact someone via one of our platforms, the agent gets back to them.
When you partner up with great firms like Douglas Elliman, you have great confidence that when someone's on a listing and they contact them, that they will get a response back, and that's great. We win, our consumers win, Douglas Elliman wins, so that's great.
Yes, from a market perspective, I do think that New York is different in that it's a very unique and complex place. We have these co-ops where, if you don't know what the co-op package looks like, and board package, how that works, you might not be as successful helping a buyer through that process than if you really know that property as well.
I think there are lots of things at play there. We also, though, see in certain instances where consumers also react better to choice. There are lots of dueling pieces, and I think it just depends on the properties and the markets.
Sometimes we see consumers are more apt to contact agents when they have three agents to choose from, because they feel like, "I have choice, so I choose this one." It all depends.
Smith: Interesting. Kathleen, building off that, any sort of standardization or any things you would take from the Doug Elliman/New York setup to Zillow at large?
Philips: No. We have a limited number of similar arrangements on Zillow at large, outside of New York, but as Susan said we consider those partnerships very carefully to make sure that we are partnering up with very high quality brokerages so that, as Susan points out, consumers who come to us and want to contact an agent get a call back.
As Susan pointed out, in some situations it's better for consumers to have a choice, to see the ratings and reviews, to be able to select among a panel of agents -- and in certain circumstances we feel it's a better consumer experience to offer a single option.
That said, a consumer never really has a single option because we have so many other ways they can find an agent, whether it's looking on another property, looking in our directory. Consumers come time and time again to Zillow so, as we pointed out, people would see Austin every day if they were looking in your ZIP code.
Smith: They don't want that! Your conversions are not going any good place if that's the standard!
Looking forward to 2015, you mention you're bringing a lot of new talent onboard to the Zillow family. What other things are you really excited about in the year ahead in the market at large, Zillow as a company, or both?
Philips: I'm certainly excited about the listings platform that we talked about. We have long sought to have direct connections and direct feeds for our listings, so I'm really excited about that.
We're very, very excited about StreetEasy, of course. New York is such a terrific market and we feel we have the best product offering you could possibly have in New York.
Our other area of focus really is rentals. We've invested really heavily in rentals, in building a wide variety of product features and advertising opportunities so that renters know that Zillow is the place to come, whether they're looking on Zillow, on HotPads, or on StreetEasy.
Smith: I'm just curious, from an internal perspective, given the turnover and the frequency with which people move in rentals versus selling, what is the net value of an impression? Is it higher or lower on one platform or the other given the frequency of turnover, or are you still figuring all that out?
Philips: Gosh, that is so far beyond my expertise! For us, by and large, they're different consumers. There is some overlap in shoppers who are what we call "dual shopping" for rentals and sales.
Our focus on rentals is not so much a trade-off between one revenue model versus another. It's providing consumers with the broadest possible choices, depending upon where they are in their home ownership/rental life cycle.
As we all probably experience, most young people start off as renters and eventually, hopefully, become buyers. It's a different market.
Daimler: Also, rentals are different across every single DMA as well, so you have broker markets -- New York, San Francisco, where a contact or a property, you can only have a broker to go see it -- is very different than maybe in Florida, where you can show up and see it on your own. All those factors play in as well, so it's hard to make any generalizations across the board.
Philips: Yes. The other thing about the rental market that is really interesting from a Zillow perspective is, because we do have the living database of all homes -- we have a home profile page for nearly every home in the United States -- in markets where the rentals tend to be more single family homes, we have a terrific platform on which a landlord who owns one or two or five investment properties can market their property in a really neat way, because the home profile is already there.
Smith: Makes sense. Erin, 2015. What do we have to look forward to in the mortgage space -- and this is the time for reckless predictions!
Lantz: When it comes to mortgage rates, they're all reckless predictions!
Smith: When it comes to mortgage rates, we will have crystal balls and oracles.
Lantz: This year we think that rates will actually rise. How high and how quickly is very much an open question. Personally, I don't think rates will reach 5%, but I don't think they need to, to continue this mentality shift that the world is going to be a purchase market for lenders, and we're excited about that.
Even in the height of the refi boom, Zillow was always about purchase mortgages because most of our consumers are coming to a mortgage platform from Zillow, where they're looking to buy homes.
It's great for us and great for the industry for lenders to get smart about how to engage with the purchase consumer, how to build relationships with real estate agents, and shift their business model that way because it's very different than other finance transactions.
We think that will happen, more so, in 2015. Then from our business perspective, 2015 is more about execution on the initiatives that really took hold in 2014. Again, the big banks are really excited about scaling up and broadening our relationships with even more of them, and then deepening our relationships with the ones that we do have.
On preapproval, we feel like we're just getting started there, but we feel like we've cracked the code in a new way to connect consumers with lenders and we're really excited about where that's going to go.
Smith: It seems like, for most of Zillow's history, you have operated in a decreasing rate environment, probably, in aggregate? How does a return to higher rates affect the things that you work on? Do the higher rates push people to not seek out more mortgages?
I'm curious about the dynamics; as a middle man between the banks and the lender, how higher rates affect you.
Lantz: Rates impact the industry at large very significantly. The refi market is highly sensitive to the rate environment, obviously.
We've always been a purchase business, so although we're more so that as rates rise and will continue to skew even more purchase, we're pretty insulated from that volatility so it doesn't impact us on a day-to-day basis very much.
That said, it impacts our clients because most of our clients, though they get most of their purchase traffic from us, they're still getting a bunch of refi traffic elsewhere in the market. The more rates rise, the more that transition becomes real for them, and there are transition costs.
Some lenders are not doing well in that transition, and others will thrive. There's going to be flux, and we're going to have to deal with lenders that are falling out of the market.
As the market size shrinks there will be lenders that leave, and consolidation is going to pick up further. We're already seeing that. Short term that has some negative consequences, even for us, but we're not particularly concerned about it because our focus has always been purchase.
Smith: I'm curious if you could comment on who you see taking out mortgages. If I recall, I've seen Dr. Humphries release a lot of information about younger home buyers who want to buy homes but they weren't able to the last few years, due to the economy.
What are you seeing on your end, as far as the demographics of people who are taking out loans? Are we seeing it skew younger, skew older? I'm just curious what that makeup looks like, and when we'll see a return of first-time home buyers to the market in scale.
Lantz: We haven't done our own first-time home buyer analysis recently. From a macro perspective, we see that the first-time home buyer percentage has declined. We haven't seen huge variety. We always look at this, looking for a good story to come tell you, but I don't have a great story around really noteworthy demographic shifts in who's buying a home.
Smith: That works for me! New York in 2015; obviously a unique market for many reasons. What's most exciting?
Daimler: On the StreetEasy brand front, I'm really excited. You're going to start seeing more of a personality from us, which I think is wonderful. For a long time, StreetEasy has been a very utilitarian brand, all focused on data.
There was always a concern of, if we stretch that into a little bit more of a personality or voice, what would that do? We've been testing that in 2014 and the results have been amazing. The consumers are really, really receptive, so looking forward to more of that, which would be in our platforms, in blogs, and things like that. I think that's going to really connect us even closer with our buyers and our sellers.
Then, aside from that, also things I'm really excited about are more products that are agent-focused. We have an incredible number of people.
If you're looking for a home to rent or buy or sell, you come to StreetEasy in New York. It is the dominant brand, and we're going to have some new ways in 2015 for agents to connect with those buyers, sellers, renters, that I think is going to be really beneficial for all those folks so I'm really, really excited about that.
Smith: Wonderful. It sounds like an exciting year ahead. Thank you all for taking the time to meet. Fools, thanks for tuning in, and Fool on!