I'm not just a bear this week. I'm also a dissatisfied patron. When I first wrote about HouseValues
I logged in to HouseValues.com and went through the paces. I had to. The landing page was a gateway to three pages of cumbersome queries. The 31 questions along the way bordered on the intrusive. Why should I provide a phone number? Why is one question answerable only if you concede to sell your house in a year or less? Why did I jump through all of those hoops without any instant gratification?
My experience isn't necessarily indicative of the HouseValues process, but I wound up with an estimate eventually, along with a string of emails that were ultimately fed into my spam filter topped by an unsolicited photographer snapping a picture of my home.
That's just creepy.
The whole process didn't sit well in my book, and that was with me knowing all along that HouseValues is just a scam in a consumer-friendly disguise for generating local leads for real estate agents.
If I want a real market-value estimate of my home, I'll hire an appraiser. At the very least, I would turn to a recommended real estate broker over the blind lead of someone willing to pay HouseValues for the personal information that I submitted. If I want to be just two entry fields away from a ballpark figure of what my home is worth, I now have sites like Zillow that can automatically look up property details without making me feel hoodwinked or cheated.
Naturally, if all I had was a personal rant about a model, I'd be standing on pretty flimsy ground. I'm not alone, though. IAC/InterActiveCorp's
Connect the dots, and you see an industry that is being demystified just as lofty brokerage commissions are being pressured. I know this stance is likely going to fire up the outgoing email of some really great and respectable real estate agents whose very lives depend on these commissions, but do me and my inbox a favor: Either open your eyes or get back to me in three years.
See, I'm not going to argue that a cooling housing market will be HouseValues' death knell. That's a cyclical argument, and it's inaccurate. A dearth of activity may actually help companies like HouseValues and Move
Don't just take my word for it. HouseValues let investors know as much when it hosed down its 2006 targets three months ago. Analysts were expecting earnings to clock in at $0.69 a share on a 50% top-line spurt. But then HouseValues warned that it would be growing revenue at half that rate and that earnings would drop to a range of $0.24 to $0.30 per share.
This is a broken model. I doubt that Rich will convince me otherwise this week. And because you can trick someone only once, HouseValues is spending more to bid on sponsored keywords through search engine contextual marketing programs and by launching costly television ad campaigns. That's why eyeball acquisition costs will only grow for HouseValues.
The company has other secondary growth vehicles in HomePages, JustListed, and its acquisition of TheLoanPage. Briefly, TheLoanPage is a poor man's clone of IAC/InterActiveCorp's Lending Tree. HomePages has a slick interface but lacks the depth of listings found at countless better sites. JustListed is a slightly more clever baiting system than HouseValues, but it suffers from the same flawed premise.
Rich may point out that HouseValues has a cash-rich balance sheet -- and he's right -- but the stock would have to shed another two-thirds of its value before we begin weighing the merit of the greenery mattress.
Nobody, save for Rich, has something nice to say about HouseValues these days. Perhaps that's why it's been more than half a year since the company has added a third-party news story to its press center.
Maybe Rich will make the cut this week. Maybe snippets of the Motley Fool Hidden Gems buy recommendation from Tom Gardner will make the cut. But time will prove that Rich is better than this, that Tom's average Hidden Gems pick will trounce the market (despite this disappointing selection), and that I will suffer painful splinters in hammering down a "For Sale" sign on my lawn before I ever let a shutterbug-happy HouseValues-referred broker near my property again.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't interested in selling his home, even if he recognizes that the once red-hot South Florida market is cooling off quickly. He does not own shares in any of the stocks mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.