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Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman Talks About Real Estate Disruption

Motley Fool - Sun Sep 3, 2023

Redfin is trying to meet customers on multiple fronts, from renting studio apartments to selling $5 million homes.

Glenn Kelman has been CEO of Redfin since 2005, guiding the real estate technology company through a variety of transitions, taking the company public in 2017, and navigating plenty of market cycles along the way.

Motley Fool host Deidre Woollard sat down with Glenn to discuss:

  • The challenges of the current real estate market
  • How Redfin plans to take share in the luxury space
  • What value two recent acquisitions have added to the business

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 27, 2023

Glenn Kelman: I probably call two or three high-end customers every weekend just to reassure them that the CEO of the company cares about the sale of their home. That we know that we're not the longest-standing luxury brand, and that just means we have to try harder.

Deidre Woollard: I'm Deidre Woollard and that's Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Redfin. A company that is at the forefront of real estate disruption. You may have seen the company's ads on television or spotted its for sale signs in your neighborhood. At least Glenn hopes you have. In our interview, we chatted about what it will take to get more homes on the market, Redfin's new tests with agents, and the success of some recent acquisitions. I'm excited to talk to you because you have weathered so many tough times in the real estate market. Exactly. We're in one now that is interesting. What are some of the similarities and some of the differences from what you've seen before?

Glenn Kelman: Well, I was the CEO of Redfin in 2008 when the great financial crisis destroyed the global economy, and the difference this time is that people are not selling homes short or not going through foreclosures. That may take longer as a result because there is such an inventory shortage in the U.S. right now. So, many people are sitting on 2.5%, 3% mortgages, and they're not going to sell for a decade or more. So home prices collapsed in 2008, but not this time. The only thing that's collapsed is sales volume, which, of course, is most important to Redfin or any other real estate broker. I think the other change, of course, is that we are a public company, we're operating on a larger scale, and so we're going through these wild ups and downs in public with everyone able to see all the transformation that we've gone through. But long-term, I just believe that this will leave us as a stronger company. We were growing too fast in 2021, in 2022, just trying to keep up with a pandemic-crazed housing market. Now, I think we're in a better position to take share, both online when we compete against realtor.com, homes.com, and zillow.com and as a brokerage when we compete against Remax, or Keller Williams, or Compass.

Deidre Woollard: It's definitely an interesting time. What you mentioned with the inventory, I read a stat that said about 91% of the mortgages are under 5%. People don't have that incentive to move. Like you said, it's probably not going to change anytime soon. Is there anything that you think could change that? Is there a chance that mortgage rates will drop lower than we are forecasting and expecting?

Glenn Kelman: Well, not in 2023. My expectation is that rates will stay above 7% for the balance of the year. At some point in 2024, we can hope that the Federal Reserve will ease up on interest rates, and then mortgages will come down. There are long-term reasons that we may not see a 3% mortgage again, but just going down to 5% would make a huge difference for consumers. One of the most striking aspects of the housing market this year is just how rate-sensitive buyers have been. When rates come down just a little bit, the buyers immediately come out of the woodwork and start looking at houses again. Even going from 6.9% to 7.4%, those buyers step back. That is probably the most important change. It's just what the Federal Reserve does to interest rates. Maybe the other is that over time, there's just pent-up demand because housing is a basic need, people do need to move. They go through deaths in the family, divorces, they relocate, they just want a different life, and they can put that off for six months or 12 months but not forever, and so we'll be there when they need us. At this point, though, there doesn't seem to be much room for sales volume to decline further than it is at around 4.1, 4.2 million units, maybe it goes to 4 million units. But then you'd really be far outside of any historical norm, even when the population was 10%, 15% smaller a decade ago.

Deidre Woollard: I want to talk about something new that you're trying at Redfin. You talked about it a little bit on the earnings call. I find this really interesting. So you're testing out this new strategy in Los Angeles and San Francisco. You said you're giving the lion's share of the commission on self-sourced sales, but you're keeping more of the commission on the Redfin-sourced sales. I have to know, what does lion's share mean in terms of the commission? Is your goal here that you are basically recruiting the top performers from other brokerages?

Glenn Kelman: Yeah, well, the goal is to just be very acquisitive about talent because I think every traditional brokerage has been hoping that Redfin wouldn't offer people a compelling commission split for self-sourced sales. Now, we really don't make agents choose between that high split for self-sourced sales and the other major asset that they want, which is access to more customers. Giving agents the best of both worlds should let us recruit more agents and should let us recruit top-notch agents, which is especially important in some of these luxury markets where the median home price is above a million dollars. We haven't worked out the exact commission split. I actually wrote that line about the lion's share, and it was hard for me to write because I think Richard Kipling actually believes the lion's share is 100%. that there's one percentage because the lion is the king of the jungle. Then there's another percent, which is just the lion is the lion, and he can kill any other animal that he wants. [laughs]. It's not going to be 100%, but generally, the splits and traditional brokerages are somewhere between 60%-80% depending on an agent's tenure. Our goal is to be competitive there so that if you say, well, I've got six or seven deals that I think I can close on my own, and I still want to make money from those, but I also feel I could do double that or triple that if I were working with Redfin. We want you to be able to do that without worrying about the trade-offs.

Deidre Woollard: Well, and that's interesting, too, because I used to work in real estate brokerages, actually in Los Angeles. I saw a lot of agents that would come to the brokerage that was I working at, would come from Redfin after a couple of years because they've learned so much, and so they would be these fantastic agents. But they would move on as they evolved. So is that part of what your strategy is here?

Glenn Kelman: It is. Historically, our trouble with agent attrition has been limited to agents who are fairly new to Redfin, where we've been able to recruit people who are new to the industry and some of them workouts, some of them don't. Once an agent has established herself, is successful at Redfin, her attrition rates are extremely low. LA is an example of a market where that wasn't the case. Part of it may have been just the culture of our LA market and the leadership that we've had there. Part of it might be the home prices are just so high in LA and San Francisco that agents just do the math about what they can make out of traditional brokers. That's why we're trying it in those two markets. Retaining top agents has always been important to us and we should do better there in these coastal markets. It hasn't been the number one priority elsewhere because, mostly, retention rates have been really good for high-producing Redfin agents.

Deidre Woollard: Well, I've noticed that Redfin is capturing more of the luxury shares. I'm in Alexandria, Virginia, now and I've seen more Redfin signs on some beautiful high-end homes. Is that also part of the strategy here?

Glenn Kelman: It is. Redfin really has been a middle-class phenomenon and housing has increasingly become a luxury go. We've always done well at $500,000 to $1 million dollar homes. Now, most homes in some of these coastal markets are above that price. So we need to figure out a different way to appeal to luxury customers. Some of that is more individualized service and some of that is just a different profile of agent. But we have been doing better even with the talent that we have today. There are many great agents working at Redfin. Some of it is just changing the website to reassure customers that if you work with us and you're trying to sell a $5 million house, we are going to move heaven and Earth to get that home sold. I'd probably call two or three high-end customers every weekend just to reassure them that the CEO of the company cares about the sale of their home. That we know that we're not the longest-standing luxury brand. That just means we have to try harder. We're going to put their home on the homepage of our website. Every single person and sales management is getting to be involved to make sure that we never miss a beat. It's just going to be an all-out effort to go at the high end. We're starting from almost nothing there. Two, three million dollar homes. We have a very tiny fraction of the market, but that is growing really fast, and we feel like we're on the attack, which is always exciting.

Deidre Woollard: It is. One of the services that you've talked about before from the high-end market is the Redfin concierge. So the idea is that you could prepare the home for market with all the updates and all the staging, take that out of the seller's hands. How is that working now? Is that something that you're putting a lot of effort into?

Glenn Kelman: It's good? It's just hard to scale. So being a general contractor is a hard, low-margin business. But getting a house fixed up and selling it for top dollar is a really lucrative business. What we found is that there are a small number of updates that when you perform them really well, have an incredible return on investment both for the homeowner and the broker. Overwhelmingly, our concierge customers are very happy. They feel like we've done something that other brokers couldn't do by owning these renovations, being the general contractor, having all the bills come to us, and then taking the cost of that out of escrow instead of making the customer pay upfront. The challenge is just doing that well for 10,000 homes and not just 500 or 1,000 every quarter or whatever the number might be. We're looking at ways to delight customers with a concierge service that's easier to scale. I think that's the simplest way to describe the conundrum. It's a great service, but we want to offer it to more people.

Deidre Woollard: Interesting. It is hard to scale updates and things like that.

Glenn Kelman: Well, it's just also hard to get it done in two or three weeks. You got to put on a new lawn, and paint the walls, and tear up the carpet, and update it. I think, though, the intellectual property we've developed over time, we used to do the most dingbat oversized renovations, where there was no way the customer could get our money back, and now we know exactly how to modernize the home and just put new knobs on the cabinets and a new type of hose and a sink to have it look like it's not from the 1980s, but it's from the current decade. That can cost only a few hundred or 1,000 bucks, but it still makes $10,000, $20,000 worth of difference in the sale price if the kitchen looks modern.

Deidre Woollard: Is that one of the lessons you got from the iBuying experiment?

Glenn Kelman: Somewhat. iBuying was generally lower-priced homes so we were fixing up three $400,000 homes, and here we're doing $1 million, $2 million dollar homes. Not all of the lessons transfer, but many of them do. When we were first doing iBuying, we were over renovating homes. It just feels different when you're the one. It shouldn't feel different, but it does when you are the one paying to over-renovate it. Often now I'll talk to customers who say, my home isn't selling, I want another open house, I want another mailer. I just harken back to buy experience when we owned the asset, when we were the seller of the property and the agent, we never thought that way. We just thought we either needed to invest in the property or lower the price. That's given us more standing when we talk to our customers about what's really going to make a difference. Usually, since people don't want to lower their price, we need to make their house look better. Right now, there are only three types of sales. Which bucket do you want your listing to be? No. 1, you can be the sexiest house on the block. No. 2, you can be the cheapest. No. 3, you can be the one that sits there forever, and nobody wants to be No. 3.

Deidre Woollard: No.

Glenn Kelman: Usually you don't want to be No. 2 either.

Deidre Woollard: No.

Glenn Kelman: So let's go sexy.

Deidre Woollard: I love that. Well, I wanted to also chat with you about your use of partner agents. With Redfin, I've been watching this. These are the agents that aren't the Redfin agents, they get referrals from your site. This has sort of added some optionality and flexibility. You said on the call you're ramping up use of partner agents. I think it was from 37% to 55%.

Glenn Kelman: A couple of years.

Deidre Woollard: Is this going to be a static number over time, or do you think that's going to expand and contract with the market?

Glenn Kelman: Well, it will definitely expand and contract with the market. It is impossible to have fixed costs agents with mid margins in a highly cyclical seasonal business. It's worthwhile to try to have fixed costs where you invest in the salary and benefits for your agents in part because you want to be a good employee or a good partner to the agents and recruit the best talent. But in part because it also gives you the standing to have a higher margin than most brokerages. Most brokerages have single-digit operating margins and I think we can do better. But you just left high and dry when the market receipts and you employ too many people, it's why we had two layoffs over the course of 2022. Now we're trying to build a more resilient business by sending more demand to partners so that when there is a demand shortfall, the partners feel it before our employees do. It used to be that when a third of demand was going to partners, we thought we were safe, but it turns out that there are swings in the market that are more violent than that. Giving ourselves more cushion is helpful, but it also lets our employees focus on the most lucrative listings where there's just a higher margin. If you're trying to make money as a broker, selling homes in the rural parts of Washington estate where it might be Mobile-homes trading for $80,000 a year. There's just not much margin in that. But if you can focus your employees on $1 million, $2 million homes, there is. I think there are a bunch of reasons that moving to a more partner-driven model actually not only drives the partner business in the obvious way but also makes the employee business more lucrative. Just what's been painful about doing that this year. It's usually you bring more demand to yourself when there's a housing downturn. Instead what we've done and said, even in this downturn, we want to rebalance the business and get to a place where partners are handling about half the demand.

Deidre Woollard: That partner business, it sounds like it varies across different markets. You'll be having more employees in some markets and less in others?

Glenn Kelman: That's true too. There are some markets where we just don't have the density of demand, so our website traffic might be very low in Alabama and we might be more partner-driven there because if you're generating one or two opportunities per month, that's not enough to sustain an employee, but it is enough to sustain a partner. Especially when that demand is less lucrative, it makes more sense to use a partner. We still depend either way on whether we get a closing because we're not being paid upfront for the introduction. Instead, the partner pays us at closing when then introduction leads to an actual sale. That means that it's just really important for us to use everything we've learned running our employee business to make our partner business work because there are all sorts of shenanigans you can play on our website to get more people to ask to meet an agent, and many of them might not be serious. That looks like it'll be an increase in revenue, but actually, it's just incredibly wasteful of an agent's time and, ultimately, destructive for shareholders because we're paying that agent. Partners appreciate that experience because they know that we work with our inquiries as employees. That means the inquiries have to be good.

Deidre Woollard: At the end, Redfin, especially my experience in Los Angeles, was that people love the app. It didn't matter if the brokerage had its own app, the Redfin experience was so much better. As you keep driving traffic to the website and to the app, what things are you thinking about that might make it more appealing as time goes on? Are you thinking about different types of home tours or incorporated? What are you looking at?

Glenn Kelman: Well, there are two main initiatives. One is artificial intelligence and the other is the integration of agents expertise into the online experience. We already use artificial intelligence to estimate what our home is worth. I think it's the most accurate in the industry. We also use it for recommendations where we suggest homes that you might like. It turns out that our suggestions are often better than the search results you asked for. People are more likely to want a tour and even buy a home that we've suggested than to see a home that they've asked to see. Those recommendations have been really successful and sometimes lead to these really fun results where people will say, "You're suggesting that I move to San Diego; I had no intention of moving to San Diego." Then we say, "You ought to talk to your wife; she's been browsing there," [laughs] sent your suggestion. But obviously now with large language models, there are exciting new ways to answer more realistic questions and we can use that technology to improve the online search experience, but also to make the labor-driven part of the business more efficient. My hope is that we can guide people through the whole home-buying process better using artificial intelligence. But our other challenge is just to make vertical integration pay for the people using our side. Most of the people using redfin.com have no idea that we handle the whole transaction that we have agents hosting tours and writing offers and listing properties. But all of that expertise, if it is going to be housed under the same roof with the company making the website how to show up on the website, and so our goal would be just to take what age it's learn, walking through houses and writing offers and guiding people through the process to say, here are my favorite homes in Venice. Here's what I think houses are really trading for right now. This is an example of something that I've never seen before that just happened. Our agents send a lot of emails like that out to their customers, but everybody should be able to see it. I think it will make our site more compelling in the search indexes, like Google and Microsoft, so that we rank higher and get more traffic, but I also think it'll just be better if the people are using the site, so that's the hope. Those are the main two strategies to make the search experience better.

Deidre Woollard: Thinking about that other aspect of the business, you've got the lending business with Bay Equity. You've talked a little bit before about some of the low attach rates in some of the markets, which is how many Redfin buyers are getting a Bay Equity mortgage so obviously with the morgue, it's a tough business to be in the mortgage business right now but as things get better and you think about the attach rate, what strategies are you looking at for that aspect of the business?

Glenn Kelman: Well, first of all, I'm mostly pleased by the attach rate. I'd tell you where the business is doing well and where it's doing poorly. Maybe over the past quarter attach rates haven't increased as fast as they were over the first five or six since the acquisition of Bay Equity, but getting to about a 20% attach rate is great and we think it can go to 30% just because we have so many large markets that are in that range. To continue driving it some of it is just sales execution, but some of that is also reimagining how the home buying experience works because so many people start looking for a home before they know what they can afford, and it becomes this game of telephone tag between the broker and the lender and the consumer over where should we be looking and what price range should we be at and so putting those people together and having them work is true partners, I think isn't just a monetization opportunity where we can get two transactions out of the same customer, it's also just a way to see the whole elephant for the customer to get the money and to get the house is quiet a trick. Pulling that off means that we just had to integrate the two companies better and better. But that deal, I'm just so glad we did it. I know that lenders aren't going to make a lot of money over the next year or two because rates are so high and Redfin is dead, but the synergy between the two companies, the culture between the two companies, is fantastic. Sometimes when you buy a company, you just think a year later, OMG, what have I done? I feel exactly the opposite. I do that deal every single year.

Deidre Woollard: I love that. What was it about the two cultures that felt right to you?

Glenn Kelman: Well, we just kissed a lot of frogs when we were evaluating lenders that we could potentially buy, and I was the one doing the kissing, and at some point, I became pretty squeamish about it because most of the lenders don't actually care about putting the customer first. They're just trying to turn them upside down and shake as many nickels out of their pocket as they can. And finding somebody who really prided themselves on amazing local service and putting the customer first and recommending the right loan that's right for that family, instead of the one with the highest margin, meant that we could, in good conscience, drive attach rate because if it's a captive business where you have to recommend that lender, but you actually think the lenders are slime ball, who's offering confiscatory rates. That gets hard to ask your sales force to do, especially when your whole mission is to redefine real estate and consumers favor us so we just found a lender that was a really values-driven lender, that was also extremely frugal because every penny you spend is customers money and one that I thought had really good sales and stinks, Redfin has become more sales-driven over time, we want to have an incredible website, but an incredible sales force too and having Bay Equity talk to us about how they motivate their salespeople, how they manage their salespeople has been eye-opening. Most companies, when you buy them, start worrying less about the bottom line, they start becoming less frugal. But Bay Equity, if anything has become more frugal. You don't have to tell them to reduce their costs, to manage their overhead, they do it on their own and that discipline has been fantastic.

Deidre Woollard: The other company that you bought then, and you guys don't do a lot of acquisitions, but you also bought RentPath, and you've been developing that whole business, and it seems like it's going great for you. It's headed toward break-even, which is lovely to see. How else do you see that business evolving and how does it fit with the rest of the Redfin business?

Glenn Kelman: Well, there are two acquisitions that we did now we're talking about the second one. The mortgage acquisition was to support the whole transaction and Rent or RentPath, as it was once called, is really to build a complete housing destination so we really can't compete simply as a for-sale site. The biggest real estate websites are going to offer both for-sale listings and rental listings. Having surpassed all the for-sale-only websites, the only ones ahead of us are realtor.com and zillow.com, and we knew that CoStar was also coming into the business with both for-sale and rental listings, so that just becomes the cost of competition. If you want your shot at the title, if you want to go after the biggest prize, you've got to take the chance and put all the listings on your website because otherwise, people meet your brand when they turn 35 and they finally have enough money to buy a house, but they spend the first 15 years of their adult lives on apartments.com or zillow.com or even realtor.com. One reason that we've been so confident that our traffic is going to keep growing is because we now have two types of listing instead of one on redfin.com. We felt that RentPath had these rental listings but didn't understand search engine optimization, didn't understand how to build traffic, didn't understand user retention. All the different ways you can use artificial intelligence to keep people engaged on the site so we just thought that we had a lot to add to their listings, but we needed their listings. It was a match made in heaven. The problem with that deal was just how much money the company was losing, it came out of bankruptcy, it had to do a lot of cost restructuring and you feel like you can be really patient when interest rates are very low, capital is cheap, but within months of our buying them, capital became really expensive and we had to put the hammer down and say, hey, let's bring this to profitability faster and getting there this year, where last month they were a few months or 50,000 bucks shy of adjusted EBITDA break-even and they said they're going to get there by the end of the year and it looks like they will. Thank god because it was just a huge tax on the business. It was draining our coffers. Real Estate Services was throwing off all this money and it was paying for other businesses throughout the pandemic and now that housing is in a jam having something that's counter-cyclical, it actually can help us in the core business is fantastic.

Deidre Woollard: I will wrap it up with one last question. I've been an investor in Redfin. What do you want me and the other investors to know?

Glenn Kelman: Keep the faith. We're busting our tails for you. I know that it's been a wild ride, that there have been some ups and downs, but this is a company that has taken share every single quarter that we've been in business until this most recent downturn and we're going to come out of its stronger than ever, so we just think we've built a much bigger platform with both brokerage and mortgage, with both rentals and for-sale listings, and investors can reap that return. You could just give us a little bit of time to power through it. We'll keep powering thanks to the support.

Deidre Woollard: Thanks, Glenn.

Deidre Woollard: As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. I'm Deidre Woollard. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Deidre Woollard has positions in Alphabet, CoStar Group, Microsoft, Redfin, and Zillow Group. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Alphabet, CoStar Group, Microsoft, Redfin, and Zillow Group. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: short November 2023 $12 calls on Redfin. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Paid Post: Content produced by Motley Fool. The Globe and Mail was not involved, and material was not reviewed prior to publication.

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