Zillow sought pricing predictability in the supposedly predictable market of Phoenix

With Zillow stopping its iBuyer initiative, here are more details about how the Phoenix housing market was key to the plan:

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Tech firms chose the Phoenix area because of its preponderance of cookie-cutter homes. Unlike Boston or New York, the identikit streets make pricing properties easier. iBuyers’ market share in Phoenix grew from around 1 percent in 2015—when tech companies first entered the market—to 6 percent in 2018, says Tomasz Piskorski of Columbia Business School, who is also a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Piskorski believes iBuyers—Zillow included—have grown their share since, but are still involved in less than 10 percent of all transactions in the city…

Barton told analysts that the premise of Zillow’s iBuying business was being able to forecast the price of homes accurately three to six months in advance. That reflected the time to fix and sell homes Zillow had bought…

In Phoenix, the problem was particularly acute. Nine in 10 homes Zillow bought were put up for sale at a lower price than the company originally bought them, according to an October 2021 analysis by Insider. If each of those homes sold for Zillow’s asking price, the company would lose $6.3 million. “Put simply, our observed error rate has been far more volatile than we ever expected possible,” Barton admitted. “And makes us look far more like a leveraged housing trader than the market maker we set out to be.”…

To make the iBuying program profitable, however, Zillow believed its estimates had to be more precise, within just a few thousand dollars. Throw in the changes brought in by the pandemic, and the iBuying program was losing money. One such factor: In Phoenix and elsewhere, a shortage of contractors made it hard for Zillow to flip its homes as quickly as it hoped.

It sounds like the rapid sprawling growth of Phoenix in recent decades made it attractive for trying to estimate and predict prices. The story above highlights cookie-cutter subdivisions and homes – they are newer and similar to each other – and I imagine this is helpful for models compared to older cities where there is more variation within and across neighborhoods. Take that critics of suburban ticky-tacky houses and conformity!

But, when conditions change – COVID-19 hits which then changes the behavior of buyers and sellers, contractors and the building trades, and other actors in the housing industry – that uniformity in housing was not enough to easily profit.

As the end of the article suggests, the algorithms could be changed or improved and other institutional buyers are also interested. Is this just a matter of having more data and/or better modeling? Could it all work for these companies outside of really unusual times? Or, perhaps there really are US or housing markets around the globe that are more predictable than others?

If suburban areas and communities are the places where this really takes off, the historical patterns of people making money off what are often regarded as havens for families and the American Dream may continue. Sure, homeowners may profit as their housing values increase over time but the bigger actors including developers, lenders, and real estate tech companies may be the ones who really benefit.

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