Disrupted Disrupters

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COVID-19 is causing the iBuyers’ business model to stall

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With COVID-19 spreading, the iBuying frenzy seems to be fading fast. Commerce is slowing and even closing in some locations, especially major cities, making it difficult for iBuyers to determine fair prices for homes. Zillow, Redfin, Opendoor and Offerpad have all withdrawn from the iBuying market for the time being.

The only company not putting on the brakes seems to be HomeVestors, the “We Buy Ugly Houses” company that was in the iBuying space before that term became cool. The companies recently occupying this space never made it to South Carolina, but we saw “We Buy Ugly Houses” signs on telephone poles throughout the state, even in the most rural areas.

Some economists are speculating that COVID-19 may put a nail in the coffin of the “institutional fix-and flip” business model of those companies recently entering the market. The model was considered risky in the best of times. In times of economic uncertainty, it becomes even riskier. Safely buying a home at 95% of the market value requires confidence that the market won’t drop substantially.

HomeVestors, on the other hand, is attempting to grow by selling franchises and advertising that it remains in the market that others are leaving.

Other economists and some of the companies themselves are arguing that iBuying is a viable alternative in a market where it’s difficult to show homes and hold open houses. At this point, the correct answer is anybody’s guess.

The retreat of Zillow, Redfin, Opendoor and Offerpad before they even reach South Carolina is good news to South Carolina closing attorneys and real estate agents who view the iBuying phenomenon as another disruption to our business model as well as another possible means of dilution of control over residential closings by attorneys.

It sounds as if, for now, truly ugly houses may be the only ones subject to iBuying in South Carolina. The disrupters have been disrupted by economic uncertainty.

What’s going on with iBuying during the COVID-19 chaos?

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This blog has discussed the spread of iBuyers, entities that make offers over the Internet to home sellers in certain residential markets. These sales take place with much less fuss and inconvenience than sales in the normal real estate market. What’s the catch? The sales price may be lower than the price that would have been obtained in the normal selling process. Sellers had to weigh convenience and price.

While we’ve seen the reach of the iBuyers (Opendoor, Offerpad, Zillow Offers and Redfin) spread to our neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina, we have not yet seen the phenomenon reach into South Carolina.

I refer you to the April 3 article from Forbes that reports Opendoor, Offerpad, Zillow Offers and Redfin have all put their online buying on hold since the first COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.

Interestingly, though, another company may be stepping up to fill this space. We’ve all seen the sign “We Buy Ugly Houses” posted on light poles, even in very small towns in South Carolina, for many years.

The Forbes article reports that the company behind those signs, HomeVestors, is transitioning to a virtual process and is continuing to buy houses across the nation. The article also reports that HomeVestors is opening new franchises to expand business further.

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This expansion may be good news to homeowners who are losing their jobs during this crisis and may need to sell their homes to remain financially solvent.

The article quotes the president of HomeVestors who said that nearly half of home sales traditionally occur between March and June, but the safety measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus may have significant impact on that market this year. HomeVestors is attempting to step into that market. The company hopes to provide some peace and continuity in this uncharted territory, according to the article.