Consumer real estate portals

When people think about real estate tech, real estate portals usually come to mind. This is simply because they have massive audiences. Zillow’s portfolio of brands drives over 200M monthly unique users.The technology that powers these consumer platforms is impressive. But the product experience between portals is fairly similar. Two agent CRM apps can have a very different look and feel. But two major portals rarely have different features. The goal of these portals is often to capture user traffic. Then this traffic is converted to leads. Those leads are sold to agents or handled internally in Redfin's case.

Real estate portals solve a number of needs for consumers:

  • I want to find a home or learn what mine is worth
  • I want to buy or sell a home with an agent
  • I want to buy or sell a home without an agent
  • I want to find an agent who will help me buy or sell a home

For agents, portals generally serve one purpose. Agents usually search properties on the MLS. Because agents don't need to search for properties or agents on portals, they only need the following addressed:

  • I want more buyer and seller leads
The consumer experience on Zillow and Redfin are very similar. Sources: Zillow, Redfin

Home search portals

Consumer home search portals follow the same formula. They ingest data from the MLS, the source of the majority of listing content They also allow agents, consumers, and other listing platforms to post data. They then make some of this data searchable by filters and location. Detailed data is then displayed on detailed listing pages. This data is then supplemented with proprietary content and third-party data feeds.

The data flow and user experience across real estate portals is very similar. Every portal must capture listing data, make it searchable, and display it in a detailed way.

Data ingestion

The starting point of any consumer platform is the data powering it. The overwhelming majority of data on home search  platforms comes from MLS. But this isn’t one simple data feed. There are over 800 MLSs across the country. A national platform has to partner with each one-by-one. The portal then must ensure the data feed works properly. Most portals also partner with other sources of inventory not on the MLS. For example, a real estate portal may include feeds from home builders or national property management companies.

Most portals also have a self-service option for agents and sellers. For example, Zillow allows owners to post FSBO listings. This allows Zillow to access inventory directly from its own users and present unique data from other platforms. Portals that have iBuyer programs can also drive unique data. For example, Zillow Offers and Opendoor both post their own homes on their consumer portal. But unique listing data is still just a small fraction of the 5+ million listings annually that show up on most platforms.

Zillow allows owners to post their listings directly for sale. But most listing data comes from the MLS. Source: Zillow.

Listing search

The most familiar consumer experience on any real estate portal is the search. Twenty years ago, map-based search of real estate listings was unavailable to consumers. Now, this is available on hundreds. of sites. The core functionality is similar across platforms:

  • Search filters: after providing a geography, clients can filter and sort on almost any dimension. This can include property status, property type, time on market, or really anything.
  • Favorite listings: most portals allow you to flag listings as favorites. In some cases you then create a login for the site to save this list. Often these favorites power email notifications and side-by-side comparisons.
  • Map, list, and photo views: portals tend to provide a map view, a table with photos, and some combination of both. Usually in map views you can draw custom boundaries or enter commute times.

Real estate portals have a challenging task with search. They want to provide users with lots of customization. But data quality from each MLS varies considerably. And most users generally use very few filters. The most frequent searches will simply have bedroom counts and a price range. Many searches will have no criteria whatsoever. This is why most search experiences don't get overly granular. Listing quantity and basic display is what is most important to the majority of users.

Realtor.com has a standard side-by-side table and map view. Users can favorite properties they like and filter homes by different features. Source: Realtor.com.

Listing pages

Property detail listing pages are what users see once they click on a listing from searches. Virtually all detail pages include the following.

  • Photo slideshows: these are often pulled from the MLS but sometimes have unique pictures from the portal.
  • Property information: most portals will pull in every single datapoint possible to display on site. This includes the status of the home, the price, the source of the feed, and any listed datapoint on the home. Other MLS information like open house times may also be displayed.
  • Agent/property contact: virtually every platform will allow a consumer to submit an inquiry. Sometimes this goes directly to the listing agent. Other times it may go to a buyer agent who the portal partners with. Either way, this is typically where the portal generates revenue.

There are a lot of bells and whistles on portal listing pages that enhance the user experience. The goal of extra data is to get the user to engage with the platform more. More trust in and time spent on a platform usually results in more inquiries submitted. Below are some of the features listing pages can include.

  • Video and 3D walkthroughs: some portals go beyond basic MLS photos. They include video tours and 3D walkthroughs when available.
  • Automated valuation models: most portals have automated valuation models (AVMs) to help consumers assess home values.
  • Property activity on the platform: many platforms show how many visits a listing has received or how many tours have been scheduled. This creates a sense of urgency for users.
  • Payment calculators: most major portals include custom calculators to estimate payments. They use fee data along with sales price, loan type, and down payment information. From this, the calculator will show what a client would have to pay monthly if they purchase the property.
  • Direct tour scheduling: most portals simply allow for users to submit a general inquiry. Some allow consumers to schedule a specific time to request and a confirm a home tour with an available agent.
  • Price history: many portals store and display pricing history on each property. This includes any list price changes and prior sales prices.
  • Nearby schools: it is very common for portals to use school data from third party providers. This is usually something a portal itself won’t want to assess for legal reasons. But it is important to provide to users who often want to buy homes in specific school districts.
  • Local neighborhood information, market trends, and commute times: often there are maps or data visualizations showing more information on neighborhoods, businesses, and transit. These frequently rely on third-party data or user feedback. But some portals build this in-house or have acquired companies that do this.
  • Permits and documents: some portals include information on special permits and documents. This is often available through the MLS or state and county offices.
  • Similar homes and recently sold homes nearby: recommending similar homes helps consumers discover more homes they may be interested in on the portal. Usually recently sold homes are displayed to allow users to get a sense of pricing and demand.
Redfin listing pages include photos and contact forms. But they also have advanced features like 3D walkthroughs and direct tour scheduling. Source: Redfin.

Search engine optimization and associated content pages

A large source of traffic for portals is Google. Portals have a large number of pages to accommodate searches from Google users. This is part of a process to rank highly in search engines called search engine optimization or SEO. Portals try to include unique and relevant content to answer frequent Google searches.

Real estate portals will create separate pages for buildings, neighborhoods, and each listing. This often includes pages properties not for sale yet. Automated valuation models help with this process. AVMs create a reason to have a listing page even for homes not on the market. When you search for an address online, often Zillow, Realtor.com, or Redfin will be among the first results. Other common SEO-focused pages are blog content, market trends, agent information pages, property rankings, and neighborhood guides. These often contribute to site experience on portals. But they are rarely core to solving critical user problems on finding homes like other features are.

Trulia includes neighborhood information on its listing searches. This is partially so it can rank on neighborhood-related search terms in Google. Source: Trulia.

Agent search portals

Home search portals accommodate seller research/advertising. But they primarily serve buyers in their core features. For sellers who want to find an agent, new platforms have emerged to help. They typically help buyers as well. Homelight and UpNest are two examples of these types of platforms. These sites are powered by historical data on agents. This includes agent sales histories, reviews, and other performance data. The service will ask the buyer or seller a series of questions about the property they are selling or want. The agent search portal will then recommend relevant agents. In addition to data, recommendations will be influenced by agents paying for placement. The goal of these platforms is to connect a buyer or seller with a relevant agent who is a good fit and willing to pay for referrals.

Platforms like UpNest ask users a series of questions. They recommend  agents based on data and which agents pay for sponsored placement. Source: UpNest.

Instant offers and valuation experiences

The rise of iBuyers has popularized a new consumer experience based on valuations. iBuyers require visibility from consumers to find more homes to buy from sellers. As a result, they focus their sites heavily on getting users to provide information on their home for sale. The platform will then use internal data to provide a cash offer within 24 hours based on an internal AVM. Essentially, these platforms skip straight to the valuation that a seller would need an agent for. That said, iBuyers should not get all the credit for this approach. Agents have often valuation services as a way to generate leads for some time. There is even a company for valuation lead landing pages called Home Value Leads.

iBuyers like Opendoor often focus their experience on sellers submitting offers. Source: Opendoor.
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