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Property Buying Platforms Raised Billions In Recent Quarters. Lately, They’re A Tough Sell

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Coming off a staggering bull run, the U.S. residential real estate market is still holding up at high levels. Even so, market watchers see the combination of higher mortgage rates and diminishing affordability likely signaling a close to the era of fast-rising prices.

Meanwhile, recently public startups in the real estate space, like most of the tech sector, have taken a beating in the past few months. Their disappointing performance comes on the heels of record venture investment in 2021 for home buying- and mortgage-focused companies.

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We won’t attempt to forecast where real estate markets are headed. But, given that platforms for buying, selling and financing real estate raised so much capital these past few quarters, it seems timely to look at recent investment totals and how changing market conditions might affect their fortunes.

Huge market, huge funding

First off, let’s tally up some of the bigger rounds and pick out the most heavily funded companies.

Using Crunchbase data, we curated a list of 20 companies involved in property buying, and online mortgage services that raised funding in the past year:

 

Collectively, they’ve pulled in $5.8 billion in financing to date. That includes venture funding for 18 companies on the list, plus private and IPO financing for another two i-buyers, Offerpad and Opendoor, that went public.

Among companies that are still private, the largest funding recipients include:

  • Roofstock, an online platform for investors to find and purchase single family rental properties, raised $240 million in a March Series E, bringing total funding to over $360 million.
  • Divvy, a platform that facilitates rent-to-own home purchases , has raised over $360 million in equity funding to date, along with over $850 million in debt financing.
  • Ribbon, a service that enables prospective homebuyers to make cash offers,  raised over $400 million in equity funding and around $500 million in known debt financing.

It’s notable that most of these businesses raised their largest funding rounds amid a period of sharply rising U.S. real estate prices. The average sale price of a new home, for instance, hit nearly $454,000 in 2021, up around 16 percent year over year. For homebuyers in markets from Los Angeles to Austin to South Florida, the past few quarters have been a time of tight inventory, with frequent bidding wars for desirable properties.

If we see slowing gains or lower prices ahead, it’ll be interesting to see how companies pivot for changing conditions.

Changing market brings bad news for some

For now, we’ve seen some shifting conditions—higher mortgage rates in particular—spell trouble for a few heavily venture-backed companies.

Back in December, mortgage company Better.com drew headlines for laying off around 900 employees over a Zoom call.  The company also delayed previously announced plans to go public through a merger with a SPAC. The company has reportedly cut its workforce down to less than 5,000 from around 10,000 in December.

Another startup, Noah, which provides down payment assistance in exchange for ownership stakes in homes, announced in March that it is hitting the pause button on new applications. CEO Sahil Gupta attributed the move to “uncertainty caused by recent geopolitical events, macroeconomic conditions and their impact on real estate.”

Public markets also have turned on companies in the i-buying space of late, with both Offerpad and Opendoor shedding about three-fourths their value from high points earlier this past year. Their trajectory of declines began around November, after industry heavyweight Zillow announced it was exiting the i-buying market, citing concerns about risk and volatility.

What’s next?

While mortgage rates and market prices do drive some decision-making around when to buy or sell a home, it’s worth considering that they’re often not the primary drivers of activity in the residential real estate market.

“There’s a lot of nuance here that’s being lost in how the public markets are responding,” said Clelia Warburg Peters, managing partner at Era Ventures, an investor in proptech and related sectors.

Peters observes that the number of U.S. home sales ranges between 4.5 million and 6.5 million annually, commonly falling in the middle of that range. Most of the time, people buy or sell due to events in their lives, not because they think it’s the best buyers’ or sellers’ market.

While fluctuations in home sale volumes are reasonably range-bound, not so the mortgage markets, Warburg Peters notes. When rates were historically low last year, obviously there was much greater demand for mortgage refinancing by existing homeowners. Mortgage refinancing, however, has long been a cyclical market tied to rate shifts, so this current contraction is certainly no surprise.

So, did venture investors play the wrong hand by putting such huge bets on companies in residential real estate purchasing and financing in the past couple years? Judging by recent public market comps, the storyline for real estate looks pretty similar to that of other hot startup investment sectors, with money-losing growth stocks increasingly out of favor.

That said, real estate does have some advantages over other sectors. Unlike NFTs, crypto, metaverse real estate and other speculative areas for investment, we do have to live somewhere. And, for most of us, we also have to find a way to pay for it.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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