May 19, 2019

Unbundling real estate

 Illustration of a house broken up into pieces

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

There's a lot of risk in real estate. Just owning it, of course, is the main risk. It can work out well for people lucky enough to be able to put a small down payment on a house before it soars in value.

Why it matters: Real estate can also cause a global financial crisis, should millions of Americans find themselves underwater on their mortgages.

Driving the news: Wall Street is increasingly looking for ways to take on these risks. Companies like Point will buy an equity stake in your home, while Zillow and Opendoor will take on the risk of finding a buyer, giving you an up-front cash payment for your house, no staging or repainting necessary. Often, the houses they buy end up getting rented out by giant Wall Street landlords, rather than being sold to individuals.

  • Redfin is trying out a similar approach for buyers, moving toward a future where house hunters can buy entirely online.
  • The entrenched system of 6% brokerage commissions is being taken to court, with Redfin's CEO describing the existing MLS cartel as a dinosaur about to be hit by an asteroid.

What we’re seeing: WeWork was designed to be asset-light, renting out office space and then subleasing it to smaller tenants. Now, seeing demand for real estate risk, it has created a sister company, ARK, to buy up the buildings it's renting in. Investors get to choose exactly which risk they're interested in.

  • The government is also in the business of reallocating real estate risk to revitalize depressed urban areas. University of Georgia law professor Mehrsa Baradaran has proposed a "Homestead Act for the 21st Century" that would give abandoned properties to local residents without needing to create financier-friendlyOpportunity Zones.

The big picture: De-risking homeownership has always made sense. That's why the government created Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If Silicon Valley financiers lose money by taking on these risks, well, they can afford to. And if they can find a way to efficiently renovate homes at scale, that could save more than money, it could save marriages.

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