The Real Estate Scientist

Redfin and Our CEO

The Real Estate Scientist

Redfin is launching tonight The Real Estate Scientist, an initiative to use empirical techniques to improve the way our agents and clients buy and sell homes. We’re releasing our first report, which provides seven recommendations for home-sellers, and training our agents on the findings, which should allow us to have more informed conversations with our clients.

We developed this research because the housing downturn has made it harder to sell our clients’ homes. This in turn has made us more introspective about how we can use our special powers – our computer science background and our consumer commitment – to be the best brokerage, not just the best real estate website.

This has been a contentious process. At lunch we argue over the practical questions we have to address for our clients, like the best day to debut a listing or whether it’s really worthwhile to post an MLS property on craigslist. But why argue when you can experiment?

There are plenty of excellent academic studies of local real estate markets. And Redfin has data that most academics don’t: access to 17 MLSs with more than 250,000 listings, and a website used by hundreds of thousands of buyers every month.

The Real Estate Scientist crew

We’ve tried to put this information to good use. We know that listings that debuted on Friday rather than Thursday drew 7.7% more visitors; that a vacant home increased the odds of a price reduction by 9.5%; that, because of how real estate websites filter on price, a listing priced at $351,001 got as much as 7.1% less traffic than one priced a dollar lower. A team of agents, engineers, statisticians and writers worked together to produce the report. Some of their findings are surprising, while others confirm conventional wisdom, which has value too.

We only worry that the name we’ve given this initiative, “The Real Estate Scientist,” will open us to being mocked. And too, we hesitated to give consumers simple answers due to the complexity of the underlying data. But in the end we chose the name because it was the one we had used all along, it was fun, and it was the simplest way to explain how our approach was different. We strove for conclusive answers because we have houses to sell every week, and customers who need straightforward guidance.

Consumers who have read early drafts of the report overwhelmingly found our recommendations useful and effective. The industry reaction will likely be different. Some will argue that the report substantiates already well-understood tactics, while others will take the exact opposite position, refuting our points one by one.

But the truth is that a discussion of how real estate brokerages can deliver better results, based on data rather than just opinion, is in everyone’s best interests. And the findings aren’t simply a prescription for how we’ll serve our customers, but the starting point for an informed conversation about pricing and marketing our listings. Hopefully you can contribute to this conversation too, suggesting future avenues for research.

And now we are going to be talking about the findings on “Today,” probably around 7:40 Friday morning. What fun! To get ready for the interview I got my first $50-haircut, by a young Albanian in midtown Manhattan who compared my current style to 1989 Depeche Mode, and suggested I try a different color. “Like blonde?” I said, intrigued. “Just not so gray,” she mumbled. Because I had 30 minutes before running for a train, she cut quickly, putting off a very stylish socialite who was demanding that her hair be wrapped for the ice storm.

And then it was exhilarating to run – really run – through the streets as the year’s first flakes fell and pedestrians looked up gratefully into the sky. On the sidewalks at nearly every corner, there was one guy pushing a salt spreader and, this being New York, another to stand there and tell him what to do.

New York in Snow

I had a meeting in the coffee shop of a remote, pretty Connecticut town, covered in silence and snow. Now on the train back, a teenager next to me is reading an article entitled “Sex Snafus That Can Send You to the ER”; a culinary school student who cried after being short on the fare has asked if we could stay together through the connection; and a bald salesman has been eavesdropping on my cell phone conversations.

“You can’t live in fear,” he says, repeating what I just said when I hung up on my last call. Then he adds: “Guys like us, we’re not afraid.” I nod, thinking about the next day’s show. If only that were true!

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