The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Innovative Sites Offer Buyers and Sellers New Opportunities

Two online platforms that allow investors to sell occupied rented single-family homes without disturbing their tenants -- and buy rented houses with tenants already in place -- are among a plethora of new real-estate-centric sites that promise to improve the buying and selling process.

One, started by the co-founder of Uber, allows would-be buyers to see exactly what they're up against when competing with other potential buyers. Another allows real estate agents to compete for your listing, just like banks sometimes compete online through various portals for home loans.

The investor platforms -- Roofstock and OwnAmerica -- fill a real void.

Typically, when an investor wants to sell a house that he's held for awhile, he has to wait for the current tenants to leave when their lease expires or ask them to leave early. If he tries to put the house on the market while it is still occupied, it not only disturbs the occupants, it also puts them on notice that the house is up for grabs and often scares them into moving out.

Worse, though, is the possibility of lost income if the house lingers on the market for several months once it becomes empty and is listed for sale.

Both Roofstock and OwnAmerica are platforms that address these issues by quietly marketing investor-owned properties to other investors who are searching for properties that already are occupied, saving them the time and cost of finding tenants once the house changes hands.

"You'd never vacate an apartment building to sell it," says Roofstock co-founder Gary Beasley. "Why should rental homes be any different?"

This is hardly a niche market. It's roughly a $2 trillion business with some 15 million single-family rental houses nationwide.

About 13 percent of the U.S. population live in single-family rentals, yet no one really services them, at least not properly, Beasley and OwnAmerica CEO Gregory Rand contend. Existing channels specialize in selling vacant or soon-to-be vacant houses to owner-occupants, they say, but they are not well-equipped to sell with tenants in place.

While the two sites have the same mission, they work somewhat differently. With OwnAmerica, someone wanting to purchase an occupied rental property makes an offer without ever seeing it so the tenants are not agitated. Only when the contract is accepted can they actually visit and inspect the house. And if the property is not what was described online, or if it needs work, the buyer and seller can renegotiate.

At Roofstock, third-party experts inspect and certify houses as part of the listing process. Consequently, buyers have access to fully vetted properties with current cash flow and professional property management in place, and sellers can sell more quickly without losing much, if any, rent.

What's more, prices of houses listed on Roofstock are set in stone, based both on market comparables and property-specific conditions, so there's no back-and-forth haggling.

Another new site, Haus, is described as "an open and fair platform" that gives buyers and their agents access to all offers in front of a seller. So, if four other people make on offer an the house you've also bid on, you'll know exactly what the competition is proposing and, if you like, you can one-up them.

Currently, you may know others have submitted an offer, but the terms of those offers are confidential, so you have no idea what you are up against. Some buyers offer escalation clauses to best their competitors' best offer by, say, $1,000 and perhaps up to a certain amount.

But your rival bidders may also offer other goodies you don't know about -- giving up a home inspection, for example, or allowing the seller to remain in the house for a few extra months -- that could sway the seller.

Haus' goal is complete objectivity. It notifies agents, buyers and sellers when a new offer is submitted, and allows all of them to view the price and terms of all offers on the table at any given point in the transaction. Names are confidential, but everything else is revealed.

That way, both buyers and sellers can monitor listings, and all buyers can have a fair chance of seeing their bid accepted because they can see exactly where their offers stand vis-a-vis any others.

"Haus is creating a platform we believe can revolutionize the way people buy real estate," said Garrent Camp, an Uber co-founder and head of the startup studio that developed the program. "The open and clear communication creates a more efficient and fair process for everyone involved."

A fourth new site, Agenis, promises to save sellers hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by creating competition for their listings among agents. At no cost, it allows sellers to request bids from agents, who presumably will offer to sell houses at a discounted commission or rebate a portion of their fees at closing.

And finally, yet another startup from the BCRM Group will finance the earnest money buyers attach to their offers, thereby allowing them to sign contracts and proceed to closing without putting up any of their own money. Deposits can be up to 10 percent of the purchase price, but BCRM will charge only 1 percent of the price to advance the deposit on your behalf.