Why Zillow Is Free and How It Makes Money (Z)

On Zillow, it’s free to list a home for sale by owner or agent and to list a property for rent. Zillow’s online and mobile search tools – including its smartphone app – let users search for property and view estimated property values for free, too.

How is Zillow Group, Inc. (Z) able to offer all these services for free and still make money? Let’s find out. (Note: Zillow is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Zillow Group, which also owns Trulia. This article is specifically about Zillow.)

Ad Sales to Property Management Companies

One way Zillow makes money is by charging property management companies to advertise their listings on the Zillow Rental Network, which includes websites from Zillow, Trulia, Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO), Hotpads, MyNewPlace, AOL Real Estate, MSN Real Estate and HGTV's Front Door.

Zillow sends qualified leads – prospective renters – to these advertisers to help them maximize the return on investment on their advertising dollars. The company has identified rentals as a large market opportunity, with U.S. rental property managers spending about $3.5 billion per year on advertising to get and keep renters. Renters move more often than homeowners, and property owners have to spend money on advertising and lease concessions to fill units.

Premier Services for Real Estate Agents

Zillow charges $10 a month for its Premier Agent websites, which include free premium designs, integrated Multiple Listing Service search and a domain name. Real estate agents can also purchase advertising with Zillow. Ads targeted at users in agents’ local markets help them get new clients who are buying or selling homes. The ads also provide agents with increased visibility for their listings to help them find buyers. (For more, see How To Find The Best Real Estate Agent.)

Real estate agents mainly pay Zillow based on the number of ad impressions delivered to users in specified zip codes. As of 2015, Premier Agent services were Zillow’s main source of revenue, and it was more predictable than the other sources. Not only have more Premier Agents signed up, but Zillow was also earning more per agent.

The Premier Agent program has three levels: platinum, gold and silver. All levels provide agents with a customer relationship management system to help them keep track of Zillow users who have expressed interest in working with an agent. The gold level gives agents featured results when a user searches for an agent, while the platinum level displays the agent’s profile next to for-sale home listings within the agent’s zip codes. Agents pay per impression for platinum advertising services and pay a fixed subscription fee for silver and gold advertising services. In the quarter ending September 30, 2016, Zillow Group earned $158.32 million from the Premier Agent program across all its companies, and it is the largest revenue stream for the company, its single largest revenue streams.

Ad Sales to Mortgage Lenders and Other Businesses

Zillow also sells advertising space on its site to mortgage lenders and other businesses that want to reach Zillow consumers. These other businesses include interior designers, home organization retailers, general contractors. Most of these advertisers are in the real estate industry, but some sell telecommunications services, automotive products and services, insurance and consumer products. Display revenue depends largely on the number of monthly unique visitors Zillow receives. In the three-month period ending September 30, 2016, the total display revenue for Zillow Group came up to $17.7 million. (For more, see Digital Advertising Is The Future, But Why?)

Mortgage lenders mainly pay Zillow based on cost per click (CPC) or cost per thousand impressions (CPM). A click means that after searching for mortgage rates, the user requests more information from a local lender, whereas an impression means that the ad appears on Zillow’s online or mobile site. Zillow also earns money from the subscription-based mortgage software company Mortech, which is owned and operated by Zillow Group, Inc.

Threats to Zillow’s Revenue

Most of Zillow’s advertising relationships are short-term, so it can’t take them for granted. Zillow’s advertising revenue, on which the company’s financial success relies, could suffer if existing advertisers ended their relationship and Zillow were unable to replace them. If Zillow’s user base dwindles or its competitors become more attractive advertisers for mortgage lenders, property management companies and real estate agents, ad revenue could decline. Also, as the company relies heavily on ad revenue from its Premier Agent program, revenue could seriously suffer if agents stop seeing value from advertising on Zillow. Finally, a hit to the real estate market or a drop in consumer interest in home buying and mortgages, both of which are beyond Zillow’s control, would likely reduce traffic to the site and lead to a drop in ad revenue. (See also: Top US Housing Market Indicators.)

The Bottom Line

Zillow makes money by selling advertising on Zillow.com and the Zillow mobile app to property management companies with vacancies, real estate agents looking for buyers and sellers and mortgage lenders looking for borrowers. And it also sells to general advertisers, especially ones in the real estate industry. (See also: Zillow vs.Trulia.)