This article was featured in L.A. Biz on January 9th, 2018.

Written by: Annlee Ellingson, Staff Writer

When Jack Ryan, co-founder and CEO of REX Real Estate Exchange, was ready to buy a home, the agent for the house he wanted went out of the country. While the agent was vacationing in Italy, Ryan and the owner negotiated and nearly completed the sale on their own. Yet upon his return, the agent still collected his fee.

Ryan, a former Goldman Sachs partner and high school teacher on the South Side of Chicago, decided there had to be a better way and launched his real estate startup in May 2015.

REX is a technology platform that replaces the conventional real estate model with a digital alternative for home-selling. The company is a fully licensed brokerage that charges a 2 percent flat fee — compared to the industry standard of 5 to 6 percent — leveraging big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to market homes directly to buyers instead of relying on traditional agents.

The first full-service real estate agency that does not use the MLS (Multiple Listing Service), REX also saves users money by avoiding the costs associated with that database of Southern California homes for sale.

As a result, REX puts $25,000 more in home sellers’ pockets, on average, Ryan told me.

The Woodland Hills startup has raised $15 million in Series B financing, bringing its total funding to more than $30 million from such investors as Scott McNealy, co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems; Best Buy founder Dick Schulze; Crate and Barrel founder Gordon Segal; Amit Singhal, former senior vice president of search at Google; former McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg; and advisory board members.

REX listed its 500th home last month and in 2017 experienced 300 percent year-over-year growth rates.

The company will use its new financing to fund market rollout data, accelerate platform automation and continue its nationwide expansion: REX currently serves Southern California and New York, with plans to expand Austin, Texas in February, and Colorado in March.

The company ended 2017 with around 50 employees and plans to hire another 40 to 50 people this year, Ryan said.

Meanwhile, REX has committed to build a home for every 50 it sells, starting with a partnership with World Housing and the Cambodian Children’s Fund in Cambodia.

Ryan chatted via email, discussing the inspiration for REX, its social mission and how the company plans to expand next.

What inspired REX?

When I was a partner at Goldman, I was involved in moving the trading of shares and bonds from middlemen who cost a lot to electronic trading with personal attention. We were able to save customers lots and lots of money. I realized I could do the exact same thing in the real estate industry.

When it was time to sell my first home, I had a vague understanding that it was going to cost me 5 to 6 percent of the value of my home, which seemed like a lot. But then I did the math and realized that the agent’s fee would be close to 50 percent of the appreciation of my home.

I had put my money at risk, made the improvements, maintained the home, and someone else would get the profits. The price was going to be higher for the buyer and lower for me because of the large fee for the middleman. So I put the house on the market myself, quickly found a buyer near the asking price, and had a lawyer handle the documents for a small fee.

Then it was time to buy a home. My wife and I did the shopping online, looked at numerous homes and finally found the one for us. We contacted the seller’s agent, who introduced us to his client, and then the agent left for a two-week trip to Italy.

While the agent was away, the seller and I swapped information, had good conversations, agreed on a price and nearly completed the paperwork. Because I was able to speak to the seller directly, we communicated without our messages being garbled by middlemen, and we became lifelong friends in the process. However, when the agent returned from his vacation, he still collected his large fee.

That’s how we got to REX.

We have three big beliefs: We believe we can make the experience of buying and selling a home much better at a fraction of the cost. We believe we can improve the process by removing the impediments between buyers and sellers. And we also believe we can share our success with children and families who lack safe, comfortable homes.

How is REX disrupting the real estate model?

REX is not a discount broker substituting savings for service. In fact, REX does everything a traditional agent does, but better. REX has simply taken an outdated industry and transformed it through data-driven algorithms and machine learning technology that makes residential real estate transactions more efficient and effective than ever before.

More than 90 percent of home buyers search for homes online without the help of an agent. REX quickly targets the most likely buyers and continuously tracks their activity to optimize advertising and ultimately sell homes faster than the competition, while providing full service and charging a fraction of the traditional fees.

Why is it significant that REX does not use the MLS?

The MLS ties sellers to paying high commissions on both sides of the transaction. REX is the only company in the business to offer a truly 21st century vision for real estate that introduces much needed automation to the process of buying and selling a home and harnesses the power of big data and AI to increase the efficiency and accuracy of digital marketing.

To put our targeting capacities in perspective, a typical real estate agent might have a rolodex of a few hundred potential home buyers in a given area, but REX can target upwards of 50,000 home buyers who have already demonstrated interest in a specific home. By refining the selling process, we have turned buying and selling real estate into an easy process, not one that consumers dread.

Who are your target customers?

We target home sellers with properties in the price range of $400,000 and up. The whole principle of REX is that the model works for all home sellers because it allows them to keep more equity in the sale of their home.

To distinguish REX in the luxury real estate space, the company has launched REX Black, a personalized experience utilizing a high-tech, data-driven approach to sell homes in the $4 million-plus range that includes white glove services such as virtual staging, high-tech open house style, high-end photography, 3-D virtual tours, dedicated digital strategist, home repair services and access to exclusive seller dashboards. We have already sold a $44 million home, just listed a $4M home and are about to list a $100M home.

What other expansion plans do you have for the company?

REX plans to become an end-to-end solution for all real estate transactions — from helping buyers get a mortgage (already doing this), to escrow (launching 2018), to transfer of title and insurance. Going beyond offering services associated with buying and selling of homes, we also plan to offer painting, baby proofing and ongoing homeowner services like plumbing and gardening.

Tell me more about REX’s social mission to build a home for every 50 sold.

REX was founded on a belief that good business is built upon a strong moral value system. My desire to do more stems from working at a refugee camp on the Texas-Mexico border as well as teaching high school students on the South Side of Chicago — where some students had extremely unstable housing situations. All three situations involved providing homes for children who don’t have them.

You have a varied career from investment banking to high school teaching. What drew you to real estate technology?

The process of selling my home within the confines of the traditional real estate construct really drove me to develop this business. I was able to apply the principles I had utilized in my previous career to this venture.

When I was selling my home with a traditional agent, my wife and I drove around our new neighborhood, and the “For Sale” signs I saw every day reminded me that agents would be receiving 5 to 6 percent of the value of each home that sold.

It also brought to mind my Goldman Sachs days. First, if I could put no money up and get 10 to 50 percent of the appreciation of an asset, that would be an awesome business to be in. Second, I remembered what happened to the commissions for selling or buying shares as technology impacted the stock markets. Commissions dropped 90 percent in a short time, going from a quarter or an eighth to pennies or less per share. Buyers bought for lower prices, while sellers sold for higher prices. And even the industry itself improved, as brokers became incented to give good advice, not just move shares.

Each year, consumers pay $70 billion to realtors and brokers. Wouldn’t buyers and sellers be better off if some of that money stayed in the sellers’ and buyers’ hands and went to funding their kids’ college education, providing the down payment for buying their next home or furnishing the new house? Couldn’t much of the process be improved by a digital platform which would do everything a broker would do for most homes, but with better marketing and service, at a fraction of the cost, just like what was happening in other markets? That is what drove me to start REX.

posted by Eric Rothman

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