Italy is a real estate market where things tend to change quite slowly. So the changes that have come about since idealista, one of the two portals competing for market leadership, joined forces with the number three player Casa in 2020 have been big.
Continuing our series of interviews with agent-backed portals we wanted to hear from the new de-facto third player in the Italian real estate portal game.
Wikicasa formed in 2017 as a project launched by some of the biggest brokerages in the industry who remain fierce competitors in a market where nearly half of the transactions are not intermediated by a professional.
We spoke to CEO Pietro Pellizzari about having shareholders as customers, taking on the incumbents and the Italian market in general...
Hi Pietro. Could you start by briefly describing the real estate portal landscape in Italy?
In Italy there is a strong battle for leadership between Immobiliare and Idealista and we can consider it a duopoly since Idealista acquired Casa.it and now sells both portals as a bundle. Whichever group wins can probably claim to be the largest portal group in Europe, considering that both players have leading positions in other countries in Southern Europe (Idealista in Portugal and Spain and Immobiliare in Greece and the Balkans).
The market has gone through a process of consolidation and aggregations, as happened in many other countries.
Then there is Wikicasa.it, the outsider in the market and the only portal that had the courage to challenge these two players giving a third option to the market, nowadays more a complementary option than an alternative one.
What is the relationship between the portals and agencies like in Italy?
I would define this relationship as “Love & hate”; portals exist thanks to agents, and agents live thanks to the portals. I think the relationship is pretty much the same all over the world. Agents are clients and suppliers at the same time for property portals - they pay in order to get leads and simultaneously they provide portals with the most important raw material, listings data.
Portals without listings are useless by themselves and agents now get more than 70% of their revenues from property portals, so they cannot live without each other.
I think the “relationship” is the key to success in this market. I cannot imagine a property portal without agents, and agents without a property portal.
Of course, there are frictions because the weight of these two players is evolving. Agents are usually small and fragmented entities whereas portals are getting bigger and bigger and more and more crucial in a market that is more digitalized.
Portals can lose a couple of agencies, but I’m not sure the opposite can work if there are just two portals in a market.
When and how did Wikicasa come about?
The idea of this project was born in 2014 and turned into a company around 2017.
After working in Australia I came back to Italy and started working for one of the biggest Italian real estate groups (Gabetti). This experience allowed me to better understand how much value there was in property portals, so I convinced my company to invest directly in a new one.
When we started there were already big companies operating but I was sure that this market could still grow a lot, property portals were still considered as showcases or just marketing channels and many people did not realize they could become new players in the market.
I was playing catch-up so the only chance I had to start the business was to bring together big players in order to have a strong base of listings, agents and resources.
Now we have the four biggest Italian real estate groups as investors, Gabetti, Remax, Tecnocasa and Tempocasa but our goal is to extend the possibility to invest directly to other players. We are already working with more than 1,500 independent agencies and many of them have already asked to do so.
What differentiates Wikicasa from its competitors?
We can say that all portals are doing the same job all over the world: providing the best solution for people looking for a house and bringing qualified leads to real estate agents.
Our mission in doing this job is to try to do something extra. We want to collect and deliver the best possible data to all players involved in the game, from buyers to sellers passing through professionals like agents, banks, appraisers, developers, advisors and many more.
We are trying to do so by creating products that go far beyond the traditional search feature of a property portal.
Data is crucial in the market and the challenge is to collect it in the most direct, updated and clean way and then turn it into information to give the market more transparency and speed.
A few weeks ago, we launched our app which has a revolutionary function: we integrated the existing property evaluation method based on our AVM, with Image Recognition technology, and AI application.
Thanks to Image Recognition users can get a quick valuation through the simple upload of one or more pictures and the addition of basic data such as square meters and geographical position.
This service is available exclusively from the app and provides a price range in less than a minute. Then it is up to the user to decide whether to request an inspection by a professional in the area to obtain a more precise evaluation.
We also developed a software called “Market Report” that enables agents to produce a more precise appraisal and market overview, gathering data from our property portals, public registry and many open data sources.
We believe that evolved professionals must use evolved tools to improve the service they offer to the market.
How much influence do the agent stakeholders have on the policy of the portal? Do you have to regulate prices (and therefore profits)?
They have influence in nominating the CEO, of course, and they participate at the board level, but everything else is just purely from the management team.
We are strongly independent in defining strategy, services and prices. We are not a consortium and we do not have any mutual scope in our company statute.
Shareholders are not obliged to buy our services just as we are not obliged to sell it to them. It’s a market decision that we both make considering rules, prices, and results in a competitive market.
As we are growing, the influence of agents will decrease and they know it, it is a part of a necessary path that will bring the company to the next level.
Some of the agencies that are Wikicasa stakeholders are fierce competitors. Is there ever any friction there?
Before investing in Wikicasa some of them did not know each other personally, but now they’ve become friends.
They still compete in the market with no holds barred but they understood from the beginning that in order to play the game in the property portal market the only chance they have is to stay together, working as a team.
The market is big! 70% of estate agents in Italy are independent, and it is important to state that 45% of transactions are still not intermediated by a professional agent, so there is a big prairie where they can increase their market share.
How do you expand the business without either charging agents more or encroaching on their businesses?
Actually, we want to charge agents more because we want to provide them with valuable leads, qualified information, data and services that they can use for their business.
If our service increases in terms of quality and quantity agents have to pay more, it’s a basic market rule.
We do not encroach on their business, we see ourselves as bringing them down a necessary path of evolution.
A professional who wants to be called a professional has to provide a better service in the market and in order to do so they have to offer a value-added service to customers - something they cannot do by themselves.
Can Wikicasa ever truly be more than just a competitor or insurance policy of the leading portals in the Italian market?
That’s our goal! We do want to play the match against bigger players, but for now, we are still too far off to play them on their terms so we have to keep going about our business in our own way.
Our investors see Wikicasa.it more as 'risky bet' than an 'insurance policy' considering the market we are facing. We still have to show our value. It is an ambitious goal but I think we have the right team to achieve astonishing results.
A lot of property portals around the world seem a bit myopic and only really pay attention to their own backyard. Are there any portals in other countries that you admire and do you follow the broader industry news?
There are many property portals that we follow and analyse, thanks also to the observatory that onlinemarketplaces.com has built with the blog, conferences, and studies.
We try to keep an eye on what is new in the market, we try to learn from competitors, we study their success, and we try to learn also from their failures. Because for sure we are not the forerunner and we have to learn from their experience.
That’s why we keep an eye on what’s going on in other markets to learn and sometimes anticipate trends.
Zillow is the pioneer and we keep an eye on what they do. Usually, real estate tendencies show up first in the USA and then they reach Europe and Italy.
The real estate market is a local market, and technology is global so we have to mix the two characteristics to import and adapt new features to our reality. A copy-paste strategy does not work in our market.
We are lucky to have two big competitors, Immobiliare.it and Idealista.it who are great companies to look at in terms of technology, innovation and vision.
The fact that we are forced to compete with the best players I think is a great spur to improve constantly.