Large Landlords Acquiring Tenants on Airbnb

A friend shared an article with me today. It’s about an institutional investor, ReAlpha, planning to spend $1.5 billion to buy 5,000 homes to rent out. I’ve followed institutional buyers of single-family homes for the last decade. Atlanta is one of the biggest markets for companies like Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 rent, both of which are publicly traded and own tens of thousands of single-family homes across the country that they rent out on a long-term basis. The strategy has worked well as home prices and rental rates have steadily increased since the financial crisis.

The article discussed a slightly different strategy: purchasing thousands of homes to rent out short-term on Airbnb. The idea isn’t new, but it hasn’t been pursued at scale by institutional investors. The customer acquisition strategy is intriguing. Instead of acquiring customers (i.e., renters) through traditional sales and marketing efforts, they plan to acquire them on Airbnb, which is a marketplace.

Marketplaces are places where buyers and sellers connect. Using a marketplace to acquire customers is an attractive and capital-efficient strategy for sellers. The fee (or take rate) is usually a fixed percentage of the revenue a buyer pays. That leads to a highly predictable customer acquisition cost. Sellers pay X cents for every dollar in revenue from buyers. Sellers don’t have to worry about paying to attract potential buyers who never pan out; they pay only to acquire revenue-producing customers. Sellers don’t even need to take on sales or marketing—they need only have the ability to service customers.

This approach has downsides, and the customer relationship is a big one. The marketplace owns the customer relationship. Buyers aren’t loyal to the seller they transact with; they’re loyal to the marketplace. Concentration is also a big risk. If you get all your customers from a single source that you don’t control, changes can significantly affect your revenue. Lots of stories circulate about businesses being crushed when a marketplace they rely on changes how listings are displayed or suspends their account.

If ReAlpha moves forward with these plans, it will be a huge growth opportunity for Airbnb. I’d imagine ReAlpha will seek discounts on Airbnb’s fees, but even so this could unlock a new product offering with the potential for massive scale in Airbnb’s platform.

I’ll be watching to see how this evolves.