Redfin founder re-emerges with Surefield, a new way to sell homes with virtual open houses

surefield44David Eraker is getting back into the real estate business, 12 years after he co-founded Seattle-based Redfin.

Eraker, who left Redfin in 2006 before it emerged on the national scene, has formed a new startup company by the name of Surefield that is looking to transform the way people sell their homes.

On the surface, that may sound strikingly similar to Redfin. However, Eraker — who remains a shareholder in Redfin but does not have any outstanding non-compete agreements — says there are a couple of big differences.

Unlike Redfin, Surefield focuses its brokerage service entirely on home sellers, not on buyers. To do this, the young upstart, which also includes former Redfin director of real estate Rob McGarty and former Nvidia software engineer Aravind Kalaiah, has created a new technology that’s designed to eliminate, or at least reduce, pesky home tours that are now so common in the home buying process.

The concept revolves around the idea of image-based rendering, similar to 3-D imaging services such as Google Street View and Microsoft Photosynth. Surefield uses special camera equipment to capture detailed views of a home — down to the millimeter — creating a virtual tour that Eraker says will be highly disruptive to how homes are marketed.

David Eraker

David Eraker

“Using one of our high-fidelity online models is a much better way to sell your house,” says the 37-year-old entrepreneur. “When a new house gets listed in the MLS, a prospective buyer needs to call a listing agent, call a buyer’s agent, get a home tour scheduled, and then they need to physically get into a car. What we are going to enable … is an entirely new way to facilitate that process without anyone having to drive around at all.”

In that regard, Eraker thinks Surefield will resolve one of the “key last mile problems in residential real estate,” opening up a listed home to more buyers who might now have the means or time to travel to see it. That includes potential buyers in foreign markets or those who may be relocating from another city.

Even for those who live in the same city, Eraker says that Surefield will provide benefits, especially for the home seller who must constantly deal with potential buyers tromping through their home.

“It is way more convenient to have a bunch of people touring your house online than it is in person,” he says. “If you consider what happens when someone typically lists their house, they may have 30 or 40 people that need to come through a home tour. Every time a home tour gets scheduled, you have to leave the house. You have to get the kids out, got to get the dog out, you’ve got to clean up and put away any personal items that you might not want anyone to see or steal. It is a very invasive and basically it is a constant fire drill.”

With Surefield, the idea is to stage the house once, capturing every nook of the property. It takes about a day to stage and photograph the home via Surefield, with the the company’s in-house team capturing up to 25,000 images for the 3-D models.

surefield66Of course, most home shoppers do not want to buy a house without seeing it in person. Eraker recognizes that fact, and that’s one of the reasons why he decided to establish a full brokerage for home sellers, offering all of the services that a traditional listing agent does.

“Once someone goes through our online home tour, if they still want to physically go into the house, they are going to be way more qualified than somebody who is just looking at 25 photos in the MLS,” he said. “It is possible that someone would buy a house over the Internet without going into it, but I don’t think that’s the main use case.”

The company also chose to create a full brokerage business rather than license the technology to other firms because they wanted to get close to the customer, and learn as much as possible about their needs. It also helped that McGarty previously ran the real estate operations at Redfin, so had plenty of experience in setting up those types of businesses.

Eraker said they would not rule out the possibility of licensing in the future, adding that the technology also has potential applications for rentals, hotels, commercial real estate and vacation properties.

Plenty of other companies, such as VisualTour, GiropticTourFactory and others, already offer virtual home tour services to real estate agents. In most of those cases, they sell their tools directly to real estate agents.

Surefield is opening for business today, targeting home sellers in Seattle. And while no homes have been listed yet, the company set up 8 demo properties to showcase the technology. You can see one of them here:


Home from Surefield

To make the service work in Seattle, Eraker said that they’d need to get one out of every 1,000 home sellers listing through Surefield. “We’d be extremely happy with that level of market penetration,” he said. About 75,000 homes are sold annually in the 21-county area covered by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. About one-third of those are in King County.

Even though Redfin also offers a home selling service to customers, Eraker doesn’t view his former company as competition. He notes that Redfin primarily focuses on home buyers. “They are pretty different,” he says.

surefield55“We don’t have a search engine. We are not a destination site, and we have no intention to get into that business at all,” he said. “There are a lot of companies that are doing that type of work super well right now.” Eraker declined to comment on a suit filed by two of Redfin’s earliest employees, alleging that the company attempted to wipe out their shares. He said he was not involved in any litigation along those lines with Redfin.

Asked why he wanted to do another real estate startup after an eight year break, Eraker said that he got excited about the computer vision technology they are using to power the virtual home tours. He first gained exposure to that technology while working with Microsoft Research, though none of the technology behind Surefield comes out of that work.

“It is my opinion that computer vision is in the same state as the Internet was back in the early to mid-1990s,” he said. “You have a proliferation of camera sensors all around the planet, and they all generate large quantities of image data. And computer vision is an automated way to make sense of that information…. It really occurred to me that: ‘Wow, this stuff would really cook in residential real estate, given all of the complexity around physically getting people into houses.’ It just made a lot of sense to try to leverage this technology in this area.”

Surefield is self-funded by the founders, but it plans to announce a small seed round in the coming weeks. The company employs less than 10 people in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, just a few blocks away from Redfin’s headquarters.

  • http://mocorealestate.com/ Bruce Lemieux

    Looks like a very interesting product, but I don’t believe there’s a market for a brokerage who’s primary value-add is a better virtual tour.

    • Rob McGarty

      Thanks Bruce. In addition to our exclusive online 3D tour we do everything you’d expect plus give you free staging, professional photography and floor plans, all at no additional cost.

  • Kary

    Seattle Bubble is also promoting this today.

    • Rob McGarty

      Thanks Kary! Today is our launch day.

  • collin

    Redfin may have focused on buyers in the past, but has a major listing business as well these days. Who are the brokers at Surefield, sellers will want their experience and knowledge in addition to the 3D rendering tool

    • Rob McGarty

      Hi Collin, I’m the Surefield co-founder and managing broker. Let me know how I can help. Thanks!

  • http://Seattlehouses.com Gordon Stephenson

    Way to go guys. Look forward to seeing the evolution of this. Are you going to be licensing the technology in markets where you’re not set up as brokers?

  • Pradeep Chauhan

    fwiw- As a seller, I’d expect to know what you charge before signing up on your website. Also this seems to solve just the first ‘Go-No go’ step of the buying process and even then the diff between professional pics and virtual tour may not be that much.