The Inman Handbook On Real Estate’s Biggest Rivalries
In 1878, a dispute about a hog sparked a legend.
The dispute began when Randolph McCoy claimed that Floyd Hatfield had stolen the hog. A trial ensued, but testimony from a witness with ties to both families helped clear Hatfield. Then, two years later, two McCoy’s killed that witness.
The hog-stealing incident came amid an already tense relationship between the two families. And the years that followed brought fights, shootouts, death and destruction to both families.
Today, the Hatfield-and-McCoy story has grown into an American folk legend, the names a kind of shorthand for rivalry. But the tale also highlights how compelling a feud can be; the reason the Hatfields and McCoys are remembered to this day, after all, is in large part because the media of the time seized on the story.
Thankfully, most feuds today don’t involve shootouts. But intense, sometimes bitter, rivalries do still exist. And that’s especially true in the real estate world, where big personalities, ambitions and sums of money all collide head on.
For this story, Inman has put together a handful of the biggest and most intense rivalries in the industry. But first, a few notes on criteria. First, we’re focusing on big companies here. Rivalries among individual agents are common as well, but there isn’t space on the internet to detail all of those.
Second, for our purposes here, a “rivalry” has to involve something more than competition. Zillow and Redfin, for example, compete. But they’re not perpetually facing off in court, and their executives don’t constantly throw shade at each other. So while they’re clearly business rivals, their relationship isn’t a public feud.
With that out of the way, here are the biggest real estate rivalries that continue to capture headlines, and attention, in the real estate industry.
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The rivalry between Compass and Realogy has played out in the courts.
The two companies were perhaps inevitable rivals given Realogy’s dominance with brands such as Coldwell Banker, as well as Compass’ one-time goal of taking 20 percent of the market. But Realogy fired the first official salvo in 2019, when it sued Compass over what it described as “unfair business practices and illegal schemes to gain market share at all costs.”
The lawsuit didn’t pull punches. Among other things, Realogy said Compass “tortiously interferes with, and disparages its competitors,” and that its CEO Robert Reffkin “solicited Realogy to enter into an illegal price-fixing agreement.” The idea, according to the suit, was that Compass would gain marketshare with things like agent-friendly commission splits, but then switch those splits once it dominated the market.
About two weeks after Realogy filed the sued, M. Ryan Gorman, president and CEO of Coldwell Banker, compared Compass’ recruitment tactics to “shoplifting.”
Compass initially tried to settle the suit via arbitration, then later asked a judge to dismiss the case.
After those efforts came to nought, Compass countersued in January. And as was the case with Realogy’s suit, Compass didn’t hold back. Among other things, the suit claimed Realogy couldn’t compete with Compass in the marketplace, and that Realogy-affiliated entities “have sought to stop the bleeding by any means necessary — including lying, stealing, and cheating.” The suit also characterized Gorman as the leader of Realogy’s anti-Compass efforts.
“They have waged a war of disinformation by deliberately flooding the market with false information about Compass,” the suit continued.
Realogy also filed a second lawsuit against Compass in 2019 related to the latter firm’s recruitment of a financial executive, though that case was dismissed in 2020.
As for the better-known suit, it remains unresolved to this day — as does the rivalry between the firms.
The rivalry between Rocket Mortgage and United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM) runs deep.
Both companies are based in Michigan, and operate on different philosophies: Rocket (née Quicken Loans) is best-known for working directly with consumers, while UWM is a wholesaler that works with brokers.
Both companies have been coming to eat each other’s lunch lately. Last year, for example, Mat Ishbia — CEO of UWM parent United Shore Financial Services — said that he wants to become the largest mortgage company in the nation, which would first require surpassing Rocket. Meanwhile, Rocket has been gradually inching onto UWM’s turf by expanding its wholesale business.
In any case, this year the relationship took a turn: UWM said it wouldn’t do business with brokers who are working with Rocket. The announcement forced mortgage brokers to choose sides in the feud, and Rocket responded by calling the ultimatum anticompetitive, and saying UWM was trying to “manipulate the market and have loan officers swear allegiance,” according to mortgage news outlet NMP.
Two months later, Ishbia said he “couldn’t have imagined” the ultimatum going so well, and claimed that the vast majority of the 12,000 brokers UWM works with sided with his company.
“Obviously, my competitors, they don’t like the decision, but our business is not designed to make them like us,” Ishbia said on a recent earnings call, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The rivalry has also apparently become personal as well.
Ishbia is an alumnus of Michigan State University (MSU) and was a member of the school’s championship basketball team in 2000. The school and its basketball team remain a major part of Ishbia’s public persona, and in February he pledged $32 million to MSU’s athletic department.
However, as it turns out, both Rocket founder Dan Gilbert and current CEO Jay Farner are also MSU alums. And just one month after Ishbia’s donation, Rocket entered into a sponsorship deal with the school’s athletic department. Though value of the deal wasn’t disclosed, it means the Rocket branding will be plastered on various athletic facilities, and that the school’s basketball team will be announced with the addendum “presented by Rocket Mortgage” — no doubt a bitter pill for Ishbia.
The Wall Street Journal described the competing donations as examples of a “brawl” between the firms, though they denied that there was anything going on other than loyalty to MSU sports.
In any case, the rivalry shows no signs of cooling off, and the National Mortgage News recently described it as having the “feeling of a schoolyard battle.” In March, Bob Walters — president and chief operating officer of Rocket Companies — told Inman that “in my 25 some odd years in this business, I’ve never seen anything like” the beef with UWM.
“Whether or not it’s legal or not isn’t something that I can opine on, but it does set a really, really bad precedent,” Walters continued. “The ultimate losers are mortgage brokers. If you talk to any mortgage brokers they’re furious.”
The rivalry between these two companies goes way back to the early 2000s.
At the time, Glenn Sanford led a top-producing team at Keller Williams. However, Keller Williams founder Gary Keller reportedly snubbed Sanford — who would go on to found eXp — by not including him in an elite company group.
By 2018, tensions were on public display. During a session of Inman Connect Now in San Francisco, Brad Inman mentioned to Gary Keller that Sanford spoke highly of him. Keller dismissed the praise.
“Love it, great. Good for him,” Keller deadpanned at the time. “I don’t care.”
Keller went on to seemingly suggest Sanford should return the money he earned via Keller Williams’ profit share program.
Sanford appeared at Inman Connect a day later and remained calm, but suggested Keller Williams’ technology was behind the curve. Sanford has also purportedly been motivated by a drive to beat Keller, his former mentor.
The simmering feud escalated further in 2019, when leaked audio from a Keller Williams meeting caught Keller criticizing eXp’s technology.
“It’s old game technology. That’s their digital cloud-based platform,” Keller said of eXp’s virtual world. “Old gaming technology. All you have to do is go look at your Sony PlayStation, or your Xbox, and then go look at that — it’s like you’re looking at Donkey Kong or Pac-Man technology.”
Keller also referred to the virtual environment as a “virtual animal farm” that he wouldn’t try to buy “in a million years.”
This particular rivalry has had fewer flare ups more recently. But the fact that a number of Keller Williams agents and teams have defected to join eXp lately is probably not helping the two firms’ relationship.
The lawsuits between Realogy and Compass have created one of the best-known — and bitterest — rivalries in real estate. But it’s also worth noting that a number of other firms have also taken aim at Reffkin’s upstart brokerage. Just this spring, for example, the Agency, Howard Hanna, Christie’s International Real Estate and a Pennsylvania-based Better Homes and Gardens affiliate have all sued Compass. Each suit raises unique specific points, but the broad strokes of the conflicts generally tend to raise issues with recruiting and trade secrets.
Back in 2019, Zillow also sued Compass over recruitment. And more broadly, Compass’ aggressive acquisition strategy — it has picked up popular software providers such as Contractually and powerful brokerages such as Pacific Union — have ruffled the feathers of some industry members.
In many ways, these various microfeuds are ultimately a testament to Compass’ clout; it’s not every company in real estate that provokes strong feelings — sometimes positive, sometimes negative — from pretty much everyone. But either way, there is a growing contingent of industry players taking aim at Compass.
Costar has been around since the late 1980s, and Zillow as founded in 2004, and for most of the two firms’ histories they operated in different spheres.
Recent months, however, have set the two companies on something of a collision course. That course became clear in December, when CoStar bought portal company Homesnap for $250 million. The move put CoStar in direct competition with Zillow, and that competition only became more intense in January when CoStar bought the URL houses.com.
CoStar also made a bid to buy CoreLogic. Though that deal ultimately failed, it highlighted CoStar’s current expansionist doctrine. CoreLogic also works with hundreds of thousands of real estate agents, as well as multiple listing services — something that could allow it to pivot into home listings.
CoStar CEO Andy Florance has pushed this competitive landscape into the realm of rivalry. Though in January he said “we are not Zillow’s competitor,” he also argued that the “residential agent is Zillow’s competitor,” then went on to frame his company as an ally of agents amid Zillow’s “Uber-ization of residential real estate.”
“If one company controls all the rides — or the buyers — then they determine the price and the fee and the role of the agent,” Florance said.
That’s less bitter than some of the other rivalries on this list, but the takeaway as that these two companies remain on a collision course — and know they’re coming for each other.
Zillow has many fans in the agent community. And via the Premier Agent program it technically has a symbiotic relationship with those agents; Zillow makes money while the agents get leads.
But there has also long been simmering discontent with Zillow among other agents, and online real estate forums have long been peppered with complaints about the company.
“If you’re a Realtor, Zillow is not your friend,” one commenter wrote last fall. “They keep proving me right over and over. Their end game is not aligned with yours.”
“You can trust Zillow like you can gas station sushi…,” another wrote in February. “You just don’t.”
“We must boycott Zillow or find another profession,” yet another wrote in April. “It is that serious.”
These comments are par for the course. The mood soured even more in September when Zillow announced it would hire its own agents, and then again in February when it announced its acquisition of ShowingTime.
To be clear, Zillow has many defenders in the agent community. (Here’s a discussion thread that includes both criticism and support for the company.) And the company itself has said it’s not trying to bypass agents.
But for many real estate practitioners, the friction with Zillow is real, and probably the rivalry that has the most practical impact on the ground.
Discount real estate brokerage REX has a lot of bones to pick.
Back in 2019, for example, REX and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) slugged it out in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. That conflict began with an opinion piece from two REX executives, including company founder Jack Ryan, that called established Realtor rules “a skein of anticompetitive practices.”
John Smaby, the president of NAR in 2019, soon clapped back in a letter to the editor, calling REX’s argument a “shortsighted assumption.”
The beef with NAR continued into 2020, when the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed it had settled an antitrust lawsuit against the trade group. The same day the settlement was announced, REX revealed that it had been “working with the DOJ to share with them the many ways that the NAR and the MLS set their practices to extract money from home buyers and sellers.”
Later, in January 2021, Ryan further revealed that his company had given the DOJ recordings of agents discussing steering buyers away from certain homes with smaller commission. Ryan said he believed the recordings significantly contributed to getting the DOJ lawsuit off the ground.
But REX doesn’t just have NAR in its crosshairs.
In December, the company also sued Oregon state officials over what it described as antitrust real estate practices. The suit referred to the plaintiffs as “Oregon’s real estate cartel.”
And then in March, REX sued Zillow, Trulia and NAR. That suit was also focused on anti-trust issues, and claimed that entrenched real estate players were working to box out REX and its “innovative and disruptive business model.”
Zillow hit back in March, calling the suit “self serving” and essentially saying REX’s arguments amounted to a “nothingburger.”
There are a lot of startups in real estate right now, many of which are offering alternatives to the conventional brokerage model.
But REX has over the years shown a unique willingness to pull out all the stops when fighting for its “disruptive business model.” The result is that its rivalry seems to be more with the entire real estate establishment than any one particular player.