Much of the economy may be in distress, but real estate is red-hot right now.

A Pittsburgh-based real estate tech startup called TwnSqr is betting that it can make the process of buying and selling homes easier with a platform that helps sellers connect to agents and buyers in a short amount of time.

Co-founder Paul Wakim used to run Fly Over Properties Real Estate Photography (now run by his wife), and he noticed some untapped opportunities in the process of selling a home. When a homeowner is considering selling their property, they are extremely valuable to real estate agents at that phase.

“We’re helping them capture that value,” says Wakim.

TwnSqr (pronounced “Town Square”) is a tech startup that helps homeowners market themselves by asking investors and agents to compete for their business. It flips the typical process of real estate listings by giving agents and buyers access to exclusive leads — the sellers — and allowing sellers to better capitalize on their home’s value.

How it works 

TwnSqr helps home sellers find the best person to sell their house.

The owner fills out a form complete with their neighborhood, information about their property, photos and zip code. TwnSqr hides the owner’s identity, contact information and exact address. Nobody knows exactly where the house is.

Then, real estate agents or buyers who are interested in purchasing the property make offers to get access to the information. Their “bid” is how much they’re willing to pay to unlock the hidden information about the owner and the house. It’s an auction for the right to contact the owner, instead of an auction of their property.

Paul Wakim of TwnSqr.

The offer includes the agent profile, their track record in the real estate industry and how much they think they’ll be able to list the house for.

“We give them (real estate agents) just enough info that they should be able to give you (the homeowner) a really good answer, but not the exact sale price they think they’ll be able to sell it for,” says Wakim.

Agents can place a bid of any amount, says Wakim. There’s no fee to pay to place a bid. Bids range from $5 to $4,000.

“We received a bid for $4,000 yesterday on a $600,000 listing,” says Wakim.

Bids so far have ranged from $1,000-$1,500 for properties in high-demand neighborhoods like Lawrenceville.

Owners can check reviews of bidders’ past performance and choose which one to connect to.

“The cool thing for the owner is that when their auction ends, when their listing ends, they’re able to go in and see all of the different offers they’ve received from all the different real estate agents and pick which one they want to work with,” says Wakim.

Only then, does the real estate agent get to see the owner’s name, number, email and exact address.

The connected owner and bidder sign a contract outside of TwnSqr, then return to the site to indicate the agreed price. As soon as that happens, the bid is released to the owner, and the owner gets paid — to find the best person to purchase or list their home.

If you’re a real estate agent, and the seller doesn’t sign with you, you are refunded 100% of the money in your bid amount.

“It’s virtually risk-free marketing and lead generation for real estate agents, as opposed to the traditional methods of marketing where an agent spends thousands of dollars on a platform (like, say, Zillow) for access to eyeballs and then just crosses their fingers that they’re going to get some leads,” says Wakim.

All the typical marketing platforms — like Zillow, Facebook ads, Google ads, billboards, “just listed” postcards — cost money.

“As for the common marketing spend by real estate agents — I know anecdotally that some agents spend $8,000-plus per month on marketing,” says Wakim. “A 2018 article by RealTrends found that the top three percent of realtors spend $80,000-plus annually on marketing.”

If the house doesn’t sell, the seller keeps the bid amount.

“As an agent, I see this as another lead generation tool,” says realtor Michelle Goetzinger, who was the winner of the first TwnSqr listing, a six-unit building in Tarentum. “It’s a new way to connect with potential home sellers. With the market for homes so tight right now, agents need to become more creative in finding homes for their buyers. TwnSqr brings potentially off-market homes to market in a new way that gives savvy, digital-first realtors a leg up.”

The app is currently free as it gets off the ground and builds a user base.

“In the future, we have some plans to implement a paid subscription model, and we have a couple of things in the works,” says Wakim. “Right now it’s 100% free for real estate agents, real estate buyers, investors and the homeowner to use.”

Wakim and his co-founder Mitchell Tracy think TwnSqr has the potential to grow quickly. They’re currently talking to a number of venture capitalists.

“What we’re trying to do is go nationwide within the next five years,” says Wakim. “And we want to be a source for real estate agents and people that are looking for sellers. We want to be the go-to source for them to find and connect with motivated sellers.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.