Should you buy shares in Zoopla?

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Zoopla has floated its shares on the UK stock market, valuing the property portal at around £1 billion, but are they a good buy or a goodbye?

Fast-growing property website Zoopla has floated on the stock market, joining a raft of companies to have listed shares on the London Stock Exchange so far in 2014.

Zoopla shares, priced at 220p in the initial public offering (IPO), began conditional trading on 18th June. They climbed to a high of 236p before closing at 228p, up 3.6% on their first day of trading.

As I write, Zoopla's current share price is 230.50p, valuing the property portal at just short of £1 billion. So, based on what we know about this newly listed company, are Zoopla shares as safe as houses or are they on rocky ground?

What is Zoopla?

Since its launch in January 2008 (just as the UK housing market went into meltdown), Zoopla has grown swiftly to become a household name in UK residential property. The portal introduces home buyers to sellers and landlords to tenants, as well as providing data on sale prices and estimated valuations.

The site, founded by ex-LoveFilm executives Alex Chesterman and Simon Kain, makes its money by charging advertising fees and subscriptions to estate agencies across the UK. As I write, the site has the best part of 900,000 properties for sale, with a further 290,000 available to rent from thousands of different UK estate agencies.

With over 40 million visitors each month to its portfolio of property websites, Zoopla is now the UK's second-biggest property portal after market leader Rightmove. Prior to its float, Zoopla was majority-owned by publisher Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), with other shareholders including investment firm Atlas Ventures and estate agent Countrywide.

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Zoopla's market debut

After revealing a price range of 200p-250p per share last month, Zoopla shares listed at an offer price of 220p. This valued the group at a market capitalisation of £918.8 million.

Out of a total of 417,642,460 shares, Zoopla sold 159,977,620 on its debut, representing almost two-fifths (38.3%) of the total number in issue. Including an over-allotment option, this raised £369.9 million for sellers of Zoopla shares.

The shares began conditional trading at 8am on 18th June and began trading unconditionally on the main market yesterday, the 23rd June. From this date, private investors will be able to buy and sell shares in Zoopla through their stockbrokers in the usual way.

Following this float, DMGT will own just over a third (33.7%) of Zoopla's shares, while major shareholders including DMGT still own more than half (52.6%) of the firm's shares. Given its near-£1 billion market value, Zoopla is likely to enter the mid-market FTSE 250 index at the next quarterly review and reshuffle in September.

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Zoopla's challenges

With recent IPOs having fallen a little flat after the bumper returns generated by the Royal Mail float last October, Zoopla priced its shares in the lower half of its indicative price range. Thanks to this reduction, its share float was four times over-subscribed. What's more, around one in five of the 19,000 estate agents using Zoopla took up its offer of a 20% buyers' discount (reducing the cost of their shares to 176p each).

One problem that Zoopla shares face from the off is that they look expensive, given the fact that the group is valued at nearly £1 billion, yet made operating profits of little more than £30 million in its last financial year. What's more, as an online company, Zoopla has almost nothing in the way of tangible assets (cash, property and other 'hard' assets), making it difficult to value on its market debut.

On the other hand, supporters of Zoopla would argue that its shares are actually quite cheap, given that it is riding the next big wave in online commerce. Indeed, more than half of all Zoopla's traffic is accounted for by mobile visits and app usage by smartphone and tablet users.

Another problem that Zoopla faces is that it is number two in its market, behind a very big, strong competitor. While Zoopla websites get 40 million visitors a month, Rightmove attracts 80 million, making it twice as popular with the British public.

Sceptics might ask why buy Zoopla shares at 33 times earnings, when you can snap up Rightmove shares at their recently depressed price of 2,180p? At this price, you get part-ownership of a £2.16 billion company with profit margins of 70% (compares to 45% at Zoopla), a forecast price-earnings ratio of 24, plus a projected dividend yield of 1.5%, covered 2.8 times.

With a less lofty market valuation and industry dominance, Rightmove looks a far less risky bet than Zoopla.

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Zoopla shares: good buy or goodbye?

Another problem Zoopla faces is the launch early next year of Agents Mutual, a start-up backed by major estate-agency groups that promises to freeze advertising fees for its first five years. Similarly, with the UK housing market heading for bubble territory (especially in over-heated London), any setbacks in property prices and transaction levels could hit Zoopla and rival sites for six.

Lastly, another issue is that Zoopla has grown rapidly not through organic growth alone, but by winning market share via a long string of mergers and acquisitions dating back to 2009 when it bought Thinkproperty.com. With few quality online property websites left for sale, Zoopla may struggle to grow strongly without gobbling up rival sites at premium prices.

I'm not at all tempted to add Zoopla shares to my portfolio. This share issue is really for growth investors only, rather than traditional value-hunters or income-seekers.

Until Zoopla starts making serious profits and distributes these to shareholders via cash dividends, or its shares drop markedly into value territory during periodic market corrections, they are a little too
rich for my blood. Anyone buying Zoopla shares for capital gains will need to be patient and hope the firm's go-go growth continues for years to come!

What do you think? Is Cliff right? Will you be buying Zoopla shares? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.

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