The online unbundling of the newspaper business is nothing new, but The Hindu has arrived rather late to the party. The publication has launched Roofandfloor.com, a real estate portal, nine years after Info Edge* launched 99Acres.com, eight years after competing publishing house The Times of India Group* launched MagicBricks.com.

Early days for Roof and floor: the portal is Chennai focused, and according to Exchange4media, has 400 developers with almost 1000 new projects. The product itself is fairly simple, but interestingly, also includes a video route map. The site is clearly trying to get users to sign up, giving access to information on the neighborhood and the video route only after users sign up.

On competition in the real estate segment

1. Business: 99Acres, as per the latest datasheet for Q1-FY14 from Info Edge, had 772,000 projects listed, with 603,000 paid listings. The company reported Rs 75.90 crore in revenue from the business in FY14, and an operating EBIDTA loss of Rs 4.8 crore. To be fair The Hindu has only just launched a site.

2. Funds:

99Acres claims to be the largest property site in India, and so does MagicBricks, but competition abounds, and is increasing, with more and more companies raising funds:

– Commonfloor has raised over $17 million from Tiger Global and Accel Partners India.
– Indiaproperty.com has raised $12 million from Bertelsmann and others.
– Housing has raised almost $20 million till date, from Helion Venture Partners, Qualcomm Ventures, Nexus Venture Partners and others.
– Accel Partners have backed SAIF Partners backed PropTiger
– HT Media launched its real estate…oh wait. They never did, despite planning to launch one in Q1-2010.

We’re going through the second key phase of evolution of the online property business, and competition is heating up. Companies like Housing and CommonFloor have come in and by focusing on both audience and agent acquisition. Competition, as we had explained earlier, is forcing 99Acres to spend more money, improve its product offering and expand the team. It’s a battle for dominance of the real estate segment now, and Info Edge is even raising an additional warchest Rs 750 crore for 99Acres and its education business Shiksha.

3. Product: A comparison of what a search for Ambattur reveals on the Hindu website, and what Housing.com showcases:

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Clearly, while the Housing interface looks rather complex, they have more information, including walk-throughs of different properties, and easier navigation.

So, too late?

The Hindu didn’t have a choice: real estate revenues are moving and will continue to move online, and it should have started Roof and Floor a few years ago, if only as a defensive move. Much of the money raised by new real estate portals is going to be spent on audience acquisition, and this is where publications had an advantage. As long as real estate developers believe that Print and TV are a significant part of their promotional efforts, the opportunity will remain.

In the technology space, it is better to enter a market late, as long as you’re entering it with a better product, and your competitors have legacy issues to contend with. That’s what Housing and Commonfloor have already done, and forced others to evolve. While this might be early days for Roof and Floor, it clearly has a long way to go before it can challenge both incumbents and newcomers from a product perspective.

The other opportunity for it was to have tied up with existing property sites, in exchange for a fee for driving traffic. That has been done before, especially by NDTV. However, in case of The Hindu, that would amount to giving up ground permanently.

The Hindu can continue to hold some share of spends by bundling online listings with print classifieds. The exchange4media story mentions that Roof and Floor is an extension of The Hindu’s Property Plus supplement. It can start by renaming the print supplement RoofAndFloor.com, and maintaining a single brand across media platforms.

Disclosure: both Info Edge and the Times of India Group have advertised on MediaNama this month