Kanchana Wangkeo Leung – EasyKnock
A still young firm that made its mark offering residential sale-leaseback solutions to homeowners, EasyKnock had thoughts about enhancing its suite of products with additional bridge options such as cash offers. However, given other priorities and a cooling housing market, the idea was put on the back burner until last year when the executives learned that another firm—Ribbon Home— might have overstretched itself during the boom.
Though Ribbon’s business seemed sound from the outside, it struggled like others in the real estate industry, engaged in two rounds of employee layoffs and ceased new financing while exploring options that included being absorbed by another firm. Seeing the opportunity to capitalize, EasyKnock entered negotiations to acquire most of Ribbon’s assets and in May closed the deal for an undisclosed price.
“Perfect timing for both firms,” says Kanchana Wangkeo Leung, the EasyKnock general counsel and corporate secretary who oversaw the transaction. This included managing due diligence and negotiation of terms for acquiring the assets, products, technology, intellectual property, and website, but none of the liabilities.
“We needed a few months to integrate and we’re now in the beginning stages of relaunch,” she adds. “So far, so good.”
In midsummer, EasyKnock reintroduced RibbonCash, an all-cash offer product in the housing hotspots of Georgia and North Carolina, with plans to expand. The Ribbon asset acquisition and integration increased Leung’s responsibilities, and she has assembled a stronger legal and compliance department to meet the challenge.
“We are going to continue to market Ribbon products as well as add new ones,” she tells Vanguard in August from New York City headquarters. “Ribbon really aligns with our mission of empowering consumers with choice. It’s been a great fit.”
See you out of court
Professionally and personally, it’s been just as ideal a fit for Leung, a Yale Law School graduate who honed her skills as a commercial litigator with three New York City firms from 2002 to 2016 before going in-house to hedge fund manager Gilead Capital. Afterward came a 2020 to 2022 stint at Better and finally to EasyKnock. How much more satisfied Leung says she’s been since transitioning from litigating to keeping her sole client—her employer—out of court.
“Litigation was great training,” she says. “I saw how things could unravel and the need to mitigate risk and avoid problems. But after 14 years of bringing and defending lawsuits, I got tired of having to clean up broken deals after the fact. Now I’m on the front end.”
It’s no less a challenge, Leung says, noting the sensitivity of the legal process as it pertains to all housing matters. While the EasyKnock model gives homeowners financial flexibility, some disputes seem inevitable.
The sale-leaseback product, Leung explains, can be to the advantage of those homeowners whose less-than-pristine credit prevents them from accessing their home equity through traditional financial solutions, such as HELOCs and cash-out refinances. EasyKnock buys the home while the former owner remains as a tenant who can buy back the house or direct the firm to sell it for additional cash. The transaction allows customers to get the cash they need without having to uproot their lives and move out of the communities they love.
Now, with Ribbon Home’s assets, EasyKnock accesses another market: people trying to buy their dream homes. For a fee, bidders on properties can make an “all cash” offer on a house backstopped by RibbonCash. If a potential buyer can’t close on the home purchase on time, Ribbon steps in to buy the house, allowing the customer to complete the mortgage process and buy it from Ribbon.
However, no such model is foolproof.
“In this environment, a lot of people have trouble paying their bills,” Leung says. “And while some of our customers also struggle, we work with them to try to find solutions to remain in the home.”
Much risk to manage
Again, Leung cites her litigation background and how it factors in her helping EasyKnock manage the risk that’s business as usual to any real estate purchaser or landlord and much more so for one that’s innovating in the prop-tech space. It’s all part of a responsibility she shares with a legal department she’s expanded to three other lawyers, each of whom has expertise in a subject matter: regulatory law, corporate law and real estate law. Two compliance professionals round out her team.
Upon joining EasyKnock in March 2022, it was just Leung and another in-house lawyer, which necessitated much triaging for legal matters. Because EasyKnock operates nationwide and must navigate the rules and regulations of every jurisdiction in which it’s active, Leung says the larger department was necessary to oversee the firm’s growth in a housing market that’s much changed.
According to her, higher interest rates are a double-edged sword, increasing demand for the residential sale-leaseback while decreasing the need for cash offers. She also adds that the higher cost of borrowing affects all industries and EasyKnock will find ways to persevere.
“We want to be part of the solution for those finding it hard to get a mortgage or refinance,” Leung says. “We’re planning to bring other products to market. I’m just glad I can be part of the process.”
She describes how the legal department touches all aspects of the consumer-facing firm. Risk and crisis management might seem to be the most high-stakes responsibilities, but just as important are the business-as-usual functions that keep the company running, such as review of vendor contracts and marketing collateral, advising on employee issues, regulatory analysis of new products and features, and fielding of consumer complaints.
“You could say I’m in preventative-care mode,” she says with a good-natured laugh.
Maybe that’s to be expected from the daughter of a physician and a nurse, the couple immigrating from Thailand and raising four children.
“A typical immigrant success story,” Leung says.
She sustains it as a first-generation American and working mother of three school-age children. According to Leung, her parents identified in her such lawyerly traits as being analytical and persuasive. A Duke University psychology and history major, she says that her studies served as a foundation for her legal skills, as they required an enormous amount of research, analysis and writing, coupled with insights on human cognition and behavior. Numerous lawsuits settled out of court, she learned early how to make the case on paper.
But it wasn’t just high-stakes commercial cases where Leung cut her teeth. Ever the advocate, her early clients included asylum seekers and domestic violence survivors, whom she represented pro bono.
“I’ve always been interested in helping the underserved,” she says.
Thus, she goes on to say, EasyKnock aligns with her values, the firm providing homeowners with financial flexibility and homebuyers with the cash offers that give them the advantage in any bidding war.
“My goal is to be part of that process and shepherd EasyKnock into a mature company that can continue to serve consumers,” Leung says.
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter I 2024 Edition here.
Showcase your feature on your website with a custom “As Featured in Vanguard” badge that links directly to your article!
Copy and paste this script into your page coding (ideally right before the closing