Toronto Income Property Newsletter: May 2010

In last month’s newsletter, I addressed the current controversy surrounding opening up the MLS to the public and dissecting what many think are very high realtor commissions. First off thanks to all of you who wrote in supporting me and commenting that I very much earn what I make based on the time and service I offer. I really appreciate it. This month I am going to expand on the story by reprinting an article I orginally wrote in early 2006. I’d also like to mention that it is my ten year anniversary in this business, so thanks to all of you for keeping me at this for so long.

There is an on-going controversy that has been in the news regarding our proprietary rights as Realtors to have exclusive access to MLS data. Some regional consumer and trade boards contend that the national real estate body’s tight and strict control over MLS listings is anti-competitive. The National Association of Realtors in the U.S. and the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) in Canada have sole administrative power over the MLS and the Realtor trademarks. They are the ones who through reciprocal agreements with local real estate boards allow only real estate agents sole access to all the listings. While there are consumer sites like www.realtor.com or www.mls.ca, it is widely acknowledged that these sites are watered down versions of the real thing.

I don’t think that this is necessarily a new issue. This has always been a difficult question to answer. When you as a Seller put your house on MLS who owns that data? Is it the seller himself, the listing brokerage, or the real estate regulatory bodies at the provincial or national levels? I am oversimplifying the issue by focusing just on the MLS data. The current debate encompasses a much wider range of concerns but at the heart of it still lays the MLS usage controversy.

The issue came to the forefront some months ago in the U.S. when a private seller was denied the ability to post his FSBO (For sale by Owner) on the MLS. Under the current system, essentially in order to be added to the MLS, a realtor has to be involved. Since we charge for our services and there seems to be a tacit agreement with respect to commissions, this has been deemed unfair and anti-competitive. In a free market with competitive forces at work, supply and demand ought to determine compensation levels. Yet, regardless of economic or market conditions, our commission rates fluctuate very little. Discount brokerages have tried to mess around with this formula but by and large these low-commission business models have failed. Here’s why: I know that when I find a property for my buyer client, I should receive 2.5% of the purchase price. If a private seller decides instead that he only wants to pay me $500, how hard am I going to work to sell his house? Many companies offering lower buyers fees get blackballed by the agents at large because they threaten how much money we can make. I’m not saying that this is right, it just is.

Studies show that most new entrants into the real estate market do their preliminary research on-line, often spending their initial time on the consumer listings sites. When we list a property, we are given the option to have the listing appear on the Internet or not. This, in effect, limits the usefulness of the consumer site. If I don’t put a listing on the free Internet sites, then the only way it is going to get exposed is through MLS, ultimately from a real estate agent. There is also the lag time between actual market activity and the consumer sites. If I enter a listing as conditionally sold on the MLS, the database is updated within seconds. This information may not get to the consumer site for a day or two, if at all. There is also the fact that only the real MLS list sales data. You can call the consumer site mls.ca, but it is only a fraction of the information on the real MLS. In fact, they are now contemplating changing the name of mls.ca to avoid this confusion. It is all the real data, entered for the most part by agents, that as an industry we are trying to protect. I guess in reality, protect and not willingly share.

Richard Taylor, the deputy commissioner of competition for the Canadian Competition Bureau stated “CREA has the right the right to exclude others from using the MLS trademark, but not to leverage that right into restricting competition in the provision of real estate brokerage services.” In other words, we created this system, but should we should solely be the ones to continue to benefit from it?

Thus far the Toronto Real Estate Board has, not surprisingly, shown widespread support for CREA continuing to administer and protect the trademark and MLS rights. But is this self-serving? On the surface, it may certainly seem like it. Time will tell how widespread the support is on the other side of the real estate business to allow more open access to non-licensed persons.

What does this mean in the larger sense? If a seller is able to post their own listing on MLS and deal directly with buyer agents, they are going to potentially save thousands of dollars by not using a listing broker. This is obviously what Realtors are trying to avoid.

My position, by the way, is that as a Realtor specializing in a niche segment of the business (residential income properties) that the services I provide have value. However, unlike many other agents, I do not mind giving more informational power to the consumer. I earn my pay by offering valuable advice and insight based on years of practical experience in the field. It doesn’t bother me when a client finds a property on the consumer site and sends it to me for my feedback. Some feel that this is our job, whereas I feel that my role is more of an advisor. Anybody can open a lockbox. I advise clients to buy a property, or as is more often the case, to not buy a given property. I also believe that I pay a lot of fees to the local, provincial and federal real estate associations so there should be something to show for these affiliations. If you take away my preferred access to MLS, then I would have to question what purpose they would continue to serve.

This on-going debate is likely to carry on for some time. There’s obviously a lot of money at stake and any changes would have far-reaching consequences to the way organized real estate is handled in North America. It will be interesting to watch and see if any concessions are made to bring the MLS data closer to the hands of the general public. I’ll still be out there selling you income properties regardless of how the flow of property information advances. If you’d like more information or direct links to arguments on both sides of this argument, please drop me a line at paul@plex.ca.

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