Be Wary of an MLS Breakup

You get comfy assuming that the information you have now will always be there.

Don't be so comfy.

If anything, the lesson of the internet era appears to be that more information becomes available over time, on more channels. It's always more.

But there are no guarantees! Trends can go backwards! You could end up with less.

There was one kind of shock over the last couple of weeks here as ESPN, ABC and other stations disappeared from Spectrum cable systems (Charter nationally). The matter is resolved now, and the channels are back, but if you like football (yes!) and baseball playoffs (hello!) and sports headlines, among other news and info that went dark, for a while there, you were forced to contemplate a world where you would have to go fetch each of those feeds from somewhere else.

Look at Twitter. (We will not call it by its dumb new name.) It's a different place now. After a $44 billion investment, it's not improving. It's disintegrating and shedding audience.

Problems on the platform have spawned a half-dozen imitators, all vying for eyeballs. Whatever Twitter was doesn't exist anymore, just a bunch of things that are sorta like it. Who's that better for?

Times Are Good for Online Real Estate

This is not a rant about TV sports or social media.

We want you to think about real estate online. (We see you, right there, looking at real estate online!)

Today is something of a heyday. But will it last?

Gone are the bad, bad, bad old, old days when listings were tightly controlled by real estate brokers and offices.

Way-back-when, to know which homes were for sale, you needed access to a book that was printed weekly and kept under wraps.

Multiple Listing Services sprouted up to host computerized sets of listing data, democratizing listing information for realtors – but realtors alone.

Later, real estate came online to the public, but it took a fight. Realtors fought the move toward displaying homes for sale, real estate data and photos on the internet. They liked mediating the data for consumers, but the US Department of Justice eventually stepped in and ordered the data to be free.

That was only 16 years ago, folks, overlapping with the time this website has been online. We were part of that fight to free the data.

Today, you can look at the feed of real estate listings online in lots of different places, and in lots of different presentations. Brokerages like ours, or Redfin's, or Zillow's, or your aunt's, can all publish the full feed of listings on their own websites.

The key is that there is one source, one regulated source: the MLS. (OK, there are multiple MLS systems, but stick with us here, because the point is the same.)

That uniformity leads to trust. It also makes consumers' job easier, because you only need to go to one of your favorite sites to see all of the listings.

For a nightmare alternative, consider the rental market.

Have you ever looked for a rental locally? 

We've helped clients look. There's an MLS feed for rentals, and it goes out to thousands of websites.

But then there's Zillow/Trulia/Hotpads (same owner), which has opted out of the rental portion of the MLS feed so that they can have their own "walled garden" of listings. (A place where they can charge property owners and realtors.)

There are dozens of additional rental websites, some of which charge for access to rental listings, or charge owners to list properties.

And then there are individual property managers' websites, which often host an office's own listings, but which do not feed out to other sources. Property managers aren't always required to post their listings anywhere else, so first you have to be lucky enough to know that they exist, then maybe, after you navigate their 2002-vintage website, you can call the office, and they might call you back.

Rentals are chaotic, compared to listings for sale, because the regulations as to listings are far fewer in number and in scope.

Commercial real estate listings are a hash as well.

Available properties might be online, or might not be.

They might be on just one broker's site, on a regional website, on a subscription website, on a free public website, on Craigslist, or just in a broker's head while he dials buddies looking for a deal.

Reliable Feeds Come Out of Rules Now Under Threat

We're all now accustomed to a flat, full, reliable feed of residential real estate for sale, not the choppy rental listings or the Wild West of commercial listings.

That's because of the backbone of residential real estate information online: the MLS, and the regulations supporting it. 

But the real estate industry's rules, including some central to the MLS, are under attack. There are two major lawsuits heading to trial, and ongoing federal government investigations and interventions.

Put down that "world's tiniest violin" for a second (oh, poor realtors under attack!) and understand that the next few months could result in changes that disrupt the MLS, and all the associated regulations.

We'd love to have a grown-up conversation about the way the real estate industry is structured, its rules of the game, and various practices, pro and con. Let's do all that another time.

Fundamentally, the issue is this: The MLS is based on rules that require realtors:

(1) to list properties in one regulated database, and

(2) to make an unconditional offer of compensation to other agents who represent buyers.

Some of the litigation out there would aim to pull one leg off of the stool, by changing the way buyers' agents are compensated.

There is an argument – a real worry – that if you take compensation out of the MLS, you cannot have regulations on the listing data, either. 

Before you know it, the MLS becomes optional, or blows up, and 1,000 flowers – erm, listing data feeds – will bloom.

That's what we think would be bad for you, for us and for everyone. The public and consumers are basically well-served by the systems we have now.

If you want feed blackouts, multiple conflicting platforms, private and pocketed listings, and chaos in even knowing what is for sale and whether the info you see is true... well, heck, blowing up the MLS could get you your wish.

There's a fight ahead. We're hoping to keep what we've got.


Nerdy note/disclosure: Your blog author here, Dave Fratello – once known as an outsider real-estate industry critic, and still known as a skeptic – is also a practicing broker who volunteers on local, regional and statewide industry panels devoted to MLS regulations. We've got a lot more to say...

Please see our blog disclaimer.

Listings presented above are supplied via the MLS and are brokered by a variety of agents and firms, not Dave Fratello or Edge Real Estate Agency, unless so stated with the listing. Images and links to properties above lead to a full MLS display of information, including home details, lot size, all photos, and listing broker and agent information and contact information.

Based on information from California Regional Multiple Listing Service, Inc. as of May 26th, 2024 at 4:30pm PDT. This information is for your personal, non-commercial use and may not be used for any purpose other than to identify prospective properties you may be interested in purchasing. Display of MLS data is usually deemed reliable but is NOT guaranteed accurate by the MLS. Buyers are responsible for verifying the accuracy of all information and should investigate the data themselves or retain appropriate professionals. Information from sources other than the Listing Agent may have been included in the MLS data. Unless otherwise specified in writing, Broker/Agent has not and will not verify any information obtained from other sources. The Broker/Agent providing the information contained herein may or may not have been the Listing and/or Selling Agent.