October 27, 2014
When I was 10 years old, I worked in my father’s real estate office for the summer. My job was to file new, pending, expired, and sold property index cards in a shoebox-like storage container. We received these cards once a week, and I remember my father always emphasizing that I must put each card in the correct section so he could accurately assess what properties were pending and sold and what was still available to show to his clients. Fast forward 12 years when I was an agent working in his office, we were now using the real estate listing book. There were rumors of a new revolutionary tool that would allow members to immediately receive listing data instead of waiting as long as a week to receive “the book.” The new tool was called a dummy terminal.
The dummy terminal was an oversized, 50-pound, typewriter-like device with a built-in dot matrix printer with no monitor, which was connected to a database of listing data via a phone line. After logging on, I would blindly peck in a request for listing information, and if everything was entered perfectly, the dummy terminal would spit out a list of available listings; it was the dawn of the real estate space age. At this juncture, the MLS and its participants maintained absolute control over the data, but the transition from printed material to modern technology was not easy. I remember the controversy at our local board where people accustomed to receiving the book fought hard to maintain the status quo, while members who embraced and quickly adopted this new technology clearly had a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
The issues of adapting to new technologies eased over time, and the dummy terminal soon became obsolete as the personal computer revolution took a strong foothold in the everyday lives of people and business. In the early 1980s, real estate offices began using personal and business computers to access MLS data. As these systems evolved into what is today’s modern MLS, new contractual distribution agreements to sell and share data emerged:
- IDX (Broker to Broker)
- VOW (Broker to Broker with secure entry to consumer)
- RETS (Data sent to industry vendors, matches most feeds to syndicators)
- Aggregators (Agreements between MLSs and aggregators like Realtor.com, Zillow, and Trulia)
- Syndication (ListHub, Point2, Broker websites, and other vendor advertisers all syndicate)
- MLS data back to Broker (Broker wants all the information they provide to MLS to come back to them so they can produce their own AVMs, etc.)
- Franchisors (have gone directly to the syndicators and some directly to the MLSs to receive data)
- MLS - IDX framed portal (searchable box or widget given straight to agent)
The scale, complexity, and inability of some brokers and agents to understand these relationships have led to further confusion. Many MLSs have responsibly agreed to enter into data-sharing agreements with other MLSs, while others have maintained their MLSs as a profit center for local associations and themselves. The latter is a clear economic disadvantage and disservice to the member and large brokers who have repeatedly and clearly articulated their displeasure with a system that forces them to join multiple MLSs, with multiple rules and data entry points, to obtain data for their agents and firms. Additionally, our continued loss of control of the data has also challenged the REALTOR® value proposition with the consumer.
This dysfunction within our REALTOR®-based MLS system has left the door wide open to outside competition. In my travels around the state this year, people have repeatedly asked my thoughts regarding Zillow, Trulia, and, to a lesser extent, REALTOR.com. What I tell them is that we have a fractured, decentralized system with hundreds of MLSs and perhaps thousands of REALTOR® MLS directors, oftentimes making decisions based on ulterior motives. In contrast, Zillow with a $4-plus billion market cap, has eight business people in a boardroom who have outspent and out-strategized our current system, and won the hearts and minds of consumers. Anecdotally, REALTORS® have said their clients sometimes have more listing data from other sources than what they can provide to them through the MLS. There is some evidence to suggest this might be true: in 2007, a C.A.R. homebuyers survey revealed almost nine out of 10 buyers found their home through an agent; in 2014, C.A.R.'s homebuyers survey revealed five out of 10 buyers found their home through an agent.
It is clear that dramatic changes will take place in our industry over the next several years. We have, or had, a window period to address these issues in a comprehensive manner. A good example of this is C.A.R.’s statewide MLS that our board of directors approved seven years ago. However, political barriers and the self-interest of some of these MLSs have stopped it from truly becoming statewide with the potential for greater marketplace efficiency and superior technology that scale could bring. I don’t know if it’s too late for the needed changes to take place, but the one thing I do know is if our current MLS model does not change, we will one day wake up and find that they are obsolete, just like the dummy terminal.
In closing, as my term as your President concludes, I want to thank each and every one of you for your active involvement with C.A.R. this year. I leave knowing you’ll remain just as involved with your 2015 Leadership Team comprised of President Chris Kutzkey, President-elect Ziggy Zicarelli, Treasurer Geoff McIntosh, and C.A.R. Chief Executive Officer Joel Singer. It has been a pleasure serving you.
CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®