I read a post today by Michael Wurzer titled “Is Data Free? Is There No Free Lunch?” at the FBS Blog. By the way, this is phenomenal blog if you have an interest in MLS-related topics. I am not completely sure what FlexMLS does, but their clients are MLS’s. Considering their clientele, their blog is very balanced and they write some very thought-provoking material on the current topics of MLS data availability, standardizing IDX feeds, etc.

Mr. Wurzer’s post took a look at the Google API and posed the question whether MLS’s should follow step and provide more open access to MLS listings. At Real Estate Connect last month, this was a hot topic at many forums. However, the discussions were not about whether this should happen, but when and how. I have also noticed this assumption in all of the blog posts that I have seen on the subject. The assumption I am referring to: “making MLS listing data more open and accessible is the right the thing to do.”

Based on the overwhelming consensus on this topic from those that write and speak about it, I imagine that you may be reading this thinking I am out in left field somewhere. I am not discounting that I may be alone on this. However, consider my perspective… I am a Colorado Springs real estate broker. I love my business because I spend my productive days training agents, working through problems, motivating, enforcing standards, recruiting, meeting a payroll, and ultimately helping my agents obtain & maintain an advantage over their competition. My clients are not home buyers and sellers; my clients are real estate agents who are building real estate businesses because they love the work and to support their families and achieve financial independence.

I can understand how making MLS data more malleable and easier to syndicate may benefit national aggregating websites like Zillow, Trulia, Homegain, etc, but I do not understand the value of this to the real estate agents or real estate customers. I look at this question in a very capitalistic way by following the money…after all, this is a business to most of us, not a government service of some type. Here’s how it looks from my Rocky Mountain vantage point…


I can see why the companies that fit into this category would definitely want things like a regional or a national MLS, or at least an IDX standard. I have read over and over again that there are over 900 MLS’s in the United States and that acquiring and aggregating all of those feeds is akin to passing a controversial bill through congress — it is a very political, time intensive, and expensive process that is not for the faint-hearted.

This aggregation is so painful that only a few companies have yet done it. Please post a comment if I am missing one, but as far as I know, they are: www.remax.com, www.realtor.com, www.helpusell.com, and www.homegain.com (sort of). Are these really the only four sites in the country where a customer can go to one web address and access all the different MLS’s? If so, then the current rules governing MLS data sharing are accomplishing their intent.

If there was a national MLS or just a few regional MLS’s and this aggregation process became much less cost and time prohibitive, it is very clear what would happen. Any 19 year old who knows .NET could create another national real estate website for about $5,000 and automatically be a competitor with the #1 site in the field — Realtor.com.

I know Realtor.com very well. I pay heavily each year to have “showcase listings,” which basically means that my listings that show up there will not embarrass me when my clients check to see what they look like. I feel qualified to share my opinion that the only two things that Realtor.com has that gives it the leading 8% market share of real estate customer eyeballs online are its MLS aggregation and its brand. If having the MLS’s aggregated becomes ubiquitous, then that brand will quickly not be enough to maintain its lead.

My point is that more accessible MLS data would not only create far more real estate entrants than we see today but that the data would be far less valuable to everyone. How long do you think it would take companies like eBay, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. to pull in that data alongside their existing content? Again, this would be great for website businesses outside the real estate industry, but how does that benefit the companies within the industry?


I assume the argument for greater accessibility is on the customer’s behalf. However, when I imagine this scenario playing out, I do not see it. Why is more advantageous for a Colorado Springs resident or someone moving to Colorado Springs to be able to go a national site to search the listings posted to the Colorado Springs MLS versus finding that information on one of hundreds of Colorado Springs agent websites with IDX feeds?

Would the advantage be that the customer would not have to register contact information on a national site where they presumably would have to on a local site? This scenario is, of course, assuming that when the MLS data became more accessible that this would include IDX rule changes governing that customers must first register to access MLS listings. However, if the national sites could then open the shop to the customers without having to require registrations, then I can only assume that the real estate brokers who have created the information would have the same option. If this is the case, then this advantage of a national listing aggregation site would be canceled.

So then what would be important customer problem that would be solved by “freeing the data?” I think everyone on all sides of this question would agree that most home buyers and home sellers, no matter how they acquire their information, will still continue to seek the counsel of a real estate professional for an important real estate transaction. If we can assume this, then why add another layer between the customer and the local market professional who is the only link in the chain who can truly add context to the MLS data?

Currently, many customers find MLS listing data by using a search engine to search for “[enter real estate market here] Real Estate” and then screening the search results for the site that offers the best local market information and listing data that they are interested in. I agree that there should be a better way than essentially searching twice: once entering the search time on a search engine and then searching again through the 2 million results that appear for “[enter real estate market here] real estate;” however, I don’t see how a national MLS listing site solves the local context need that most home buyers have. The listing itself is just part of the puzzle… what about the schools, the “brand” of the neighborhood, the equivalent neighborhoods that offer more possibilities at a better price, etc.? I have never had a client buy a property without considering the material factors that surround the property.


Finally, we must consider the perspective of the local real estate agent like me. Of course I am not speaking for the 1.4 million Realtors® in the country, but I can comfortably account for the 60 agents I know in my brokerage. They don’t care if it is difficult for national websites to aggregate listings. These national websites are one of three things to the average agent like me:

  1. A competitor
  2. An expense
  3. An advertiser who will someday be a competitor when they get my information

As a Colorado Springs agent, it costs me $400 a year to display the Colorado Springs MLS listings on my website or blog. I don’t mind that the visitors who want to search listings have to register because that is the whole point of having a website or blog… to meet real estate customers. Why would I want to invest the money to build a website or blog, invest the time to make it relevant with great local content, and invest a great deal of money to make sure that my website is “found” whether that is through the search engines or through conventional advertising if I am just going to give away the information that is attracting my potential customers to the site? Please consider this question from an agent’s perspective.

Also, as a Colorado Springs agent, why would I want to show listings from multiple markets on my website? Most great agents have a professional standard to only work with clients in markets in which they have competence and knowledge. I understand that they are some markets in California and other places where there are overlapping MLS’s where aggregation obviously makes sense but this is the exception, not the rule.

I can hear a lot of fist-pounding and sighs out there as I write this. I imagine many people are thinking to themselves that this “another small minded realtor® who doesn’t get it.” However, unless you are a working agent who is feeding your family today through brokering real estate transactions, then you may want to reconsider my perspective on this issue.

The bottom line is this — The end game for the real estate agent if MLS listing data becomes more accessible and easier to aggregate is all bad. Now, my local website with its $400 IDX is ineffective and worthless because the listings that me and my peers have negotiated, collected, uploaded, and quality-checked are now ubiquitous. Real estate customers now can find these listings on 1 out of every 10 sites they visit: while they are checking their US Bank account balance, they can easily click on: “Search all homes,” while buying beanie babies on eBay, I can skip over and “search all homes,” while pre-qualifying for a mortgage on Countrywide, the last page of the loan application asks if I want to “search all homes.”

The companies with the established online brands and huge advertising budgets will now be the first point of contact for my customers and they will graciously give me a Housevalues-ish opportunity to “buy them” for only $1,500 per month. Or a company (probably from Seattle) will make a great deal with me. They will send all of the customers that visit their site interested in my market if I agree to their advertised listing fees, rebates, etc. All the sudden, I am not having fun anymore.

I think MLS’s get this. I also think NAR gets this too. However, it seems like both entities would better serve the interests of their customers – the agents – if they became more part of the conversation like the smart people at the FBS Blog. Perhaps NAR cannot due to the ongoing lawsuit with the Department of Justice, but if there are 900 MLS’s out there, why is only one in the colleseum of public opinion making its case? I think it is not an illegitimate position to state, “we do not want to make it easier to aggregate and display MLS listings because it is not good for the people who pay our bills.”

If you do not agree with me, can you at least acknowledge my perspective? The purpose of this blog post is to challenge the assumption that “MLS accessibility is something that needs to happen.” Let us not allow group think to prevent us from thoroughly debating this question at the risk of building policy and opinion on an invalid assumption.