Section 501 (c)(6) of the Internal Revenue code provides for the exemption of nonprofit real estate associations whose earnings do not inure to the benefit of any private shareholders or individuals. Pursuant to Section 1.501 (c)(6)-1 of the income tax regulations, a real estate association will not be entitled to an exemption unless it:

. . . is an association of persons having some common business interest, the purpose of which is to promote such common interest and not to engage in a regular business of a kind ordinarily carried on for profit. . . . Thus, its activities should be directed to the improvement of business conditions of one or more lines of business as distinguished from the performance of particular service for individual persons. An organization whose purpose is to engage in a regular business of a kind ordinarily carried on for profit, even though the business is conducted on a cooperative basis or produces only sufficient income to be self sustaining, is not a business league.

It should be noted that this regulation does not preclude a real estate association from engaging in a regular business of a kind ordinarily carried on for profit, as long as such business does not constitute the primary purpose for the organization’s existence. In fact, the regulation strongly suggests that a real estate association could engage in some business activities without loss of exemption by providing that organizations otherwise exempt from tax under this section are taxable upon their unrelated business taxable income.

Thus, the purpose of this discussion is to consider whether real estate associations operating multiple listing services can qualify for a Section 501 (c)(6) exemption.

This inquiry involves two separable questions:

  1. Is the operation of an MLS ordinarily a not-for-profit activity?
  2. Will the operation of a profitable MLS cause the real estate association to forfeit its Section 501 (c)(6) exemption?

The position of the Internal Revenue Service with respect to the first of these questions is clear. Revenue Ruling 59-234, 1959-2 C.B. 149 holds that an MLS is a business ordinarily carried on for profit and inherently designed to render particular services to individual members. The service reached this conclusion notwithstanding that the purpose of an MLS, generally, in the service’s own words, is:

(a) to assist members of the board in rendering better service to the public by creating a broader and more active market for real estate; (b) to stimulate and facilitate the transaction of business between members of the board through cooperation and exchange of exclusive listings; (c) to provide a medium through which real estate may be merchandized more efficiently and expeditiously to the advantage of both buyer and seller; and (d) to encourage REALTORS® to uphold high standards of business practice and to further educate them in adhering to the principles of the REALTORS® Code of Ethics.

The Court of Claims, in Evanston–North Shore Board of REALTORS® v. U.S., 162 Ct. Cl. 682, 320 F.2d 375 (1963), cert. den. 376 U.S. 931 (1964), followed Rev. Rule. 59-234 in denying exempt status to a real estate association with a mandatory multiple listing service. While the court specifically found that Evanston–North Shore’s MLS was operated primarily for the benefit of its members, there is dictum which suggests that a real estate association might escape the application of Rev. Rule. 59-234, given the right circumstances.

Assuming that a multiple listing service is a business ordinarily carried on for profit, it does not follow that the operation of an MLS should cause a real estate association to forfeit its Section 501 (c)(6) exemption. Arguably, the operation of an MLS qualifies as a business activity ancillary to the primary purpose of a real estate association which, as required by Reg. Section 1.501 (c)(6)-1, is “. . . to promote (a) common interest and . . . (improve) business conditions . . . distinguished from the performance of particular services for individual persons,” rather than constituting the primary purpose for the association’s existence. Thus, if the primary purpose of a real estate association is to improve business conditions as opposed to operating an MLS, the association should be eligible for a Section 501 (c)(6) exemption.

The basic problem facing a real estate association operating an MLS is demonstrating that the primary purpose for its existence is to conduct activities dedicated to the improvement of local business conditions (within the meaning of Reg. Section 1.501 (c)(6)-1) and that any other financial activities, including the MLS, are ancillary to such purpose.

A summary of specific methods and procedures that should be followed and adequately documented by the association to demonstrate entitlement to tax exemption is presented as follows:

1. Association to Document Its Overall Program of Activity: The leadership of the association should ensure that the objects of the association, as set forth in the bylaws, establish a clear and articulate picture of what the association is and what the purposes and objectives of the association are considered to be. In addition to the description found in the bylaws of the association, the leadership should ensure that it documents, in some further form, any and all participation by association members in the programs, activities, and projects of the local association, as well as those of the state association and of the National Association.

2. Multiple Listing Service to Be Operated as Incidental Activity of the Association: The leadership of the association should ensure that it is clearly understood by all of the association members, and particularly by those who participate in the multiple listing service, that the multiple listing service is owned and operated by the association as just one of the many activities of the association and is of an incidental nature rather than being of a predominant nature as an activity of the association.

The articles of the bylaws of the association of REALTORS® should clearly delineate the multiple listing service as being a service of the association, should describe whether it will be operated as a committee of the association or as a wholly-owned subsidiary corporation with all of the stock owned by the association of REALTORS®, and should indicate that any bylaws and/or rules and regulations of the MLS will be subject to final approval by the board of directors of the association of REALTORS®. It is important that the authorizing article in the association’s bylaws spell out all of the details clearly as to the association’s multiple listing service, and it is recommended to associations of REALTORS® that they adopt Article XVIII of the model bylaws recommended to member associations by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. The adoption of this article will ensure the appropriate authorization and implementation of an association MLS.

Whether the multiple listing service should be operated as a committee of the association or as a wholly-owned subsidiary, is a matter to be determined by the local association with advice of its accountant and its association legal counsel. In this connection, there are a variety of considerations which must be reviewed, including, of course, the differential in the tax rate applicable to unrelated business income of an association and the income of a for-profit corporation. Generally, it is recommended by the National Association that a multiple listing service be operated as a committee of the association and that all the necessary effort be made to ensure that the association maintains its tax-exempt status. However, as indicated, it is necessary for the association and its members to be completely aware of the special effort that must be made to maintain the proper perspective of the multiple listing service as compared to overall association activity. Generally speaking, the association must be able to demonstrate that the annual budget of the MLS as compared to the overall annual budget of the association of REALTORS® is less than 50% and preferably less than 30%. Lawrence B. Jerome, a former Chief of the Exempt Organizations Branch of the Internal Revenue Service, is now retired from the Internal Revenue Service, and served as a consultant to the National Association on tax matters. Mr. Jerome, in an article published in The Executive Officer, September, 1974, states, “The IRS has never published a position on how significant particular services must be to cause loss of exemption,” but that he generally believed that, “fairly sound guidelines” are that loss of exemption is clearly indicated if the performance of particular services exceeds 50% of an association’s total activities. He further expressed an opinion that tax exemption for the association is likely to be challenged and revocation of the tax exemption becomes a strong possibility if particular services (i.e., MLS) are more than 30% of an association’s activities, unless there are other issues or mitigating circumstances. Mr. Jerome warned that, “the foregoing guidelines can change drastically if the IRS modifies its interpretations or if the courts begin to take a harder or softer stand in this area.” In summary, however, the safest position that an association can take is to ensure that the unrelated business income represented by funds received from the MLS operation bears the smallest feasible percentage ratio to the overall budget of an association as possible. This is the most convincing proof that a multiple listing service is, in fact, just one of the many worthwhile activities of an association of REALTORS®.

If, however, the association concludes with advice of its accountant and association legal counsel that it cannot sustain the necessary relationship of an incidental activity as a committee of the association and still preserve its tax-exempt status as an association, or if the tax consequences of such a relationship are seriously adverse, then it should consider the alternative method of operating the MLS as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the association, with all stock of the subsidiary corporation owned by the association of REALTORS® and with any bylaws and/or regulations subject to final approval by the board of directors of the association. Operated as a wholly-owned subsidiary, the multiple would maintain its own budget, separate and apart from the association, and would pay taxes on any surplus accruing at the end of its fiscal year. The operation of the multiple as a taxable, for-profit corporation would be similar in certain respects to the operation of a nonprofit corporation—for example, the multiple could still accrue and maintain a reasonable surplus for continued operation in times of economic downswings or to maintain and improve the facilities required to operate the multiple listing service.

It is specifically noted that the taxes are due and payable on any surplus of funds accruing to the MLS at the end of the fiscal year, irrespective of whether the multiple listing service is operated as a committee of the association or as a wholly-owned subsidiary. This is true because of the determination by IRS that a multiple listing service is the type of business ordinarily carried on for profit and that it provides a particular service to the member participants and, as such, the income derived is classified as unrelated business income. Hence, it is emphasized that an association must always pay tax on its MLS operation providing unrelated business income irrespective of how the MLS is structured.

In either case, whether as a committee or as a wholly-owned subsidiary corporation, action should be taken by the multiple listing service to ensure that it operates basically on a break even basis. Whenever a reasonable operating reserve has been accumulated, it is time to reduce income being generated by the MLS to a point close to break even. The multiple listing policy of the National Association establishes that charges for multiple listing in an association service will approximate the cost incurred in providing the service to the member participants. The MLS should not be a primary source of funding for an association of REALTORS®, at least while its membership is limited exclusively or primarily to association members. Reduction or elimination of service fees, listing fees, or subscription charges should be made as necessary to operate the MLS at or close to the desirable break even point.

3. Documentation of Staff Time Devoted to the Multiple Listing Service: The association should be prepared to demonstrate the number of staff personnel whose time is utilized in the operation of the multiple as opposed to the total number of staff involved in the overall operations of the association. The records maintained to document this should also establish the type of personnel operating the multiple. For example, the successful effort of one association to maintain its tax-exempt status cited the fact that only three members of a staff of ten were assigned to full-time work with the multiple listing service and that these personnel were clerical type employees. The remaining members of staff had only incidental duties related to MLS, and it was indicated that minimal duties of the executive vice president of the association related to the operation of the service. This served to clearly demonstrate that a major portion of the staff’s efforts were related to the overall operation of the association and that the MLS operation required only approximately 30% of staff for its operation.

4. Value Analysis of Noncompensated Services of Members of the Association: The association should prepare and maintain, as a continuing documentation, a comprehensive value analysis of the noncompensated time and service provided by members of the association to conduct the many and varied activities, programs, and projects of the association. In any association of REALTORS®, association activities are primarily conducted through the efforts of association members donating many valuable hours of their time. To purchase such services as are donated by the members of the association of REALTORS® would be prohibitive for most associations. These services represent value contributed by the members and value received by the association, and careful documentation can serve to establish the considerable monetary value of such activities. When the total monetary value is determined by calculation of the hours of such service provided and the establishment of a reasonable value for such services, this value can be added to the overall gross income of the association, and if appropriately verified, should prove acceptable to the Internal Revenue Service should a challenge arise to the tax-exempt status of the association. Appropriate forms for documenting this type of noncompensated time and service by association members are attached as Appendices 6 and 7 of this Handbook.

5. Committees of the Association: The multiple listing committee (if MLS is operated as a committee of the association) is only one of the many committees of the association of REALTORS®. The association should document and be prepared to demonstrate at any time the total number of committees and total number of members serving on these committees. An appropriate listing of all of the committees of the association, with attendant statement of organization and procedure, will document that in addition to multiple listing, the association provides a broad and myriad program of activity, including effective orientation programs, continuing educational programs to improve and elevate the professional status and competency of its members, community affairs programs, legislative action programs, professional standards and arbitration proceedings, equal opportunity programs, affirmative marketing programs, membership recruitment programs, and many other such activities. Similar comparative documentation can be made when the MLS is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the association and is governed by a board of directors, subject to approval of the board of directors of the association of REALTORS®.

6. Analysis of Agenda of Board of Directors: A ready source of authoritative documentation is available to any association of REALTORS® to substantiate the fact that it has a broad spectrum of programs and activities, of which the multiple listing service is only a part. This documentation source is the minutes of the board of directors of the association. These minutes reflect the ongoing business of the association, as discussed by the directors, and the number of times any item appears in the minutes in ratio to the number of times other items are discussed, which reflects its proportionate importance. Therefore, in most cases, it can be readily shown that such minutes reflect the discussion of many and varied items in overwhelming proportion to the times the multiple listing service is discussed. In the documentation provided to the Internal Revenue Service by one association of REALTORS®, an analysis of this type reflected that the MLS of the association was discussed 31 times in a given period of time, whereas other items of association activity were discussed 396 times. This served eloquently to reflect the fact that MLS was an incidental activity of the association in a well-rounded program of activity.

7. Time for Association Plan to Attain or Maintain Tax-Exempt Status: Now is the time. It has been demonstrated in several instances cited in the preceding paragraphs that careful and comprehensive documentation is essential and can be successful in obtaining and/or maintaining the tax-exempt status of an association of REALTORS® operating a multiple listing service. Compiling such records requires both planning and careful execution to ensure that they accurately demonstrate a true picture of the multiple’s position as an incidental activity of the association. These records do not appear spontaneously. If your association possesses tax-exempt status as an association, or plans to apply for such exempt status in the future, the time to begin the essential record-keeping is now. It can be done and should be done on a continuing basis with advice of the association’s accountant and legal counsel.

Further questions or information concerning tax-exempt status of your association should be directed to Board Policy and Programs of the National Association. Any successful effort by an association to obtain or maintain tax-exempt status is welcomed by the National Association.

It is also recommended to associations of REALTORS® having lost tax-exempt status at some point that every effort be made to regain such exempt status at the earliest possible time. I