MLSs can't allow fragmentation, outdated rules, and outdated technology interfere with the experience our industry should be providing to consumers.
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Special Series MLS

It’s 2021. If you operate an MLS organization, or if you’re a REALTOR® who’s involved in oversight of your MLS, there’s never been a more complex time to make decisions about the MLS’s future.

In this five-part series on MLS planning for 2021, we look at questions that all MLSs should be discussing as the year unfolds. The theme is affirmative transparency: earning trust by shining sunlight on the MLS’s pro-competitive and pro-consumer practices.

Part 3 of 5: Consumer Access to Listings

Previous segments in this series covered participant access to a range of MLS services, from listings to lockboxes and even the physical space an MLS uses.

Part 3 shifts to consumers’ access to listings. This includes a discussion of the fragmentation of listing access, the move by MLSs to retire traditional MLS listing areas, and the growth of rich media.

Consumer Access to Listings: Fragmentation

Consumers today have access to the vast majority of real estate listings online. Most listings are aggregated on broker IDX or VOW websites. They’re also shown on national consumer website portals.

There’s a significant portion of the market, however, that’s trending toward fracturing and separating pools of available listings for display. Private listing networks have created these silos as their stated purpose.

Brokers, in some cases, are also using traditional listing mechanisms to add complexity to consumers’ listing searches. The office exclusive listing feature, intended to provide limited exposure for clients with privacy concerns, has become a vehicle for fragmentation.

There has never been a consumer who wished to search 12 sources of listing inventory when the same inventory could be found in one. But some brokers’ inventory differentiation strategy forces consumers to do just that.

By employing an office exclusive listing strategy as a default business practice instead of using it as an exception for special cases, these brokers hope to create a greater sense of inventory scarcity.

  • Does the MLS have a role in ensuring office exclusives, created at the expense of free exposure for the broker’s clients, are being appropriately administered?
  • Is it transparent, or ethical, for an MLS participant to intentionally degrade the marketplace’s consumer search experience?
  • If a property is listed as an office exclusive for the client’s privacy needs, should the participant be penalized for misuse if it subsequently becomes publicly listed as an active listing?

Consumer Access to Listings: MLS Areas

MLS listing areas are the traditional codes that agents used to classify listings geographically. They are functionally obsolete. Yet listing a property in area 520 vs. 530 is so ingrained that even mentioning the eventual demise of the practice leaves some agents feeling bereft.

Whether MLS areas should be used by an MLS to define property location is no longer just a question of personal preference. These white elephants cause damage to the credibility of the MLS, the broker, and the agent. Consider the facts:

These static areas don’t keep up with changing neighborhood or school boundaries--they’re dated, arbitrary, and often split subdivisions and neighborhoods.

They’re often based on older government maps that defined redlining areas, possibly the greatest concern that the MLS should consider.

Agents consistently game areas with listings that should be elsewhere or request to double-list in different areas. This puts an undue burden on the MLS to support an outdated practice.

Agents give clients much more refined searches and, therefore, higher quality results and experiences with map-based searches.

While making MLS areas optional sounds like a reasonable compromise at first glance, it doesn’t solve the problem. If an MLS keeps MLS areas as a function, there will always be agents who list and search by area. They'll miss listings. Their clients will miss listings. And when consumers miss their dream home, they’ll be left with the impression, rightly so, that the MLS didn't serve them or their agents well.

Technology changes. The physical world around us changes. And societal demands change. Yet some agent practices don’t change unless it’s the only choice. The MLS should consider its reputation and liability when discussing the retirement of MLS listing areas.

Consumer Access to Listings: Rich Media

A builder recently said that his company wouldn’t use the MLS to advertise to consumers because it allowed 15 photos at a maximum of 800x600 pixels each. While that’s probably an outdated conclusion, it’s the impression we’ve created over the years with some consumers: an MLS platform made to limit and box in media rather than expanding and inviting new media innovation.

Home shopping, showing, and even buying remotely has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic. In many areas, mobile technology capabilities have outraced what we’re capable of displaying in MLS systems.

Yet there is innovation. Digital floor plans are squeezing their way into core MLS systems; FBS’ FlexMLS integration with FloPlan is one example. Multiple video uploads are table stakes. Interfaces for 360 videos and 3D walkthrough tours are becoming more commonplace.

Accepting the input and integration of rich media content into the MLS will be critical to keep brokers and their clients engaged. Any advances brought to the MLS can be considered a potential competitive advantage or, at a minimum, an opportunity to catch up.

Can an MLS provide a platform for participants where this rich media is experienced right in the MLS interface, as opposed to bouncing users out to different media websites? Can the MLS provide a simplified way for brokers to access this same rich media from the MLS and present it directly on their own consumer facing websites?

The participant’s experience in this process is important. It’s currently a clunky, manual process to get media from the producing vendor to the agent, to the MLS, and back to the broker’s website. RESO members are exploring standardized ways to automate rich media population into the MLS by any vendor working with an agent. Cutting edge MLSs and vendors are building the first generation of these tools as we speak.

Brokers will present this media to consumers. When the MLS’s capabilities to distribute rich media doesn’t live up to their needs, they’re going direct to platforms like WellcomeMat because consumer desires demand it. Will the MLS be involved in that process in the future?

Up Next: Consumer Access to Additional MLS Benefits

In our next segment we’ll discuss broader consumer access questions. What trends in showings, compensation information, fair housing, and real estate terminology are affecting our relationships with home buyers and sellers? We’ll dig into the important questions for 2021.