What You Need To Know About Standard Names

It's common knowledge that real estate is a local business. Buyers and sellers work with RealtorsŪ because they trust Realtors to know the area: both financially, answering questions such as where houses are selling, for how much, and how quickly; but also in terms of neighborhoods: where are the schools that are best for families with high school kids, which neighborhoods have lots of homes with kids within walking distance of each other and so on.

Behind the scenes, in our multiple listing systems, there is a lot of local knowledge and custom as well. Some of this is a result of the need for the MLS system to reflect local custom and local market conditions. Some of it is simply a matter of history: MLS systems were around long before the rise of the public Internet in the early 1990s. In these isolated islands, there was no need to standardize on things like names or sizes of the various fields on listing input forms, and early systems designers worked on their own.

The promise of RETS is to lower costs and increase the availability of real estate software by providing a single standard across the country and even internationally. RETS meets this goal by offering a standard vocabulary that can be shared by real estate information systems everywhere. Rather than having to write systems customized for each of the 800 or so MLS systems across the country, a developer can write just one, using the standard vocabulary. This standard vocabulary goes by the perhaps unimaginative appelation of Standard Names.

But local customs are used for a reason: they help the RealtorŪ maintain that store of localized and neighborhood information that keeps people coming back to them in spite of the many self-marketing opportunities offered by the Internet. They're the common language -- the local dialect -- spoken by Realtors in a particular area. Changing a local dialect can mean inconvenience, lost productivity, and perhaps miscommunication until it is complete. So the question is how to get the benefits of a universal real estate language without giving up the benefits of a local dialect.

Of course, tourists have had to deal with this problem for all of recorded history. The usual solution, and the one we use today, is to compile a phrasebook: a document that contains important phrases in both the local and the common language. Once compiled by someone who speaks both languages, tourists from inside and outside the local area can understand each other -- at least well enough to find the restrooms and a place to stay for the night.

RETS includes a feature that MLS systems to offer an electronic phrasebook to anyone who asks. This electronic phrasebook is called "metadata" in the standard, but it's really nothing more than a simple bilingual dictionary, allowing the local MLS to continue to speak its local dialect while making itself understandable to "tourists" - other MLS systems, or client software written to understand the standard.

A small part of a typical dictionary might look in part like this:
My Name Standard Name
BR Bedrooms
MLS-Number ListingID
PrimarySchool ElementarySchool
LP ListPrice
and so on.

There is nothing prescriptive about the Standard Name phrasebook. Just as in the spoken language phrasebooks, if a word or idea doesn't exist in one language or the other, that word simply doesn't get placed in the phrasebook: the phrasebook says what is, not what should be. So, for example, the Standard Name Waterfront would not appear in the Tucson, Arizona phrasebook, but would be an indispensible part of the San Diego phrasebook.

Compiling a Standard Name phrasebook, just like compiling a spoken language phrasebook, requires that someone take the time to become familiar with both languages. In the case of spoken languages, this might be difficult if the two languages are unrelated -- Chinese and Basque, say. But fortunately, the Standard Name language and the local real estate language will share many of the same ideas, and probably many names as well. This is more like the differences between British English and American English, where someone who is well-read could likely compile the dictionary with only a little bit of research.

The advantages of doing so are great. First, if an MLS publishes a moderately full list of Standard Names in its phrasebook, its members will be able to take advantage of the new generation of real estate applications that are being released, without any customization required at all. It will be able to share data much more easily with third parties -- which means that, with no technical hurdles to overcome, associations can concentrate on the business opportunities involved. Relationships with existing partners -- for example, IDX providers -- can be a lot smoother as well: if the MLS changes its forms in response to changing local needs, it need only update its phrasebook accordingly in order to inform its partners of the changes.
Why Wait?
All RETS-compliant servers offer the ability to create and transmit a Standard Name phrasebook. All that's required is for someone to compose it. The list of Standard Names -- really, a StandardName-to-English dictionary -- is a starting point for translators. The sooner you start, the sooner you can start enjoying the benefits of conversing with the world without leaving your local language.