Real Estate Information Network, a multiple listings service in Hampton Roads, Va., has decided to charge consumers a nominal fee to access detailed information in the MLS’s database of for-sale homes. There have been some complaints, but the new service is a great idea that’s well worth a fair try.

The ePass service creates a new revenue stream for the REIN and is intended to prompt more prospective home buyers to contact a Realtor earlier in their search. Both of those aims accomplish the very purpose for which any MLS exists, that is, to benefit the MLS’s owners and member brokers.

REIN’s Web site displays basic bits of data about for-sale homes to entice home buyers and sellers to sign up for the service. The signup is quick and easy. The price, which is set at $3.95 per day or an even more attractive $4.95 per month, shouldn’t be burdensome for anyone who has a serious interest in using the data for its intended purpose, that is, to research and purchase any of the homes listed for sale. The Web site also contains a rationale for the service and answers to frequently asked questions about logins and passwords, privacy and security, refunds and cancellations, and how to obtain technical support. EPass users won’t be able to view private information that’s meant only for brokers and salespeople.

A number of local brokers have added “sign up for ePass” buttons to their own Web sites along with information for people who wish to sign up for the service. (An enterprising idea might be to offer reimbursement of the fee for one month to anyone who signs up through the broker’s Web site and purchases a home.)

Critics have suggested that MLS data should be free in the information age. But in fact, exactly the opposite is true. Information has value, and it’s reasonable for businesses to conclude that customers should and will pay for it. The fact that people would prefer to obtain the information at no cost isn’t a rationale for giving it away. After all, wouldn’t we all prefer that all sorts of goods and services were free? Those who don’t want to pay for information aren’t obligated to do so.

Critics also dislike the fact that ePass enables the MLS to capture information about prospective home buyers and sellers who sign up for the service. That may be the case, but brokerage Web sites and other Web-based services also capture such information. Buyers and sellers can utilize a variety of services and contact real estate brokers and salespeople directly as well. That’s as it should be. Use of ePass doesn’t obligate those who sign up to buy or sell a home, much less utilize the services of any particular broker or salesperson.

Sellers may be disappointed to discover that information about their home may not be displayed in full on or other non-MLS Web sites that buyers have been trained to tap. But some brokers have complained for years that such Web sites encourage buyers and sellers to make an end run around the Realtor. It seems hypocritical to complain about both third-party-listings Web sites and an MLS that locks the barn door against anyone who doesn’t pay for a key.

A pay-per-view service is an innovative solution to a problem that has vexed real estate for more than a decade: How to distribute information about for-sale homes to prospective buyers without giving away the entire proverbial store, diminishing the value of the broker’s services or allowing third-party vendors to use the data for their own purposes.

The bottom line is that an MLS is a business, and businesses exist to identify and take advantage of profit-making opportunities. If ePass is successful, no doubt other MLSs will want to implement it and improve on it as well. And if it fails, REIN will nonetheless deserve praise for trying to solve a decade-old controversy about the right way to allow the public to access MLS data.

Marcie Geffner is a real estate reporter in Los Angeles.


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