Consumers would be outraged if they showed up at a car dealership and were told by the salesperson that they need to fork over a fee before they can look at the cars for sale. That’s one of the arguments being made by a group of brokers and agents in Hampton Roads, Va., who are irate at their multiple listing service’s decision to charge consumers to view home listings data.
The Real Estate Information Network, the official MLS serving the Hampton Roads, Va., region, on June 28 implemented the E-Pass system, which restricts online listings information viewable to the anonymous public. Consumers either pay $3.95 for one-day access to E-Pass and $4.95 for one month, or they can choose to contact a real estate agent for listings information.
The MLS has said the main goal of the E-Pass system is to spur early contact between the consumer and real estate agent, keeping the agent front and center in the home-search process.
Brokers opposing the pay-to-view service say it threatens the public image of real estate salespeople, making them appear greedy because the E-Pass system is accessed through their individual Web sites. They also claim that this method so far has been ineffective in making more consumer contacts through their Web sites.
A group of seven MLS broker members opposed to the idea of charging consumers to view available homes for sale met with REIN’s board of directors last week to tell their side of the story. They also have created a Web site, http://www.no-epass.com/freepass, that contains presentation materials from the Aug. 18 meeting, a petition and agent survey.
“It looks terrible to ask someone to give personal information and credit card information – all for a $5 fee,” said Andi Helfant-Frye, broker/owner of Helfant-Frye Real Estate. “It looks like we’re the ones imposing a fee.”
Helfant-Frye, who attended last week’s meeting, said her seller clients are upset with the new program because they expect their properties to be exposed to the market to the fullest extent and E-Pass places restrictions on that exposure. “That’s why they hire me and pay me versus doing it themselves,” she said.
She also said that consumers choosing to contact an agent rather than pay a fee have to sign a buyer agency form, and the broker must give a copy of the form to REIN before subscribing a consumer to the free E-Pass access.
“My company policy is not to sign a written buyer brokerage agreement,” Helfant-Frye said, so she has been unable to provide the free access to potential clients.
REIN is an independent MLS owned by broker stockholder members, and has about 7,000 members. The MLS’s board includes nine directors elected by the broker stockholders for a two-year term. Board members are either principal or managing brokers of a stockholder member firm.
REIN’s board of directors met this week to discuss the issues brought up by members opposed to E-Pass, said Carlos Rodriguez, REIN’s director of business development.
“No decisions or changes have been implemented at this time,” Rodriguez said today. The board plans to meet again with the brokers to discuss their concerns.
Not all MLS members have reacted to the pay-to-view service negatively, according to Rodriguez. “We’ve also heard from folks this week who are for it,” he said.
He said it’s still too early to tell how many consumers have purchased E-Pass versus called an agent or how effective the program has been so far.
Helfant-Frye and other opposing brokers say they are not against E-Pass’s intended purpose, which is to connect agents with consumers. They are simply against charging consumers for information today that used to be free.
Maggie Davis, broker/owner of Buyer’s Broker of Hampton Roads in Virginia Beach, also attended last week’s meeting. She presented REIN board members with July 2005 statistics from her Web site, AbuyersRealty.com, to show them there is a better way to capture information about Web site visitors.
Of 4,236 user sessions recorded during the month, Davis said 783 visitors chose to fill out a guest book she uses to capture online consumer information. Of her July site traffic, only 21 of the 700 consumers who were granted a free pass to Davis’ active office site continued to sign up for an E-Pass. And Davis said those 21 consumers have been the most difficult to work with because they feel they’ve paid a fee to get the information they wanted without having to talk with an agent.
The E-Pass program is REIN’s second action in keeping listings information close to the vest. The MLS in 2001 decided not to send listings data to Realtor.com or any other third party, according to Rodriguez. And members who want to display MLS data on their individual Web sites must do so using REIN’s technology for Internet data exchange, or IDX.
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