Academics, experts and public officials are meeting today in Washington, D.C., to discuss the hot-button issue of competition in the real estate industry.

The American Antitrust Institute, an independent, nonprofit research and advocacy organization that promotes “vigorous use” of antitrust laws to promote competition in the interests of consumers, organized the invitation-only “Symposium on Competition in the Residential Real Estate Brokerage Industry.”

Competition in the real estate industry is a timely topic – just two weeks ago, the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission hosted a public workshop, “Competition Policy and the Real Estate Industry,” to allow industry participants to air their views on whether competition is sufficient or stifled in the real estate marketplace. Antitrust officials at both federal agencies this year have loudly opposed several industry-backed real estate rules, laws and regulations that they say could limit consumer choice and harm competition.

Federal agencies have challenged statewide bans on rebates to real estate consumers and opposed state measures that seek to establish a range of new service requirements for all real estate companies at the expense of consumer choice. Federal and state agencies also are investigating MLS policies that set restrictions on certain types of property listings that are commonly associated with discount real estate companies.

The Antitrust Institute has not been silent on these issues. The institute was quick to publicly support a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit, filed Sept. 8, against the National Association of Realtors trade group, which represents about 1.3 million Realtors. That lawsuit charges that the association’s policies governing the online display and sharing of property listings is too restrictive.

On Sept. 9, the institute released a statement commending the Justice Department’s action. “(The institute) compliments the department’s continued efforts and leadership in these important initiatives aimed at bringing the benefits of enhanced competition to families that buy or sell their homes,” Albert Foer, institute president, said in a statement.

In June, the institute announced the launch of a project to examine whether there exist “trade association restraints on competition at the federal, state and local level.” The institute announced that this project would also include “a broad review of real estate commissions and practices,” “real estate transaction costs and the relationship of the prices charged to the service provided,” and “controls over multiple listing requirements, regulatory structures, price-fixing and anti-rebate restrictions.”

The institute invited the National Association of Realtors to send a representative to participate in its symposium today, though association leadership declined the invitation, said Steve Cook, spokesman for the Realtor group. Instead, he said, the association recommended that the institute call upon Steven Sawyer, associate professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University, who conducted a study on real estate competition that was paid for by the National Association of Realtors.

Sawyer was scheduled to participate today in a symposium panel titled, “Is Competition Robust or Restrained Among Realtors?”

Among the other participants scheduled to attend the event: Maureen Ohlhausen, director of the Office of Policy Planning for the Federal Trade Commission; Blake Harrop, chairman of the National Association of Attorneys General Real Estate Working Group; and David Wood, director of Financial Markets and Community Investment for the U.S. General Accountability Office. The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in September on price-competition in the real estate industry.

Norman Hawker and Robert H. Lande, who are senior research fellows for the institute, are scheduled participants. Also, representatives of the Brookings Institution, a public policy institute; the Hudson Institute, a non-partisan policy research organization; a Wall Street Journal journalist; and real estate companies including MLX.com and LendingTree.com were also scheduled to participate.

Among the topics scheduled for discussion at the symposium: “Overview of (the institute’s) Real Estate Competition Project,” “What is the State of Knowledge About Residential Real Estate Broker Commissions?” “How Can They Possibly Fix Prices When There Are So Many Realtors?” ” How Would Increased Competition Affect Residential Real Estate?” “What Information is Still Needed to Understand the Industry?” “How Can Internet and Other New Business Models Affect Competition?” and “What Does the Future Hold for Antitrust Enforcement in the Real Estate Industry?”

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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