Close your eyes and picture a completely new system for sharing property information among real estate brokers. Forget about the current patchwork of about 900 local and regional multiple listing services across the country, each with its own set of rules, standards, and operating and management structure. Forget about the politics and disparate technologies.

Close your eyes and picture a completely new system for sharing property information among real estate brokers. Forget about the current patchwork of about 900 local and regional multiple listing services across the country, each with its own set of rules, standards, and operating and management structure. Forget about the politics and disparate technologies.

A National Association of Realtors advisory group will meet for the first time next month to discuss a new vision for the nation’s MLS system.

Gary Thomas, former president of the California Association of Realtors and an executive at RE/MAX Real Estate Services in Aliso Viejo, Calif., is leading the Future MLS advisory group. Brokers, MLS consultants, MLS executives and a state Realtor association executive officer are among the members of the newly formed group. Laurie Janik, general counsel for the Realtor association, and Cliff Niersbach, vice president of board policy and programs for the association, will serve as staff liaisons to the president’s advisory group.

The group’s mission is to consider how an MLS system would look if it were established from scratch today, Thomas said. “What they want us to look at is if there was no current structure in existence and no barriers, what would you design and implement? If you had a clean sheet … what would you develop for information exchange between brokers,” he said. “We haven’t even met yet. It’s hard to say where the direction will go.”

The formation of the group is significant given that NAR is the defendant in an antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department that specifically calls into question the trade group’s MLS policies for online sharing and display of property information. The lawsuit, filed in September 2005 and amended in October, charges that NAR’s policies are too restrictive, while the association has countered that its policies protect the interests of brokers while supplying plenty of public information to consumers.

Issues related to the ownership and control of property information have been hot topics in the industry even before this lawsuit.

Thomas noted that the real estate industry is a far different landscape than it was when the MLS structure was first established. “The brokerage business has changed a lot … it’s a vastly different business.” Consolidation in the industry has led to much larger brokerage companies, he noted, and there are many new technologies.

The advisory group will likely develop a set of recommendations in time for the association’s leadership to consider at its annual meeting, scheduled for Nov. 8-13 in New Orleans. The recommendations may be to either leave the current structure or recommended changes to the current structure, he said.

“The tough part is: real estate is one house at a time in a local area. Trying to put a (new) structure in at whatever level you go to is tough just because of the structure that is in there.”

Thomas said he was selected to serve as the leader of the advisory group. He has been in charge of a separate group, initiated by the California Association of Realtors, that has examined the possibility of establishing a statewide MLS database.

Real estate professionals in some cases join multiple MLSs in their service area in order to post and receive property information via those MLSs, which typically means that they must pay multiple membership fees and abide by the rules of each MLS that they join. A group of brokers and MLSs in Northern California are pursuing a unified, regional MLS, and Thomas said that a group of large brokers and MLSs in Southern California will meet next month to discuss whether there is sufficient interest to pursue a similar regionalization effort.

“We have a meeting coming up next month with the larger brokers and MLSs in Southern California to see if there’s any desire to do what is happening in Northern California. At this point it would be separate. Who knows what the future would bring,” he said.

There have been other regional and statewide MLS efforts in other parts of the country, too, while the majority of the nation’s MLSs are operated in local real estate markets by local Realtor boards.

Vince Malta, president of the California Association of Realtors, said the emergence of sites such as Zillow.com, which provides information on properties across the country, could prompt the industry to make some major changes to the MLS system.

“There might be a move to create a national database … where information flows to local associations, something like the Canadian model which allows a very simple fee and limited usage. Stay tuned. The onslaught of (new sites) coming onto the scene might be a wakeup call to some MLSs that perhaps they need to do more in providing information to practitioners.” he said.

“The mentality of guarded information is sort of eroding. I think we are heading over toward a new way of thinking. With the Internet there are no boundaries.”

***

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

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