A regional multiple listing service in Virginia is changing the structure of a unique and controversial program that charges consumers for online access to detailed property information.

The E-Pass program, which drew criticism from a group of MLS members when it was launched in June 2005, will continue to be available on a subscription basis to consumers through the Real Estate Information Network public Web site at hrmls.com, though agents and brokers who are members of the MLS can offer the same information for free at their Web sites after June 5.

Maggi Davis, broker-owner for Buyer’s Broker of Hampton Roads in Virginia Beach and a member of a group that opposes E-Pass, said today she is happy that REIN is altering the program. “I think we were one aspect of the forces that were opposed to the E-Pass. I think the overall market conditions as much as anything have driven our MLS to realize that people need access to listings if we are expecting to sell them. I do think we had an impact, I just think it took a long time for what we identified nine months ago to be accepted as valid.”

Arthur Zachary, who is REIN president and president for Rose & Womble Realty Co., said the E-Pass changes give consumers and real estate professionals more options. “People can now go to the broker and agent and get full information, where before they only got limited information,” he said. Consumers can continue to subscribe to the E-Pass program at a cost of $3.95 for one-day access and $4.95 for monthly access, and consumers who subscribe to the program can remain anonymous. Meanwhile, brokers and agents have the option to collect information from consumers at their Web sites before consumers can access property listings information.

REIN had relaxed some E-Pass program requirements in September 2005 to allow members to use discretion in offering free access to the E-Pass system. Prior to that change, brokers and agents had to show evidence of a contractual relationship with clients who accessed E-Pass property listings information. Basic property information has been available to consumers for free, though this information did not include such details as square footage and address.

A group of about 300 real estate professionals have opposed the E-Pass system, according to the no-epass.com Web site, and the group has charged that a pay-per-access system is unfair to consumers and agents because it limits the exposure of property listings information. The REIN board of directors voted to make the changes to the E-Pass program.

The system has been successful in attracting consumers, said Zachary, and currently has about 3,500 paid subscribers. Since the program launched there have been about 30,000 subscribers. Zachary said that the vocal group of E-Pass opponents did not influence the change in the E-Pass program. “A small group of people … had some issues with it. We basically looked at (the change) as a business decision. We just want the brokers and agents to have as much access as they can to make the process better for buyers and sellers and make the process as smooth as possible.”

E-Pass has not been a major revenue source for the MLS, Zachary also said, and “profitability is probably break-even at best.” There have been fewer free E-Pass subscribers than paid E-Pass subscribers, he said.

He added, “We’ve been monitoring this on a monthly basis. We thought it would be good but we knew it was something new, and when there is something new it doesn’t always make everyone happy.” There hasn’t been a consumer complaint about the system for 60 days, he said. Formed in 1997 through the merger of two MLSs, REIN is owned by brokers and has about 7,200 members who are real estate agents or brokers.

Davis, who works primarily with prospective home buyers, said, “I think it’s in the seller’s best interest to have the widest exposure possible for listings,” and she said the E-Pass program seemed to discourage some consumers from searching for homes online. “I think that people who come to our Web site and search are going to be that much more willing to engage with us. I think E-Pass turned them off so much they weren’t willing to engage with us. It made real estate agents here look greedy and unfriendly to consumers.”

Davis also said she has been very liberal in awarding free E-Pass subscriptions to consumers. She requests that consumers sign a guestbook at her Web site, providing at least a name and an e-mail address before searching for property information at the site.

Lee S. Halyard, broker-owner for Lee S. Halyard & Associates Realtors Inc. in Chesapeake, Va., and an E-Pass opponent, said he believes that the MLS should not maintain its own public Web site to display property listings information. “I don’t see why any MLS needs to market services to the consuming public rather than just the brokers.” The E-Pass system restricted the ability of consumers to “browse at leisure” for detailed property information, he said. “And that’s what (consumers) wanted to do.”

To bypass the E-Pass system, Halyard said that he offered free e-mail alerts to consumers about the latest for-sale properties as they were added to the MLS database.

REIN, unlike many MLSs, does not supply its property listings directly to the Realtor.com home-search site. Zachary said MLS members can choose to individually submit listings to Realtor.com, and the MLS is still evaluating whether to restart this practice, which it halted in 2001. “We’re looking at all the things we can do to make the process easier,” he said.

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