A debate between agents over content posted at property valuation and marketing site Zillow.com escalated to a complaint filed with a Northern California multiple listing service. At issue is whether MLS rules permit agents to post information to the Web about for-sale properties that they do not represent, and whether this practice could potentially confuse consumers about which agent represents the property’s seller.

Jim Branscombe, CEO for Bay Area Real Estate Information Services Inc.

A debate between agents over content posted at property valuation and marketing site Zillow.com escalated to a complaint filed with a Northern California multiple listing service. At issue is whether MLS rules permit agents to post information to the Web about for-sale properties that they do not represent, and whether this practice could potentially confuse consumers about which agent represents the property’s seller.

Jim Branscombe, CEO for Bay Area Real Estate Information Services Inc. — which has about 10,000 members in Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties — said Tuesday that the MLS has received a complaint and is investigating.

Last week, an agent with Pacific Union GMAC in Greenbrae, Calif., questioned content posted at the Zillow Web site by an agent with First Home Mortgage and Realty in Santa Rosa, Calif.

In response to a property question posted by Michael Bubbo of First Home, Paul Bragstad of Pacific Union stated, “It is not your job or mine to post other companies’ listings or descriptions here.” He added, “The MLS is looking into your posting of other agents’ listings.” The comment has since been removed from the site, and Bubbo and Bragstad declined to offer comments for this article.

Zillow allows any users, including agents who are not representing the seller, to post basic for-sale information, photos and questions and comments for any property. The information includes an address and asking price. The user who posts the information receives a credit for posting the information, which includes the display of the user’s name and photo and a link to the user’s profile.

If an agent or a user other than the agent who is representing the seller posts the information, the site notes, “Listing agent unknown.”

David Gibbons, Zillow’s director of community relations, said in a blog posting, “Agents reporting homes for sale on Zillow is akin to a buyers’ agent telling buyers what homes are on the market. This is exactly what happens offline.”

(To read more of the debate over this discussion, see the Inman Blog entry, “Rules, innovation and a shot in the foot.”)

And Amy Bohutinsky, a Zillow spokeswoman, said, “While anyone can ask or answer a question, only the listing agent can be represented as the listing agent in the dialogue. When the listing agent asks or answers a question, he or she is called out as ‘listing agent.’ No one else has this designation.”

Bohutinsky said that Zillow officials “have had discussions with MLSs and their member agents to help them understand that these (property discussions at the site) are conversations, much like what happens offline all the time.”

Only listing agents can add full listing information for properties, too, she said, such as a full description, updated home facts and a link to the MLS listing.

Of course, consumers must understand the definition of a listing agent — the agent who represents a home seller — to avoid confusion about which agent is representing a specific property.

Michael Davin, executive vice president and director of marketing for CataList Homes, a brokerage company based in Southern California, said that user-generated content on real estate Web sites “is going to throw a screwdriver into MLS rules.”

The so-called Web 2.0 movement of allowing user content and discussions around real estate definitely presents challenges for MLSs, he said. “We’re in the wild, wild West with a lot of this stuff.”

Innovative real estate Web sites realize that this new form of content can be valuable in boosting a Web site’s rankings on search engines, he said, though he questions whether real estate professionals will get involved in user-generated content for the right reasons.

“As (agents) get savvy, there are going to be all sorts of opportunities for them to get their name associated with different properties in vague ways that could be construed as a fishing net. I don’t see what the real good is of having an agent make a comment about another agent’s listing,” he said, unless they are serving their own client’s interests in doing so.

“Just to go out onto the Internet and post comments about listings is going to cause nothing but problems. I think it’s not necessarily appropriate to be commenting on a specific person’s home,” he said. “What is the homeowner going to think?”

(To read more of the debate over this discussion, see the Inman Blog entry, “Rules, innovation and a shot in the foot.”)

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