NEW YORK — The idea of a national multiple listing service has moved out of the realm of science fiction and into the realm of serious discussion.
"I think it’s only the political constraints and the human constraints that keep that from happening," said David Charron, president and CEO for Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, the largest multiple listing service in the United States. MRIS serves about 55,000 real estate professionals in the Mid-Atlantic region.
"The idea of a national MLS, a national aggregation of data, I think is a wonderful thing," said Charron, speaking Thursday during a panel at the Real Estate Connect conference titled, "A New Looking MLS: What’s the MLS of the Future Going to Look Like?"
"I think there are a lot of ways to get to it. I think there are a lot of grassroots efforts that are happening around the country right now. Some of them take a little bit longer."
But if the patchwork system of local, regional and statewide MLSs serving real estate professionals across the country is to scale to a national scope, it must not amplify problems that have surfaced among some MLSs that have worked to collaborate or fully consolidate, according to Charron.
"Let’s be careful we don’t impose the dysfunction we see in other markets on the entirety of the market, because some markets are moving together real well, and real nicely, real painlessly. Others are coming along, but all of the sudden we see a challenge or problem … let’s just make sure we don’t make that (mistake) everywhere."
He said he expects rapid change in the MLS industry, evolving into "an entirely different business" in the next 18 months.
Bud Fogel, another panelist who serves as CEO for Midwest Real Estate Data LLC — formed last year as the merger of two Chicago-area MLSs — knows well the snags that can complicate MLS consolidation.
That merger — of Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois with MAP MLS — was delayed for several years by a revolt by a group of shareholders and a lawsuit.
"I think conceptually a national MLS makes a lot of sense," Fogel said, as long as the data "is aggregated and presented in a format where it allows the broker and/or agent to be the conduit to the consumer." It wouldn’t take long — perhaps six months — Fogel said, for a group of 20 to 25 MLSs to quickly band together to establish a national database.
"Part of the job is already being done," he said, as some larger MLSs have regionalized, and there are no major technical barriers. Several statewide MLSs or MLS database efforts have already launched, as an example.
Scott Kucirek, also a panelist, is heading up CALMLS, an effort initiated by the California Association of Realtors to establish a statewide MLS that could ultimately unite dozens of local and regional MLSs in the state.
Kucirek, who was hired to oversee the CALMLS initiative last year, said that bringing together the 60 MLSs, which include 13 regional MLSs, is complicated by politics.
"From my brief time talking to each player, what you see is everyone in California does want the statewide (MLS). They just each have their own vision of what’s that going to be, and how it’s set up on the ownership side or who’s in control of it," he said.
"So it’s a little about power and politics (in California), and unfortunately in those conversations what gets left out is what’s right for the members. Everyone says they really are trying to do what’s really right for the members, (but) when you really look at it in many cases that’s not the intent. The politics is the issue."
There are already several separate data-sharing and other collaborative MLS efforts going on in the state now, Kucirek noted, in Northern California and Southern California and also in the Bakersfield-Fresno region.
Kucirek related a story about a real estate radio show host who told him, "If you’re not in politics, get out of real estate."
The state of the economy is already spurring change in the MLS industry, panelists said, and they expect more changes ahead.
Kucirek, for example, said that there are 117 real estate associations in California, and 38 of those have 250 members or less. He believes more collaboration and consolidation among associations and MLSs is inevitable.
"If you look at the economics of just running the association and then providing a level of service that I think is required for an MLS, it’s tough to see how that’s going to work in these smaller boards and associations without some kind of overarching commitment to work together or consolidation," he said.
Later, Kucirek said he expects that the MLS industry will have moved far beyond issues of local consolidation in a decade.
"For me the question will be 10 years from now: (Is) there a national achieved or are we locked into 50 (statewide MLSs) or maybe 25 multi-state (MLSs)? Then you get to another uber-regional power-share of consolidation. That will be interesting to see how it plays out," he said.
"I really feel like many of the states are trying to move to this area or have already accomplished it."
Charron said that he is concerned that too much energy is expended on infighting among Realtor groups and vendors on MLS issues these days, and there is a risk that the industry is "taking our eye off the ball of what really needs to be done."
Using the example of politics over the CALMLS effort, Charron said that fear of losing local control may cause some groups to "hunker down as opposed to reach out and embrace" the effort. "They’re worried about unintended consequences associated with abandoning one and moving into another (MLS)."
Panelists said that MLS participants are definitely looking for more support from MLSs in these challenging times, and MLSs could also do a better job in serving off information for consumers.
"There should be a lot more transparency and openness in terms of the MLS numbers," Fogel said, referring to market statistics that MLSs could offer to the public.
MLSs could offer more data on past sales, for example, and Charron said there is also an opportunity for MLSs to provide "pre-sale" data to participants, such as statistics from lockboxes and searches on the MLS’s public Web site and internal site.
"My belief is it’s better for the industry as a whole if we really give accurate data out to the brokers and the agents to use and then let the real battle be one not on information that the public should have and transparency, but on service and relationship," Kucirek said.
The brokerage community is definitely demanding more of MLSs these days: "Hey, what are you doing for me lately?" he said.
Charron echoed his remarks, "MLS core services can no longer be defined and delivered for the least common denominator."
He also said, "The economy is forcing everybody to take a look at how to better leverage the local MLS, the regional MLS in their marketplace. They’re looking to reduce operational costs; they’re taking a much broader view about what (services) can and should be delivered. They’re looking to thrive, certainly, but they’re also looking to survive."
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