SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Chee, a former National Association of Realtors president, said he worked in the real estate business for 44 years, and "37 of the years were wasted."

"I was spending all of this time with (property) data" over the decades, said Chee, president of Prudential Locations in Hawaii, though in 2002 there was a realization to "start doing more to learn about people," as real estate is inherently a people business.

"It doesn’t revolve around property anymore, but it does revolve around us knowing people."

Speaking during "From Listing Data to People Data: The Next Challenge in VOWs and MLS" last week at the Inman News Real Estate Connect conference in San Francisco, Chee said that rules governing Virtual Office Web sites (VOWs) miss the boat.

The U.S. Justice Department and National Association of Realtors agreed to settle an antitrust lawsuit in May 2008, signing off on amended rules for VOWs — which are Web sites that offer rich property information in exchange for consumer/user registration.

"VOWs have been around for five years as far as I’m concerned, and the people who drew the rules … don’t know sh** about VOWs," Chee said.

His own company has been using registration-based Web sites in an effort to "monitor a real estate relationship" to better understand agent-client interactions. "So we can tell a real estate agent, ‘This guy, he may love you, but he doesn’t even open the e-mail you give him,’ " Chee said.

The company regularly surveys its clients to gauge satisfaction with service. "Ask Realtors and they give you a bunch of bull — if you ask the clients they give you the truth," he said.

"We think we’re on the right track. We’re learning things every day."

Ira Luntz, executive vice president and chief operating officer for, a company that offers an online platform for agents and clients to communicate and view and exchange multiple listing service-based data, also served as a panelist during the MLS session.

Listingbook, while not a broker VOW, is a VOW-compliant client servicing system. The company manages millions of listings for its clients and has agreements in place with 25 MLSs, according to Luntz.

The MLS, at its core, has always been about agreements of cooperation and compensation among participating brokers, and Luntz said there are some other "C" words that now factor into the mix: "collaboration, communication and commerce."

He described an "Oreo Cookie Theory" in which listing data serves as the cream filling between the sides of the cookie — rich VOW data is like a double-thick Oreo filling that glues together agents, brokers, buyers and sellers.

This era of rapid communications can foster more collaboration, he noted, with innovations on the way such as Google Wave that merge the power of e-mail and social networking.

And just having listing data isn’t enough anymore, he said. "You’ve got to communicate what the information is, what the value of the information is," he said.

MLS Property Information Network, a Massachusetts-based regional MLS that provides service to about 30,000 real estate professionals, provides VOWs to its participants, with about 47,000 VOWs created in the past five years and 24,000 active VOWs, said Matt Lavallee, technology director for MLS PIN and another panelist.

"Listing information is everywhere now," Lavallee noted, "Ten years ago it was only in the MLS."

VOWs are essential to understanding consumer behavior online, he said, and MLSs of the future must connect people and data, providing current and historical analytics.

Specific consumer activity at VOW sites has even proven to be a useful leading indicator for future sales, he said — it’s a "beautiful forecasting tool."

While there are many sites to which agents, brokers and MLSs can syndicate property listings information, "One of the problems I have with mass syndication is that we (may not) know what happens after the consumer sees that listing," Lavallee said.

MLS PIN has advocated for track-back information so that it’s easy to track data on views of property listings at third-party sites, he said.

Chee said an ongoing concern is that MLSs do not step on brokers’ toes in syndicating property listings information. "People are going to ask (of MLSs): Are you servicing customers or are you servicing members?" Chee said.

The often-cited worry that consumers will give bogus registration information in order to access a VOW site is overstated, Lavallee said, as it’s common for users who initially provide a false e-mail address to re-enter a valid one once they find out that’s the only way to use the site.

Chee said that worries about VOW data being "scraped" or misappropriated by users are also not a big worry. "Suing the guy’s a** is really going to stop him from doing that," he said. "NAR will protect its data if you follow certain rules, and it has clout to go after (them)."


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