RPR madness! NAR unleashes national property database with Cyberhomes

Perspective: From 1000Watt blog

Editor’s note: This blog item, originally posted Nov. 7, is reposted with permission from Brian Boero at 1000Watt Consulting. Click here to view the original.

Author’s note: What follows is my somewhat stream-of-consciousness take on Saturday’s events. This post is a beast. Interested in your thoughts. And please point out where you think I’ve missed the mark. More will follow.

The NAR has taken over certain technology assets of Cyberhomes from LPS (formerly known as FNRES) in order to bring its RPR (Realtors Property Resource) project, as well as its consumer-facing play, HouseLogic, to market. To do this, they have created Realtors Property Resource LLC — a wholly owned subsidiary of the NAR.

Certain LPS executives, including Cyberhomes GM Marty Frame, will be making the transition over to NAR/RPR (see Inman News article). Frame will serve as the president of the new entity. Dale Ross, who was co-founder of MRIS, the nation’s largest MLS, will be CEO. LPS will also provide call center support and other services as part of the deal.

The RPR database will contain parcel information on nearly 150 million properties through a data license from LPS, which (along with First American) is one of the two major sources of public property data.

This is interesting news, but let’s back up a minute for those of you who have more well-rounded lives than I (my fellow online RE junkies can skip down to my take on what this deal means).

The RPR is the national property database initiative that the NAR has been quietly working on for some time. It has gone by a number of names over the past couple years, including "Gateway," "The Real Estate Channel," and the "Library/Archive." It will aggregate tons of property data, including public records, in one place. This will be a Realtor-only database. The idea is to keep agents and brokers competitive amidst widespread data diffusion and other challenges.

HouseLogic.com is a NAR-owned public destination site that will be unveiled next week at the NAR EXPO. The site is part of the NAR’s long-term strategy to engage consumers on behalf of its members.

RIN is the "Realtors Information Network," a for-profit arm of the NAR from which the RPR sprung. It was conceived for the purpose of creating an ill-fated online real estate service nearly 15 years ago. It was proprietary, something like a Prodigy or early AOL-type service. It blew up, costing the NAR millions. It was from that failure that the present-day Realtor.com was born, in 1996.

The contract for developing the RPR was originally given to Move Inc. back in late 2008. That obviously did not go so well.

LPS is a new company created last summer at the tail end of a complicated corporate genealogy driven by Bill Foley, the visionary chairman of Fidelity National Financial. LPS was formerly known as FNRES and in June 2009 announced a subsidiary, LPS Real Estate Group, to handle its real estate products: Paragon (MLS software), rDesk (agent and broker technology) and CyberHomes.

Cyberhomes.com is a domain with a storied history in online real estate. It was launched by Moore Data, an MLS provider, back in the mid-1990s and competed with Homeseekers.com, Microsoft HomeAdvisor and Homes.com. Moore sold the site (among other things) to VistaInfo in 1999, which in turn merged with Fidelity National Financial to create Fidelity National Information solutions (FNIS) in 2001. The cyberhomes.com domain ended up with Microsoft, which eventually shut down HomeAdvisor and relegated real estate to MSN Real Estate. FNRES, predecessor to LPS and spawn of FNF, took it from there and launched the new Cyberhomes in November of 2007.

And that’s just the quick and dirty. I’ve left out enough details to fill a McMansion. I’m not kidding. …CONTINUED

A first take

The RPR is impressive. Enough data to choke a horse and a user interface that is very well done. Foreclosure data. Default stats. Interactive charts. Even sliders for users to adjust the market conditions as they see them. On top of that, there is a basic community/social function. It’s extremely robust, perhaps to a fault.

An interesting facet to this is something the NAR/RPR team is calling the RVM — the "Realtor Valuation Model," which they hope will become the "Gold Standard" (their words) for establishing a property’s fair market value.

What is not there now is MLS data, the hyperlocal secret sauce that will make the data array more than just a national-level combination of things already available somewhere else. The MLS goods are also key to making the RVM hit that Gold Standard.

Thumbs up or thumbs down?

For the NAR

Putting aside the question of whether or not the NAR should build a national property site (more on that below), this seems like a win for them. They get a talented team, a ton of data, and an infusion of tech mojo. Surely, there will be political blowback from within the ranks and the hand-to-hand combat involved in selling this to 900 MLSs (or — who knows — just going over their heads directly to brokers) will be bloody. But what has been done here is unprecedented: a serious move to lift property information above the broad plain of local silos.

Ultimately, I still think this is a defensive, almost quixotic move by the NAR, which seems to be wishing, once again, that Realtor value can be secured behind barricades and that 1 million-plus Realtors is a good thing.

But that’s just me. This is going to rattle a lot of cages. And that is good.

So thumbs up for the NAR.

For LPS

Cyberhomes has a lot going for it. A mainline to property data, some truly interesting products, and a number of initiatives that seemed to me to be at least directionally correct. But since the shift from FNRES to LPS, the energy just wasn’t there for a consumer-facing property.

Bill Foley, the genius at the top, cut his last ties to the company in March. LPS is a business-to-business play, and a very good one at that. Cyberhomes was the fun guy that shows up to the board meeting in flip-flops. Whatever the terms of this deal, LPS has just unloaded what had become a somewhat incongruous part of its portfolio.

Oh, and they get a nice chunk of money from the NAR.

Thumbs up for LPS. …CONTINUED

For brokers and agents

Brokers have been nudged out of pole position in the race for consumer engagement by a host of online players over the course of the past 15 years. One more consumer destination, powered by their own trade association, isn’t going to hurt at this point. And to the extent that the RPR actually delivers on its promise to put unmatched property data at the fingertips of practitioners, this will be good thing … if it’s free.

Thumbs up for brokers and agents.

For Move

If I’m Move, I am thinking that I just saw my partner leverage one of my competitors (albeit a minor one) to go out and build a national destination site, part of which will be consumer facing. While the Realtor.com operating agreement remains intact, I cannot see how watching your biggest partner go the DIY route on something close to your goods is a positive thing.

Perhaps Move can partner with First American, the other (and actually more comprehensive) source of property data. Now that would be interesting.

Thumbs down for MOVE.

For MLSs

This is where it gets really thorny. As Brian Larson pointed out in his excellent post examining the potential business models for the RPR, there are lots of potential overlaps between a national property data site and what Realtors already get from their MLS. Some MLS operators think the NAR has no business doing this and perceive it as the precursor to a national MLS — a cataclysmic prospect from their perspective.

Others — usually those who are relatively innovative and thus less insecure about their own value proposition — welcome the potential disruption.

Some will be convinced much as they were during the days of Homestore options and Gold Alliance dollars by the prospect of some upside. Others will be won over by NAR/RPR’s insistence that there will be no offer of compensation in the RPR.

Whose ox gets gored, who benefits, and where the money flows is anybody’s guess at this point. But what I can safely say is that this is a significant shock to a system that needs it.

Will MLSs play ball? As with most things in this space, the outlook is unclear. …CONTINUED

For online real estate

This jiggles the landscape a little. While this is largely a Realtor family matter, one must immediately think of the impact on Zillow. On the face of it, this seems like a move onto their turf. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Zillow’s (and indeed most of the major online players’) pitch to the industry is about delivering exposure.

The RPR is about giving them data they can use in their business, and the public HomeLogic site … well, even though it’s looking very good, it’s going to be really hard for NAR/RPR, even with new talent, to be competitive with a Trulia or Zillow on things like SEO and PR. These guys have this stuff down; they get consumer experience. They have brains galore. It will be tough for NAR/RPR to be competitive.

HomeLogic will not compete with the big players for ad dollars — from either big consumer brands or agents and brokers. A "Find a Realtor" function will direct users to the agent directory that currently sits on Realtor.com. That’s it.

I do, however, see some fallout in the technology vendor community. The RPR has an immense amount of data and analytics — tables, charts, maps and more — some of which will be portable. Realtors can generate a variety of reports and print or e-mail them. Some content from HouseLogic will be available to Realtors to use on their Web sites, blogs and newsletters.

And having an industry foil to play against may actually help the online players.

Thumbs up for online real estate.

For consumers

A site with lots of free property information? Realtors who have a more sophisticated set of tools at their disposal? These cannot be bad things. But I am just a little uneasy when it comes to the potential revenue this project will derive from slicing and dicing the data in RPR and licensing it outside the industry. That’s a juicy opportunity.

But without getting into the old debate about who owns a listing, I think it seems a little off that I can pay a Realtor 6 percent to sell my house then have that Realtor’s trade association make money off information about my transaction.

I think that’s best kept on the down-low on the consumer side.

See you in San Diego

I can’t believe I just wrote 1,800 words. Thanks for hanging in there with me. There are many more angles on this, and they will no doubt be explored with great enthusiasm in San Diego next week. I’m looking forward to many interesting conversations.

It’s full steam ahead. To where only time will tell.

Copyright 2009 1000Watt Consulting

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