NAR’s sponsorship and implementation of RETS (Real Estate Transaction Standard, an industry data standard) in our industry provided needed direction and was a valuable step forward to promote an easier exchange of information between MLS, brokers and vendors.

The RETS standard enabled MRIS to provide CURE, our data-sharing product, to MLSs and agents across the country. Currently, nearly one out of every four real estate agents is an active user of CURE. While implementing this service, we discovered several opportunities for improvement in the current RETS standard. These opportunities for improvement include:

1. True standardization of data. While RETS standardizes data transport, it falls far short of a true industry standard for the actual data being sent. Why? Let’s explore a simple example. If a real estate professional is looking at the individual data fields being sent in a message, numerous discrepancies can be found at both the data field name and data value levels.

Editor’s note: The following is a guest perspective submitted by Michael J. Belak, who serves as chief information officer for Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the nation’s largest multiple listing service.

By MICHAEL J. BELAK

NAR’s sponsorship and implementation of RETS (Real Estate Transaction Standard, an industry data standard) in our industry provided needed direction and was a valuable step forward to promote an easier exchange of information between MLS, brokers and vendors.

The RETS standard enabled MRIS to provide CURE, our data-sharing product, to MLSs and agents across the country. Currently, nearly one out of every four real estate agents is an active user of CURE. While implementing this service, we discovered several opportunities for improvement in the current RETS standard. These opportunities for improvement include:

1. True standardization of data. While RETS standardizes data transport, it falls far short of a true industry standard for the actual data being sent. Why? Let’s explore a simple example. If a real estate professional is looking at the individual data fields being sent in a message, numerous discrepancies can be found at both the data field name and data value levels.

One MLS may call a data field a "patio," while the same data field can be called a "lanai" by another MLS. One MLS may have data values for the data field "bathrooms" as "1," "2," "3," "4," etc., while another MLS has data values for bathrooms as "1," "1.5," "2," "2.5," etc. While this sounds simple enough to translate and correct for a single data field, it still takes time, programming and money to make these adjustments.

Now multiply that cost by hundreds or thousands of data fields. Don’t forget: These translation costs are incurred by each participant in the data exchange. Oh yes, there’s also an ongoing operating cost incurred each time a participant makes changes to data fields. All of this complexity and cost can be incurred while an MLS is deemed RETS compliant.

2. Greater openness and adoption of cross-industry standards. While RETS creates a vital standard within our real estate industry, it doesn’t promote open, easy access to data outside our industry with other firms, vendors, new technologies, etc. This situation can hamper innovation and slow adoption of new technologies in the real estate industry. Why? The rest of the world doesn’t use RETS.

This situation insulates current industry vendors while creating a barrier of entry for firms outside our industry. For example, many readers of this article operate websites. Let me ask you this question: How many languages does your website support? Would you ensure your website can be translated into Palenquero — a language spoken only by a community on Colombia’s Caribbean coast?

Probably not, as you wisely spend your money where you obtain the greatest return (as do firms and vendors in other industries). By increasing openness and adopting standards already used in other industries, we can promote greater innovation and benefits for our industry.

3. Generate measurable cost savings and benefits. The RETS website states: "RETS as a standard body is absolutely FREE. You will incur costs for developing solutions implementing RETS." That statement is correct: Using RETS costs you money. Correspondingly, the RETS website states: "Brokers, Agents and MLSs have been seeing the benefits of using RETS for the past several years."

While I don’t have formal survey data, my informal conversations with MLSs, brokers and vendors across the country echo a similar lament: "Are we getting a good return on our investment costs?"

The Inman News article, "MLSs don’t have to supply RETS feeds," included comments from Karen Kage, CEO of Michigan’s Realcomp II Ltd. MLS. She said her information technology team has told her that there "can be a lot of support involved with RETS," as there are different versions of the standard. "This could be a barrier to MLSs offering this service if they do not have sufficient staff."

That statement is absolutely correct. The real opportunity for improvement in the future is to create a standard that lowers operating costs while providing measurable benefits for MLSs, brokers, vendors, etc.

4. Stronger governance and compliance. Improvements in the governance and compliance area would yield smart benefits for all users of RETS. As noted in your article, usage of RETS is not mandatory and different versions exist. As a result of these limitations, vendors often resort to providing their own APIs to provide solutions required by their customers, which can add additional complexity and further undermine the usage of RETS.

From a compliance perspective, we’ve encountered and reported problems with the compliance tool that impeded the RETS certification process. In the Inman News article, Kristen Carr, a Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) board member since 2007, said there were "a ton of business reasons" why an MLS might not want to provide access to RETS listings, such as staff skills and time, distrust of vendors, or a lack of appropriate agreements. A better approach to RETS governance and compliance would foster greater adoption and less compliance problems.

So how do we make these improvements? MLSs are uniquely positioned to help make the needed improvements to RETS in the future. In today’s difficult economic climate, providing strong business-oriented direction that generates measurable cost savings and benefits from the next version of the standard is a good start.

Having MLSs work collaboratively with existing vendors to provide true out-of-the-box product support for RETS while encouraging participation (and maybe innovative competition) from vendors in other industries is a good second step.

Michael J. Belak is chief information officer for Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

Copryight 2010 Michael J. Belak

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