Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that TheRedPin.com is a full-service brokerage offering commission rebates.
Two months after announcing it would allow its 32,000 members to operate password-protected Virtual Office Websites (VOWs), the Toronto Real Estate Board is providing VOW feeds to more than 40 members.
Discount brokerage TheRedPin.com Realty Inc. says it was the first and only VOW operator in the Toronto market when it went live last month with a feed from TREB, Canada’s largest real estate board.
"We have more leads than our agents can handle right now," said Rokham Sadeghnezhadfard, co-founder and chief marketing officer of TheRedPin.com.
Sadeghnezhadfard said the startup is in the process of hiring more agents to handle the leads generated by the company’s website, which now offers registered users access to in-depth VOW data on 21,000 resale listings, plus information on 13,000 new condominiums.
When it launched in September 2010, TheRedPin.com was focused on the new condo market, offering buyers 25 percent commission rebates.
Sadeghnezhadfard said the addition of resale listings via a VOW feed from the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) in January makes TheRedPin.com the largest database of homes in the Toronto market.
The site also offers third-party data on market trends, neighborhood amenities, and property tax history to help users identify suitable homes.
In the U.S., VOW operators like Redfin and ZipRealty have offered commission rebates to buyers who are willing to take on the responsibility of conducting the home-search process themselves.
That frees up agents to focus on negotiations and closings, in theory allowing them to handle a greater number of transactions (ZipRealty eliminated buyer rebates last year, and Redfin has reduced the size of its rebates since launching).
VOWs typically offer consumers a richer set of listings data, similar to what agents see when they log in to their multiple listing service, including sold data, days on market, price changes and pending sales data.
TREB announced it had finalized rules allowing members to operate VOWs in November, after becoming involved in a dispute with Canadian regulators that remains unresolved.
"When we got the news (that TREB had published its VOW policy), we jumped on the idea," Sadeghnezhadfard said, and started working with TREB on obtaining a feed. On Jan. 10, TheRedPin.com announced it was the first VOW operator in the Toronto market.
A TREB spokeswoman said the board is providing VOW feeds to more than 40 members, but that implementation of a VOW site is up to each member. She could not confirm whether TheRedPin.com was the first TREB member to get its VOW site up and running.
"We were expecting a lot of heat to come our way," Sadeghnezhadfard said. "People hate change, or think you’re trying to steal business from them."
Now that the VOW is up and running, he said, "People see we are not out to eliminate agents" from the homebuying process. "Providing access to all these details lets the agents focus on what they’re good at" — like evaluating properties, doing due diligence, connecting buyers to mortgage financing, and legal paperwork, he said.
Although the company offers commission rebates, it’s a full-service brokerage and does not market itself as a "discount brokerage."
To browse VOW listings, visitors to TheRedPin.com must fill out a form in which they are asked to provide their name, email address and password.
Traditionally, TREB members who want to provide consumers with access to listing data have operated Internet Data Exchange (IDX) websites, which do not require registration. TREB provides IDX feeds to participating brokers who have agreed to display each others’ listings on their sites.
TREB members also supply listings to Realtor.ca, a national listings portal operated by the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA).
Sadeghnezhadfard acknowledged that TheRedPin.com could have participated in IDX (Internet Data Exchange) before TREB offered a VOW feed. But he said not all brokers participate in IDX, so VOW coverage is more comprehensive.
The Competition Bureau of Canada initiated an administrative proceeding against TREB in May 2011, alleging the board had restricted competition by not allowing members to operate VOWs.
Although TREB now allows members to operate VOWs, the Competition Bureau has continued to press its case against the board. TREB’s VOW policy is overly restrictive, the Competition Bureau has alleged, barring VOW sites from displaying MLS data on sold properties unless the data is "readily publicly accessible," for example.
TREB maintains such restrictions are necessary to comply with federal privacy laws and a real estate broker code of ethics that’s part of Ontario regulations.
CREA has expressed concerned that the dispute between TREB could have broader implications for the Internet distribution of property listings data throughout Canada, and has been granted limited standing to participate in the proceeding. A five-week Competition Tribunal hearing of the case is scheduled to begin in September.