Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error introduced in the editing process. NAR recommends, but does not require, that MLSs adopt rules requiring that members identify the listing broker and listing agent when displaying listings on Internet Data Exchange (IDX) websites.
By LISA WAHLGREN
A contingent of Austin Realtors say listing agents should be clearly identified when brokers and agents publicize each other’s listings on their websites.
With two of the city’s prominent luxury brokers leading the charge, they’ve asked the Austin Board of Realtors (ABoR) to change current policies governing the display of Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listings.
An equally vocal group of ABoR members contends that promoting other brokers’ listings on their websites is one thing, but promoting their agents is quite another. They object to a proposed IDX rule change that would require them to identify listing agents on the properties they showcase on their sites.
Some listing brokers and agents who are pushing for rule changes also want sellers to have the ability to opt out of having their listings included in feeds of shared listing data, without giving up their right to advertise their home on the listing broker’s website.
A selective, listing-by-listing "opt out" of IDX listing feeds is frowned upon by antitrust regulators. Model rules drawn up by the National Association of Realtors and adopted by most multiple listing services (MLSs) require that brokers take an "all-in" or "all-out" approach.
Proponents say IDX listing feeds — pools of listings provided by participating brokers to their MLS — are a win-win for brokers and consumers.
By making it possible for brokers and agents to operate websites that display all or nearly all of the active listings in their websites — not just the listings they represent — IDX agreements increase exposure for sellers’ listings, and help buyers see what homes are available in their market without visiting multiple websites.
The IDX system also provides broker and agent websites — including those operated by agents who specialize in representing buyers — with listing content that attracts visitors to their sites, helping them compete with national, third-party websites like Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow.
In Austin, some brokers and agents are concerned that the way IDX listings they represent are displayed on other broker and agent websites may create confusion for consumers.
NAR recommends that MLSs adopt rules requiring brokers and agents to "identify the listing firm in a reasonably prominent location" and to require "that the identity of listing agents be displayed" on IDX listing sites. But those recommendations are guidelines not required to conform to NAR policy.
ABoR and some other MLSs allow members to inform consumers that information about a particular property has been provided "courtesy of" the broker representing a listing.
At the center of the Austin controversy is an iPetition sponsored by Cord Shiflet, the top producer for Austin-based Moreland Properties, urging ABoR to consider changes to its MLS rules and policies, including:
- Ensuring clear and immediate identification of the listing agent and the listing office on any listing that is syndicated through IDX or Virtual Office Websites.
- Allowing listing agents to "watermark" photos with their name and company name.
- Allowing agents to upload "branded tours" when their listings are syndicated to other sites.
- Expanding the menu of options for listings entered into the MLS beyond the current "all or none," to enable agents to pick where their listing information will appear, among options that include IDX, austinhomesearch.com, Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow.
The petition garnered 557 signatures between February and the end of May — short of Shiflet’s 1,000-signature goal, but representing enough of a groundswell to pit local industry members on either side of the issue.
"Buyer’s agents don’t want seller’s agents’ names to appear prominently on IDX listing data," Shiflet said. "This is an issue that is being discussed nationwide."
Further fueling the debate was a letter concerning ABoR’s rules that Austin-based attorney Mitchell Savrick sent to ABoR on behalf of Michele Turnquist, CEO and president of luxury broker Turnquist Partners Realtors.
Savrick said ABoR’s rules should be clarified to make sure IDX listings do not mislead the consumer into thinking that the person advertising the property is the listing agent, and to allow sellers to decide whether they want to participate in the IDX.
"Some buyers have decided that they don’t want to work with a buyer’s agent, they want to work with the person who knows the most about the property, and they’ve gotten angry when they call to see a property and they are met by someone who is essentially just unlocking the door," Savrick said. As such, "Our recommendation is that the ‘Courtesy of …’ language be removed from IDX listings, and that the name of the (listing) agent is included as a field item when inputting listing data so that it can’t be removed."
Although luxury brokers may be spearheading the charge to ensure that the name of the listing agents remain front and center, Savrick contends that this is not a luxury-agent issue. "It’s more of a listing agent versus a Web-based business issue," he said, referring to buyer’s agents who depend on other brokers’ listings to bring buyers to their own websites.
"This is about the consumer, it’s not about any agent," Turnquist said. "There’s so much misinformation on the Web. The sellers have contracts with the listing agent, and it is the listing agent’s obligation to ensure that the information is correct and current. If the information is not up-to-date, how is the buyer supposed to know who to call to clarify it?"
High-end clients may be most likely to require special handling when it comes to the marketing of their properties on the Internet. In fact, it was a high-end homeowner’s objection to the ABoR all-or-none Internet marketing policies that sparked the Austin debate.
"I have a high-profile seller who can’t have their address or property information disseminated all over the Internet," Turnquist said. "This client wanted their property to be advertised only on my website."
While Turnquist’s interpretation of ABoR guidelines suggested to her that this was an option, ABoR disagreed.
Following the receipt of the letter from Turnquist’s attorney, ABoR consulted with Laurie Janik, chief legal counsel for the National Associations of Realtors, about IDX opt-out rules. ABoR linked to a video of her response in its March newsletter.
In the video, Janik explained that the Department of Justice favored an all-in or all-out approach to Internet marketing of real estate listings.
Sellers can opt out of the IDX, but if they did so, it would be on the condition that their listing information could not appear on any other Internet marketing channels. The ruling was based on a belief that selective opt-in/opt-out would lead to "mischief and anti-competitive conduct," Janik continued, and "NAR does not appear inclined to change that ruling."
Buyer’s agents say the approach favored by the Department of Justice and adopted by NAR helps ensure that buyers are represented by their own agent.
"Traditionally, everyone was working for the seller," recalled Sam Chapman, with Private Label Realty in Austin. "Buyers need that agency representation, and IDX rules were set up this way for a reason."
"In other states, it’s called dual agency. In Texas we refer to it as an ‘intermediary relationship’ if the agent represents both the buyer and the seller," Chapman said. "When that’s the case the agent can’t represent either party and simply pushes papers through the purchase process.
"If I was representing a seller and a buyer contacted me, I wouldn’t want to touch it, but if a listing agent’s contact information is prominent on listings that appear on other agent’s sites, that’s what they are inviting."
Curtis Reddehase, president of Austin-based Sky Realty, said the main argument among listing agents for including their contact information on IDX listing data appears to be that they know more about the property than anyone.
"But what does a listing agent know that they can’t share with a buyer’s agent?" Reddehase said. "There are a lot of listing agents who have failed to adapt to the current climate and if they have their way, the result will be less buyer’s representation. The fact is, consumers have changed in the way they want to get information."
Reciprocity is at the heart of IDX, and the give-and-take aspect appears to have given rise to new questions and unintended consequences. For Reddehase and others, the prospect of including listing agents’ contact information on the listings that appear on his site is a non-starter.
"They want to use our websites to market themselves," he said.
ABoR’s MLS Committee held a series of hearings this spring on the IDX issues that have been raised so far. ABoR’s board of directors is scheduled to consider the committee’s recommendations at its May 30 meeting.
"We as directors are evaluating input from both sides of this issue," said Leonard Guerrero, ABoR chairman. "NAR has researched guidelines from various MLSs across the country, and our board of directors is working on a benchmark in order to issue new guidelines."
Lisa Wahlgren is a freelance writer living in Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.