MLS & Associations

NAR may order MLSs to give members more leeway to beef up their websites

Changes to IDX listing display rules could help brokers compete with third-party portals

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Some big changes may be coming to agent and broker listing websites that could help them compete with third-party portals and attract more homebuyers.

A committee of the National Association of Realtors will consider policy recommendations this week that would require multiple listing services to allow brokers to display sold listing data on non-password-protected websites and co-mingle listing data from multiple MLSs. Brokers themselves may be required to update their MLS listing data at least every 12 hours.

All three recommendations would be changes to NAR’s current Internet data exchange (IDX) policy, which applies to listings pooled by MLS members for public display.

MLSs would also be required to comply with real estate data standards devised by the nonprofit Real Estate Standards Organization starting in 2016 — a move that would set the stage for tech developers to more easily create more, better and cheaper agent and broker tools powered by real estate data.

All four of these recommendations are currently options MLSs can choose to implement, or not, at their discretion. If enshrined into NAR MLS policy, all Realtor-affiliated MLSs — the vast majority of the 850-plus MLSs in the nation — would be required to adhere to them.

NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee will consider the policy recommendations on Saturday. If passed, the recommendations will head to NAR’s Executive Committee and then, if approved, to the trade group’s board of directors for a vote on Monday.

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NAR declined to comment for this story.

Backed by brokers

Craig Cheatham, president and CEO of large brokerage network The Realty Alliance, said the four recommendations represent a move toward “modernization” of MLS policy.

“The MLSs that have been frustrating brokers in recent years will have to change to comply, but those that have been more cooperative with the brokers and agents they were created to support already have systems and practices in line with most of these amendments,” Cheatham said.

“We have voiced our strong dissatisfaction with MLSs that have been withholding feeds and sold data, despite the long-standing spirit of MLS policy that has indicated participants were owed that data.”

The policy recommendations will address some of the items on a long list of grievances with MLS practices The Realty Alliance released last year, including “withholding feeds of any kind to which the participant firms are entitled” and “inconsistent data standards across MLSs in a day and age where all should be up to date.”

At NAR’s midyear conference in May, the trade group’s board of directors approved a TRA-supported policy amendment requiring MLSs to provide data feeds to brokers wishing to use the data to create automated valuations of properties for clients.

That amendment and this week’s proposed policy recommendations help make “crystal clear” that providing brokers with complete data is core to what an MLS is supposed to do and why it exists, Cheatham said.

That data should be provided in a timely manner and available so that brokers can deliver the kinds of services expected of a real estate firm in the 21st century — services companies not subject to MLS rules provide without restriction, he added.

“The public has ventured elsewhere for information in recent years because we have tied our own hands too often and prevented the most-qualified advisers from accessing the information they need and being able to handle and display data in routine and meaningful ways,” he said.

“These proposals present a great opportunity for MLSs and brokers to work together in a positive and constructive way to make additional, much-needed progress.”

The policy recommendations were prompted by an April 25 letter to the committee from another broker network, the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, which represents more than 500 brokerages worldwide ranging in size from 20 agents to 10,000 agents. Agents and brokers in the network represent “a significant portion” of NAR membership, according to LeadingRE President and CEO Pam O’Connor.

“The recommendations were outlined to reduce the disparity in IDX guidelines from one MLS to another. The policy variations create enormous challenges for brokerages — small and large — that need to belong to more than one MLS for their service areas,” wrote Marilyn Wilson of real estate consulting firm WAV Group in a blog post. WAV Group was part of a task force formed by LeadingRE to come up with the recommendations.

Portal comparisons

When considered next to offerings from third-party portals such as Zillow, Trulia and realtor.com, the recommendations may not sound terribly avant-garde. Current IDX policy requires a refresh of IDX listing displays a minimum of every three days, which would be bumped up to at least every 12 hours. By contrast, realtor.com updates its MLS-derived listing data every 15 minutes.

Zillow and Trulia already “co-mingle” listing data from a variety of sources on their websites, including MLSs.

Given that, it “makes a lot of sense” to allow brokers to co-mingle IDX data they get from the multiple MLSs they belong to because it would allow them “to provide a search experience to consumers unencumbered by the artificial MLS market area boundaries and overlaps,” said Matt Cohen, chief technologist of real estate Consulting firm Clareity Consulting, in a blog post.

Cohen, who said he supports all four of the proposed recommendations, said he expects a “lively debate” on the proposal to require MLSs to provide brokers with sold listing data for IDX display. Third-party portals can already display sold listing data, though it often comes from public property tax records rather than MLSs and is, therefore, often not as timely.

Suggested changes

MLS members can currently display sold data through a different type of data feed from their MLS, a virtual office website (VOW) feed. But in that case, consumers who want access to the information must register. Should the proposed recommendation pass, consumers would be able to see sold listings information on IDX sites that do not require registration.

In markets where sold data is not available to the public — such as in nondisclosure states like Texas — MLSs would not be required to provide IDX feeds with that information.

Cohen has recommended a couple of additional changes to MLS policy should the sold data proposal pass. He suggested that sellers be allowed to exclude their sale price from public display.

“Because IDX and VOW are two very different things — marketing to anyone versus a broker-client relationship — I think opt-out is something that should be considered,” Cohen said.

“We all know that some people are very private about pricing information and sometimes that’s one of the reasons that we see off-market listings, right? I’d prefer to get ahead of any privacy-related issues just by providing an option.”

Cohen also suggested that brokers be subject to the same security requirements as on VOWs. Namely, he suggested adding this language to IDX policy lifted from NAR’s VOW policy:

A participant’s website and display must employ reasonable efforts to monitor for and prevent misappropriation, scraping and other unauthorized uses of MLS listing information.

He preferred that “reasonable efforts” remain unspecified, noting that any technical mechanism recommended to accomplish that task could soon become obsolete.

Fear that security measures may block legitimate search engines from indexing agent and broker sites is misguided, according to Cohen.

Not having such measures “not only creates a new area of (intellectual property) risk but also creates a situation where new model brokers have more burden on VOWs than traditional brokers have on now-more-similar IDX. Not good!” Cohen said.

“It is trivial — and has been for a few years now — to stop bad scrapers and not search engines. MLSs and brokers and some IDX vendors already use the tech today, protecting both VOW and IDX. Such protections do not entail risk of impacting (search engine optimization).”

Last year, Clareity provided strategic advice to data security company Distil to help the company offer a real estate-specific data protection product, launched last year, that differentiates between “good bots” such as search engines and “bad bots” intent on stealing data.

Data standards

The Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) has come out in support of the policy recommendation that would require Realtor-affiliated MLSs to comply with RESO standards, but has proposed some changes that would bring the policy in line with the timeline of the standards’ development.

As currently proposed, the policy would require MLSs to comply with RESO standards by Jan. 1, 2016. The nonprofit suggested that the deadlines to comply with two different components of the standards be one year after RESO has finalized the compliance certification process for each component. The deadline to comply with the Data Dictionary would remain Jan. 1, 2016, but the deadline to comply with the RESO Web API would be moved to June 30, 2016.

NAR outlines the current standards proposal as well as the benefits and misconceptions surrounding the Web API here.