MLS & AssociationsTechnology

What I learned when my home-selling client opted out of online marketing

Large real estate portals give us opportunity, but do they also take away listing rights?

The hot topic in real estate used to be the marketing, buying and selling of homes and property. It seems as though the buzz has been replaced with discussions about data feeds, real estate portals and syndication. Thursday’s “Project Upstream” announcement claims to help put listing control back in the hands of brokers, and NAR (the National Association of Realtors) has drafted policy regulations that would require MLSs to allow non-MLS property data on broker listings pages.

Well, this is a story about just how far out of Realtors’ control those listings have drifted.

When a homeowner signs a listing contract with a real estate brokerage, there is an understanding between the parties. This understanding is the foundation of the contract and includes things like fees for services (commission), contract length and marketing plans.

The listing contract often allows the home seller to opt out of any online marketing. The seller may choose to opt out of the online marketing world because he does not want his property to be subject to an “automated valuation model” (AVM), such as the famous Zestimate. The seller may want to only be listed in the local MLS, but not on the national syndication sites. There may even be more personal reasons why they do not want the mass syndication.

It is also possible that the seller simply wants the property information to be as correct as it can be and trusts only the real estate agent and the agent’s website to do so. After all, it is the brokerage and agent who were hired to sell the property, right? Whatever the reason for opting out, choice is the issue here.

So what happens when the home seller and agent make the choice to opt out? I cannot be sure what happens in every case, but I can tell you what happened with a property that I opted out of the MLS data feed. The address of that home is 20 Beech Road, Mohnton, Pennsylvania 19540.

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I Googled the address of the aforementioned home. The search showed 11 websites that listed the home in some fashion on the first five result pages. The first listing was on the behemoth of online real estate portals, Zillow. This was not surprising, but how it was listed amazed me: “20 Beech Rd, Mohnton, PA is Off Market | Zillow.”

I immediately called Zillow customer support. (I use the word “immediately” loosely; try to find that phone number. It’s not easy.)

Once connected, I asked the attendant why Zillow would display a property that it has no data feed for as “off market.” The attendant, sounding a bit confused, stated, “If there is no direct feed, I could enter the property into Zillow directly using Postlets.”

I proceeded to tell the attendant that I intentionally chose to opt out this property. I may have given this attendant a minor stroke. For goodness sake, who would opt out of Zillow?!

He quickly placed me on hold to, as he stated, “Speak to a manager” (or doctor). When he returned to the phone line, I was told that there are only two property statuses Zillow uses. One is “active” and the other is “off market.”

So I jumped back on my computer to see how the other portals were displaying the home listing.

Second on the Google search was realtor.com. I thought that this portal, at least, would list the property correctly. After all, they are our namesake in the industry. Wrong again! While the home was not listed as “active” or “off market” on the Google search, it only took one or two clicks to see the home was listed as “Not for Sale” on the site.

I called realtor.com customer service (a much easier phone number to find). This time, I emphasized the home status issue using a metaphor.

The metaphor went something like this:

Suppose you were single and wanted desperately to find a partner. You decided to travel locally and meet new people. One day, you get a call from an online dating service. They are the largest in the country and ask if you would like to sign up on their website for a fee. The attendant excitedly tells you, “There will be a better chance that you will no longer be single if you sign up.”

You cordially decline the solicitation. The caller then states that you can sign up for free if you just provide them with your information. Again, you courteously turn down the offering.

Several weeks go by, and you have not had any dates. You decide to Google your name — and lo and behold, the first hit is on the website that called you, and it lists you as “not single.” Or what if a new date Googled your name and thinks you are deceitful because they see your name with the phrase “not single”?

The realtor.com attendant got it! She said my call would get elevated to their legal department and I would be contacted within 24 hours.

At No. 3 on the Google search list was Trulia.com. The home was listed with public record information only. It did not say “active” or “off the market.” This, in my humble opinion, is all that should be displayed.

Redfin.com was at No. 4. While it displayed the home as “sold,” it accurately stated when that happened. This was more like a public record with no recent claims of property status.

Homes.com came in at No. 5 on the Google search list. They are an “active” or “not for sale” portal, but “not for sale” isn’t listed with the address on the Google search page, at least.

I called homes.com, and the attendant was pleasant. She did state that the call would be elevated to a manager. At least their customer number was easy to find.

At No. 6 on the list was my own personal website, JeffreyHogueRealtor.com. I hand-enter the homes I list onto my website. I have found this to be the best way to have them rank higher in a Google search. Since the home has been opted out, it is not even on my own, or any other, IDX (Internet data exchange) feed.

Weichert.com, my franchise office, shows up at No. 7. They listed the home on their property page as “no longer active.” Guess I owe them a call.

No. 8 is movoto.com. They list the property as “sold” and display it more like the public record.

Nos. 9, 10 and 11 were homefinder.com, ziprealty.com and revestor.com. They all listed the property as “off market” on the property page.

So what did I learn from this exercise?

Data and information on almost anything, especially real estate, have turned into a business-to-customer (B2C) relationship because there is plenty of money in it. When that happens, things change. For example, the IDX that was set up years ago is still inundated with rules. Most IDX vendors will tell you how hard it is to work with many MLS companies and their associations.

Many of the same MLSs are negotiating data feed deals with major real estate portals. But if an IDX vendor does not change the status of a property within a limited period of time, they can be fined or expelled from the MLS. Could you imagine putting an AVM in an IDX feed?

Much of this dealing sounds like MLSs are selling out our data and leaving us with overregulated IDX.

I would not be surprised to see IDX, and similar, companies out there seeking effective counsel on the matter someday. Seems like they are getting the raw end of the MLS data stick to me.

I believe that for the most part, the real estate portals do a fair job. They obviously did a better job than NAR, realtor.com, large real estate companies and most MLSs. This is evident in the public’s acceptance of the real estate portals offerings to date.

But it seems as though most portals, especially the giants, are in complete takeover mode. Maybe after they do take over the industry, they will adopt acceptable rules and regulations that allow people, like home sellers, choice without encumbrance. Or maybe then the feds will step in and claim there are antitrust issues and that guidelines have to be implemented.

With great power comes great responsibility. I ask that all real estate portals and MLS companies consider the following: When you are taking our real estate information and selling it to the highest bidder, we lose customers and opportunity, and we will not stand still.

When the website listing that we directly control does not rank at the top of any search for homes we list on any search engine, we will not be happy. When you misrepresent the properties that are for sale and state that they are “off the market” to force us to comply, we will not. When you take away the seller’s status or rights as a property owner, we will fight back for our sellers.

Oh, and one more thing … at least act like you care about us and listen to what we have to say. After all, we are supposed to be your customers, too.

Jeffrey Hogue is a Realtor with Weichert Realtors.

Email Jeffrey Hogue.