MLS & AssociationsTechnology

How to wage a PR war against an MLS

OahuRE.com claims to have inspired around 1,000 consumers to express disapproval of an MLS enforcement action
  • Some MLSs don't allow brokers to display expired, pending and withdrawn listings on brokerages' virtual office websites (VOWs).
  • Brokerages can rally significant public support for practices promoting transparency by posting calls to action on their websites and Facebook.
  • One reason MLSs may decide to prohibit the display of expired, pending and withdrawn listings on VOWs is to protect the privacy of sellers.

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Multiple listing services sometimes irritate real estate agents. But a case unfolding in Honolulu serves as a reminder that they can also roil the public.

HiCentral MLS, the MLS serving Honolulu, has ordered the brokerage OahuRE.com to pull expired, withdrawn or pending listings from its virtual office website (VOW), threatening to end the firm’s 10-year history of providing that information to registered users, according to OahuRE.com broker-owner Bryn Kaufman.

If OahuRE.com complies with the HiCentral MLS’ request, 39,000 people who have registered on the brokerage’s website will lose access to that listing data, Kaufman claims.

HiCentral MLS, which is owned and governed by the Honolulu Board of Realtors, has told Kaufman he must remove the data because showing it violates a HiCentral MLS rule that the organization says is designed, in part, to protect the privacy of sellers.

But the Honolulu Board of Realtors has agreed to review an appeal from Kaufman and re-evaluate the rule in question. Negative publicity may give the board cause to think long and hard when deciding whether to change tack.

1,000 votes

Kaufman, who was ranked the No. 1 agent by quantity of transactions in Hawaii for 2014 by Hawaii Business, says he has inspired around 1,000 people to express their disapproval of HiCentral MLS’ request that he remove expired, withdrawn and pending listings, demonstrating the potential for a brokerage to rally significant public support around practices that promote transparency in the real estate market.

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“Information such as pending sales (and) expired and withdrawn listings may be relevant to individuals and families during their homebuying process,” one person wrote in an email complaint to the Honolulu Board of Realtors. “Withholding pertinent information is wrong and dishonest. Shame on you, board of Realtors, trying to keep the public uninformed.”

Kaufman has told the Honolulu Board of Realtors in an email that he was “considering retaining an attorney to represent the interests of the 40,000-plus registered members who enjoy oahure.com with all the listings.”

The board will review an appeal from Kaufman on Oct. 30.

Bryn Kaufman (right) with his wife and children.

Bryn Kaufman (right) with his wife and children.

OahuRE.com’s resistance marks the latest effort from within the industry to offer consumers access to more MLS information, coming after a Colorado brokerage’s failed bid to publish co-op commission data and the National Association of Realtors’ decision to enact rules that could encourage the public display of sold listings.

As the Honolulu Board of Realtors may be pondering whether to uphold its decision to block Kaufman from displaying certain listing data, Kaufman has galvanized hordes of consumers into condemning the board’s enforcement action against him.

Mobilizing support

Originally, Kaufman said he planned to just send an appeal to the Realtor board. Only at a client’s urging, he said, did he decide to take more aggressive measures.

He kicked off his campaign by posting a call to action on the home page of his website encouraging visitors to email the local board of Realtors “if you do not want the board of Realtors hiding information from you …”

Concealing pending, withdrawn and expired listings will prevent the public from learning “which listings were overpriced and did not sell, or which listings are closing soon,” the notice on his website says. Kaufman said the call to action has generated at least 150 email complaints to the board.

Kaufman also paid to boost a Facebook post announcing the Honolulu Board of Realtors’ action against his brokerage, placing the post in the news feeds of many Facebook users who are part of his target market, along with many of the 39,000 who have registered on his website.

The Facebook post included two links: one to his call to action on the brokerage website and another to a separate Web page showcasing examples of complaints others had already sent to the board.

Kaufman’s Facebook post appealing for public support has close to 700 “likes” and, he said, more than 150 comments, the majority of which express support for Kaufman.

“The Honolulu Board of Realtors has asked me to remove all Pending, Withdrawn and Expired home listings …” – Facebook post by OahuRE.com on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015.

Kaufman also successfully pitched a reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, resulting in an in-depth article featuring a number of comments supportive of Kaufman.

Most of the 100 readers or so who commented on the article voiced support for Kaufman, according to Kaufman.

Kaufman also said that he plans to blast out an email “in the next few days” to more than 30,000 users who have registered on his website. “I expect to get good results from this group, as they have all benefited from seeing all listings on my website,” he wrote via email.

A 10-year practice

OahuRE.com began showing expired, withdrawn and pending listings to every visitor to the website in 2005, according to Kaufman. A few years later, he said, he stopped serving up the data to everyone in order to comply with new MLS rules.

But Kaufman said OahuRE.com continued to show the data to a qualified pool of consumers: people who registered their contact information on OahuRE.com’s main website for access to a restricted section of the website, its “virtual office website” (VOW).

Any broker’s VOW may show listing data that brokers are permitted by their local MLS to provide to customers “by hand, mail, facsimile, electronic mail or any other methods of delivery,” under a 2008 settlement between the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and the Department of Justice.

NAR's MLS policy handbook indicates that MLSs have the choice as to whether to prohibit brokerages from displaying expired, pending or withdrawn listings on virtual office websites.

NAR’s MLS policy handbook indicates that MLSs can choose whether to prohibit brokerages from displaying expired, pending or withdrawn listings on virtual office websites (VOWs).

In recognition of the fact that MLSs don’t allow members to show some types of data to customers through all delivery methods, including by hand, the settlement spelled out which types of data MLSs could prohibit members from showing consumers on VOWs.

Those types of data include expired, pending and withdrawn listings.

Not every MLS prohibits brokers from showing that data on VOWs, according to NAR. But HiCentral MLS ranks among those that do.

NAR also requires that brokers who are signing up registrants for a VOW provide the registrant with a password. OahuRE.com used cookies, though, not a password (a cookie is a small piece of data stored in a user’s Web browser to keep track of the user).

oahure.com VOW registration page

OahuRE.com’s VOW registration page

Keeping some data under wraps

The Honolulu Board of Realtors has decided not to allow the display of expired, pending and withdrawn listings on VOWs partly out of respect for the privacy of sellers, said Suzanne Young, CEO of the Honolulu Board of Realtors.

“The way we see it is that the seller has chosen to take their listing off the market,” Young said.

Kaufman says he wasn’t aware that HiCentral MLS prohibited showing such data on VOWs. Now that he is, he questions the policy primarily on two counts.

First, he says his brokerage has displayed expired, pending and withdrawn listings in some manner for 10 years.

Why only now, he asks, has the Honolulu Board of Realtors asked him to remove the data?

Second, all HiCentral MLS members can offer people access to withdrawn, pending and expired listings by providing a link (click here to see an example) to a Web page powered by HiCentral MLS.

“They clearly make this available to everyone, so I believe it is a double standard to ask to remove it from my website, while they clearly have chosen to provide this information to the public,” Kaufman said.

“I believe it is a double standard to ask to remove [data] from my website.” – Bryn Kaufman, broker-owner, OahuRE.com

When asked why HiCentral MLS requested that Kaufman stop displaying expired, withdrawn and pending listings only recently, Young said that the Honolulu Board of Realtors takes enforcement action whenever the organization becomes aware that its rules have been violated.

Young added that HiCentral MLS has prohibited expired, withdrawn and pending listing from being displayed on VOWs for the duration that OahuRE.com has been showing that data on its VOW — which, according to Kaufman, is seven years.

MLS members can send links that bring clients to Web pages showing that data, Young said, but the links deliver clients to a password-protected, member-only MLS website, not Hi Central MLS’ public-facing site.

That means Hi Central MLS’ rule prohibiting the display of the expired, withdrawn and pending listings on VOWs does not offer HiCentral MLS’ public-facing site a competitive advantage over broker websites, she said.

When asked why HiCentral MLS permits real estate agents to show expired, withdrawn and pending listings to consumers by providing a link, but not through VOWs, she emphasized that the link-dependent delivery method offers “specific information related to a request” from a customer in a “secure format.”

She acknowledged, however, that MLSs seem to be required to permit VOWs to provide to customers every type of data that can be shown to customers through all other delivery methods.

“Our goal is to be in compliance with NAR and what NAR requires — that will be a discussion that our board of directors will have,” she said.

Trudging toward transparency

The conflict between Kaufman and his MLS follows other efforts in the industry to further pry open the lid of the MLS for consumers.

Trelora, a Denver-based discount brokerage, grabbed headlines in February by overlaying the compensation offered by listing brokers to buyers’ brokers on its website’s listings.

Trelora quickly removed the data — which NAR advises against displaying publicly — at the request of the local MLS. The brokerage had previously said it would find a new path to open up information to consumers if it got shut down.

NAR also recently pushed through a measure aimed at opening up MLS data to more consumers.

In November 2014, NAR instituted a rule requiring MLSs to permit brokers to display a minimum of three years of sold listing data on their non-password-protected websites — but only if the sold data is already publicly available.

The rule allows brokers to display sold listings, not just on VOWS but also on public listing search tools that are freely available to anyone and do not require registration.

Part of the rationale behind the policy change was to give brokers an advantage over third-party portals that rely on public property tax records to track the dates and prices of home sales — records that can lag behind MLS data by weeks or months.

Email Teke Wiggin.