Online Real Estate Heats Up

30 Nov ’06

One can’t help but wonder whether the walls surrounding one of the last big consumer categories – real estate – are about to come down. Yesterday a Chicago district court cleared the way for antitrust litigation against the US National Association of Realtors:

The DoJ contends the NAR is engaging in anti-competitive behavior against online home brokers. … According to the DoJ, the NAR is concerned online sites might lead to lower commissions for real estate brokers.

In the DoJ’s antitrust lawsuit, the government contends the NAR policy of allowing traditional brokers to block listings to online sites inhibits new technology beneficial to consumers.

The department’s lawsuit seeks to ensure that traditional brokers cannot use NAR’s policy to deprive consumers of the benefits of these new ways of competing.

Meanwhile, north of the 49th, the Globe reports today on concerns that the Canadian Real Estate Association is engaging in anticompetitive behaviour:

One of Canada’s largest discount real estate brokers suspended operations yesterday, saying it could no longer operate in the face of proposed changes to how homes are listed for sale on the Multiple Listing Service.

Toronto-based Realtysellers Ltd. announced it was shutting down “pending resolution of the Multiple Listing Service issues.” The company also vowed legal action to block MLS system changes that are under consideration by the Canadian Real Estate Association, or CREA.

Since launching in December, 2000, Realtysellers has become a leading online real estate service, offering clients low commissions and an opportunity to list homes on the MLS for a $695 fee. It was co-founded by Stephen Moranis, a former CREA director and former president of the Toronto Real Estate Board.

But the company has also raised the ire of many full-service brokers who complain that Realtysellers and other discount firms are misusing the MLS system and damaging its effectiveness. They argue these agents provide few client services and flood the system with homes.

The issue came to a head earlier this year when CREA’s board announced a series of changes that it said were designed to protect the MLS trademark. The proposals included requirements that agents inspect homes before listing them on the MLS and work with other agents throughout the sale process.

The proposals infuriated many discount brokers who argued the changes would curtail their business and force them to increase fees. The Competition Bureau also expressed concerns, saying the proposals could be anti-competitive.

A requirement that a home be inspected by a real estate agent before being listed in simply ridiculous, to my mind. As a buyer, I have no interest in being treated like a child – I can do my own due diligence. What I need is listings online, so I can review them for myself – without the intervention of an agent (who will in my experience rarely add anything to that process) – and decide what I want to see. And then after I’ve made my decision, an online auction mechanism to reduce transaction costs, increase price efficiency and cut out still more middlemen. Why are we still having this discussion?

Meanwhile, Zillow stands on the sidelines, gathering strength for the fight, and waiting for the right moment to wade in.

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