Access to real estate sales, listing data benefits from competition

Real estate portals generate competition, inform buyers and draw even more attention to listings

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Owners of real estate sales data in Canada have gone to great lengths to restrict unauthorized access and use of this data, but the Competition Bureau and many industry players have long advocated for a freer access to data in order to improve competition.

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The case appears far from settled despite years of litigation and rulings. As a result, some real estate boards continue to file legal notices against real estate technology companies that attempt to access their data and remind them of the integrity of their digital infrastructure.

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Data on real estate transactions and listings in Canada are disseminated through the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) systems, which are owned and managed by the real estate boards. A collaboration agreement facilitates the sharing of data between and among boards. Real estate agents typically register with one or more boards and then become eligible to list properties on the MLS system, which can then be viewed for free online by potential buyers and their agents.

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Councils, of course, are motivated to protect the integrity of the data they collect, maintain and disseminate, either by themselves or with the help of others. Improper use of this data or access by unauthorized entities is a valid industry concern, but so is the commitment to promote competition and prevent monopolies.

A recent industry-sponsored article by Paul Johnson and Anthony Niblett pointed out that the success of the MLS system lies in its “network effects”. As more homes are listed on the system, more buyers are attracted to it, which motivates more sellers to list their properties. This reinforcing loop of more listings leading to more buyers leading to even more sellers creates what is known as the network effect.

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The authors offer three recommendations to preserve and develop the value of this system. First, he recommends that real estate agents be required to list all properties on MLS. Currently, the system operates as a voluntary sign-up service, so real estate agents can choose to handle the transaction on their own or within their brokerage.

Before the real estate industry embraced the Internet, the practice of keeping listings out of the MLS system was prevalent among large brokerages who terminated sales by having agents from the same brokerage house brokerage represent the buyer and the seller. However, such practices are unlikely to be in the best interests of consumers, so requiring all properties to be listed (with some exceptions) is a valid consideration.

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Their second recommendation is that MLS “needs to continue to leverage highly effective portals” through which real estate data is disseminated. The most recognizable real estate portal in Canada is, which is operated by the Canadian Real Estate Association, the sponsor of the study.

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At the same time, proptech companies and digital first brokerages are also providing listing data with additional neighborhood and pricing information from previous transactions through virtual office websites. Portals generate competition, inform buyers and draw even more attention to ads. The industry therefore benefits from these portals.

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The third recommendation relates to limiting access to MLS data. The authors said unfettered access to listing data could discourage sellers from listing their property on MLS, but we believe these privacy concerns are a red herring.

Sellers happily consent to having photographs of their rooms and washrooms made freely available to anyone in the world when they list their properties on MLS. If privacy was a concern, sellers would be more cautious. Still, the millions of homes listed on MLS with photographs, 3D renderings of floor plans, and videos suggest that privacy concerns are no deterrent.

The authors stated that “any entity whose access to MLS systems is used for the real estate transaction would presumably create value and should (continue to) have access to it”. But real estate agents are not the only ones creating value. Most real estate transactions do not take place without the involvement of building inspectors, lawyers, financial institutions and others.

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With advances in artificial intelligence and communications technologies, the real estate industry is ripe for constructive disruption that will benefit consumers while protecting the intellectual property rights of those who collect and store real estate data. Restricting the definition of value-added entities to those who market real estate is not in the best interest of consumers.

Murtaza Haider is Professor of Property Management and Director of the Urban Analytics Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University. Stephen Moranis is a veteran of the real estate industry. They can be contacted on the Bulletin Haider-Moranis website,



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