Should Consumers Have Easy Access to MLS Sales Information?

Consumer Access to MLS Information OnlineThe Competition Bureau is pressuring the Toronto Real Estate Board to break the law by releasing private data on the Internet in an effort to make the market more competitive, the board says. Releasing such information would be a “reckless” move, said the organization in a strongly worded statement Friday in response to new charges by the federal regulator.

“The commissioner is pressuring TREB to make changes to TREB’s own property listing system that TREB believes would violate consumer privacy laws, reduce the quality of the system, and diminish protection for consumers who list their homes in the Greater Toronto real estate market,” said board president Richard Silver. By allowing consumers to do much of the work themselves, the bureau believes fees could be lowered. However, the Toronto board is arguing much of this data is private and cannot be released.

The Competition Bureau said the issue was not one of privacy, since the information is already available to the consumer via other means. “We’re simply saying agents who do this over the Internet should have the same opportunity as everyone else,” he said. Click here to view the full article.

The Competition Bureau is at loggerheads with the Toronto Real Estate Board over how much MLS information can be provided by realtors to consumers on web sites that consumers can search directly. For example, at present, buyers can ask their realtor to provide information on recent sales comparable to a home that they are interested in purchasing, and the realtor can provide this information via fax or email. The same thing applies to sellers who want information on recent sales in order to determine what their home is worth and what list price they should choose. The Competition Bureau wants realtors to have the freedom to set up websites where their clients can do the searching themselves. The Competition Bureau’s theory is that making information more readily available will make the industry more competitive and hence lower commissions.

The Toronto Real Estate Board is taking the position, quite rightly, that there are privacy issues involved and that the realtor’s role as “gatekeeper” in the information flow is an important one. The Bureau’s claim that all of this information is already in the public domain is not correct; for example, information on selling prices for “pending sales” (homes that have been sold but not yet closed) is only available on the MLS system. It only becomes public once the sale has been registered. Also, while it could be argued that information on registered sales is in the public domain, it is not available in a form that is especially useful to either buyers or sellers,. To estimate market value through a comparative analysis, informaiton on the characteristics and condition of the home, how long it was on the market, what the asking price was, etc., is only available on the MLS system.

There is certainly nothing wrong with developing innovative ways for realtors to provide information to their buyer and seller clients, and to enable their clients to be more actively involved in the process to the extent that they wish to do so. As realtors, we welcome new opportunities to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. This must be done with respect for private information, however, and it is surprising to see the government take such a cavalier attitude toward privacy after putting  so much pressure on our industry to carefully guard privacy data. In my view the Competition Bureau is going too far and too quickly this time.