Recently I attended a meeting to talk about the strategic direction of our local Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Participants at the meeting were Seattle-area designated brokers. A designated broker is the person ultimately responsible for the transactions and oversight of all agents in a real estate office. Oftentimes that person is also an owner of the brokerage and has been in the business for decades. There were about 100 designated brokers in the room, so we had a fairly strong representation of local brokerages in the room.
Part of our discussion centered around how the MLS makes information available to both agents and the general public. Historically agents were the “keepers of real estate information”. Prior to the Internet, that was certainly true, and a great deal of the value that agents provided was attributable to their access to information that wasn’t accessible to consumers. There have been two major technology waves that now put all of that information in the hands of consumers. The first was when listings appeared online in the 90’s and allowed consumers to directly search for homes that are on the market. The second wave was a series of startup companies like Zillow who have made the vast amount of publicly-available real estate records consumable by the general public. Now it is quite easy for consumers to search for homes online, find out data about previous sales, understand neighborhood trends, and even find out the size of mortgages currently on a particular property.
In this particular meeting, I was advocating for the MLS to make even more information available to the public. I was surprised at the backlash and anger it raised in the room when I voiced this comment. Here are some verbatim comments from that day:
- “If we are going to have any control of our customers, we as brokers have to control the data that they see.” – Broker A
- “Doctors and lawyers do not have a publicly accessible database for their proprietary information (i.e. LexisNexis), so why should we as real estate brokers allow the public to access our data?” – Broker B
- “Information is power. I need to maintain this power to serve my customers.” – Broker C
- “With websites like Zillow and Redfin taking away my edge as a broker, I need the proprietary information in the MLS to maintain my edge in this market.” – Broker D
What??? I was stunned that this way of thinking is still prevalent in real estate brokerages. From our perspective, the days of real estate agents hoarding information are over. Online companies will continue their march forward, and more and more data will be freely available to consumers whether real estate agents want it disclosed or not. There is a huge hunger for this data, and allowing easy access makes it that much simpler for consumers to buy and sell homes.
I understand the motivation of brokers. Brokers want to maintain some control of the data so that consumers continue to call them and engage them during the real estate purchase process. We certainly want consumers to call us and use us as a trusted advisor. However, I think that the role of agents is changing rapidly, and many brokers are slow to recognize it. Buying and selling real estate remains complex, and there will always be a role for agents. We simply believe that the role as information provider is rapidly diminishing and agents will need to compete on service and knowledge going forward.