Tag Archives: mls

Forced MLS membership no more? The time for ‘choice’ is now

This article was originally published on Inman News:

  • Under “MLS of Choice,” brokers and agents would only pay for the MLSs they choose to access and use. But the question is not “if they choose an MLS;” it’s “which MLS(s) they choose.”
  • MLSs engage in a value-driven service model that encourages customer focus and competition.

MLS of Choice

The committee with the longest name in real estate — NAR’s MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board — has posted its solution for creating what some are calling “MLS of Choice.”

This solution will be put up for a vote of NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies (MLIP) Committee in November. The MLIP Committee makes MLS policy recommendations to NAR’s Executive Committee, which then chooses whether to pass them up to the NAR board of directors for final approval.

Proposed policy change synopsis: Brokers and agents need to participate, subscribe and pay dues to at least one MLS. But brokers and agents can’t be charged fees by MLSs that they don’t wish to access and use.

Changes to NAR MLS Policies 7.42 and 7.43 would allow a broker to participate in multiple MLSs, while the broker’s agents only pay dues to the MLS(s) that they wish to access.

This is accomplished by requiring MLSs to give fee waivers to agents who are already paying subscriber dues to a different MLS (where the broker also participates). The MLS can require the waiver requesting that the broker and/or agent sign a certification of non-use.

In effect, principal brokers choose which of their offices will operate and pay dues in each respective MLS service area. Brokers participate in the MLSs their agents want to access. Agents subscribe to one or more MLSs that best fits their needs.

Intended consequences:

  • MLSs engage in a value-driven service model that encourages customer focus and competition, much like the environment brokers work within.
  • Brokers are no longer prevented by artificial geographic boundaries or financial obstacles from joining additional MLS service areas and bringing on agents who work in those markets.
  • Agents are no longer prevented by artificial geographic boundaries or financial obstacles from joining brokerages with the best support model for their businesses.

Questions you may have

“Won’t some of my MLS’s agent subscribers stop paying for services? Will my headcount go down?”

Subscriber count could go either direction, but there likely won’t be much of a shift. Remember that this change allows brokers to join more MLSs without prohibitive costs. So some MLSs will likely see subscriber and participant counts go up. The vast majority of agents that want/use their local MLS’s services will continue to pay. This isn’t “if MLS,” but “which MLS(s).”

“What if agents try to cheat the system?”

What would be new about that? This was a bigger problem in the past with agents sharing listing books. Today, we have the luxury of software that can verify who’s logging in and using MLS services. Cheaters will always exist. We have to prioritize improving business conditions for great brokers and agents, and not let a minority of bad actors overshadow their needs.

“What if a broker from another area joins my MLS, and her agent wants to sell a property in my area? He doesn’t know my town well enough to be qualified.”

There are always unfit agents. Some are unfit to sell their own backyard.

The MLS doesn’t exist to keep agents and brokers “over there” from selling “over here.” It exists to foster greater cooperation. It is the job of brokers and agents to prove their superior knowledge and value to clients. As we’ve seen in countless consolidations, the fear of “agents coming over the hill” or “across the water” is overblown. It just doesn’t play out in any significant numbers.

“What if that broker joins my MLS, but her agent doesn’t subscribe? Does my cooperation/compensation still go to that agent if he writes a contract on my listing?”

Yes: Cooperation and compensation will continue to flow to the broker participant and, subsequently, to all of the participant’s agents. That won’t change. More brokers joining more MLSs will create an even broader broker cooperation network.

Certainty makes for healthier marketplaces. Sellers will know that even more brokers and agents will be confident in bringing buyers and not be held back by boundaries.

Agents will have certainty that compensation agreements are in place across MLSs. They’ll be confident to occasionally sell a home in another MLS (where their broker is a participant) that just happens to perfectly fit their clients’ needs best. This brings buyers and sellers together in situations that might not occur in a less cooperative environment.

Greater market exposure and certainty are created via the MLS. It’s a win for consumers and the industry.

A request to brokers and agents: Engage with your company’s leadership, your local association and your MLS’s board of directors. Let them know how this new flexibility of choice will improve your ability to do business and grow.

MLS leaders and directors: Let us know your concerns now. We’ve spent much of the past year discussing this issue with your colleagues, brokers and agents. We’ve surveyed membership for feedback. CMLS published a white paper summarizing the issue. It would be a shame to have this policy come to a vote in November without your questions being answered long before then.

MLS policy committee members, and NAR directors: Find out from the MLS’s primary customers — brokers — how they feel about this new potential policy. Ask us questions about the specific policy changes now, so we’re all on the same page in Chicago.

If you’ll be at the CMLS (Council of Multiple Listing Services) conference this week in Austin: Read the MLS 2020 Agenda prior to your arrival. Some of the industry’s smartest leaders are refining the direction that MLSs must take to be relevant and valuable in an industry experiencing dramatic change. Updating the MLS business model was a frequently mentioned concern.

Take it from one of MLS modernization’s master planners, David Charron:

“The moment of truth for MLS leadership must be in understanding that much of what has gotten us here will not carry us further. Much of what we created 10 to 20 years ago is worthless. Dead. So, standing down, or worse, building walls of protectionism, in the face of such enormous change does not properly depict who we are or what we aim to be.

“Successfully innovating on our base and our business model is a tricky maneuver. We have worked so hard to get here! But our primary mission is helping brokers succeed! It’s on us to band together; be that small group that enacts the change that advances our industry.”

NAR’s November vote on MLS Policy Statements 7.42 and 7.43 will be another moment that provides clarity as to whether we’re ready to embrace this kind of change. Let’s move forward.

See you in Austin.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group, VP of Strategic Growth for Coldwell Banker Danforth, President of Seattle King County Realtors, and 2018 Vice Chair of the National Association of Realtors’ MLS Policy Committee. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com

We Need Much More Honesty on Upstream

This post was originally published on the Notorious R.O.B.:

bogeyman2

Well, this should be fun. After Rob’s critique of my last piece about Upstream, I thought it would be appropriate to step into the Notorious octagon. Considering I’m not a trained attorney, that’s probably a mistake (yes, that’s the first of many self-deprecations to bloat my handicap on his turf). I once put a foot into law school before I realized I would likely work even more hours and earn far less than I could in real estate (cue the Raise the Barconversation), so that’s going to have to do the job.

Rob is a friend, one of the most precise analysts in the industry and a kind purveyor of a 3,000 word skewering. Though it’s outside my normal comfort zone (self-deprecation #2), I’ll try to adapt to the informal, irreverent, “quote and dissect” style employed here. Some of the best discussions in real estate happen here, and I’m honored to share with the Most Informed Readers in the industry. Enough of the lovefest—let’s get started.

I’ve made the case that a significant portion of pushback against Upstream is self-serving. Some of that comes from the MLS sector. Before the accusations of an MLS-hating broker begin, I think I’ve proven my bona fides in the past with love letters I’ve written to the MLS like this one. I’m not always right, but I have gotten guidance over the years from some of the smartest MLS leaders across the country and have great respect for the institution.

Digging in to the first grenade that Rob lobbed against my piece yesterday:

Rob: “he tries [to] position anyone who questions Upstream, criticizes it, or even questions it as some sort of a retrograde self-serving cabal of people desperate to stop progress”

Sam: “There are viable arguments against Upstream and its potential for success, but they seem to be the exception.”

How much of the industry is conscientiously against the business model, and how much is in self-preservation mode, we may not agree upon. But there’s definitely some of both. I’ve heard some really thoughtful arguments against the structural setup of Upstream, here on the Notorious blog, from some folks at HAR, and even my own NWMLS.

I’ve also heard arguments which have a primary goal of protecting the status quo. They may not be trying to stop progress, but their efforts would, nonetheless. The tone of the conversation is important. Here’s Rob, after a CMLS event that discussed Upstream at Midyear in DC:

“Then… the sessions end, people file out into the hallways, and… it’s ‘f**k them’ muttered sotto voce… I literally had one MLS exec say to me, ‘You know, I looked up the dictionary definition of “collaborate” — and we’re talking about the second definition here.’ For your edification, Merriam-Webster: (#2) to give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during a war.”

This doesn’t downgrade anyone’s argument for/against Upstream, but it adds clarity for the reader who may not wander those halls. I spoke on one of the Upstream panels at that CMLS. The reception was chilly. Being from a well-run regional MLS territory where we really like our MLS, it was eye opening to see the tension. Only my friend Carl DeMusz from NORMLS was willing to give me an alternate, yet reasoned MLS perspective afterward. There’s a history that has created a feeling of invasion in some of the MLS community. That’s partially brokers’ fault (we’ll get to that), but it also generates a defensive posture that lends itself to unnecessary skepticism in some.

“Perhaps the whole brouhaha would benefit from a little more honesty, that everyone involved kind of understands and acknowledges, but refuses to say for a variety of reasons.”

Let’s have that conversation. Rob apparently doesn’t care if he keeps his job, but I’ve always tried to avoid making enemies. Hopefully this conversation can be viewed as simply saying the things that we all hear in the hallways, but rarely make it into print.

There are self-serving interests on both sides of this conversation. Rob’s piece spells out some very real concerns that MLS interests might have, but doesn’t seem to touch the fact that we know some are merely holding back change that’s coming their way.

“There are brokers, nationwide, who will benefit from Upstream’s ability to reduce their costs of data input, normalization, delivery and storage. Instead of another set of Band-Aids, it delivers a cure for the mish-mash data delivery system the industry now employs.” – Sam

“Every single person involved with the MLS or with MLS technology supports those goals…Quite contrary to Sam’s assertion that there are these nefarious self-serving pricks who want to throw shade at Upstream because their salaries depend on stopping progress, every single person I know in the MLS industry, in the MLS technology industry, and in the Association world support the goals of Upstream.” – Rob

LOL. Can I write that here?

I’ll admit that I’m more than uneasy with the translation of my piece into calling MLS folks “nefarious pricks”. These things can take on a life of their own. So I’ll call it like it is, an inaccurate bastardization of my comments to support a point. (I was told that I needed to use many big words from leather-bound books.)

There’s a quality turn of phrase here, as “those goals” are supported by “every single person”. Based on our experience, that seems to be true only if he/she is allowed to control the process which governs those goals.

Let’s get to that honesty. I did call a portion of the industry self-serving. I meant that for the broker side as well the MLS side. Self-serving is natural. Business people should be seeking greater profitability, efficiency, etc. Brokers are self-serving in the pursuit of Upstream because it will benefit organized real estate, and themselves in particular.

Self-serving in a way that protects individual status quo and damages overall progress, on the other hand, can’t be allowed to drive the conversation. Letting grievances stall industry innovation while the organized sector of real estate continues with outdated, inefficient processes and falls behind the outside forces in real estate technology, is not acceptable. Yes, those “outside forces” include the Cthulu’s evil elder god (later).

“The first and biggest problem which I have raised ever since the first details about Upstream were made public is that Upstream wants to create its own database of property listings outside of the MLS.

I keep asking, Why?

Sam doesn’t address this. I’ve asked Alex Lange, CEO of Upstream, Cary Sylvester, the architect of Upstream and a Board member, and everyone else who would actually speak to me about this Database issue, and… well… the answers are unsatisfactory.

Except that we live in 2016, not 1970, when the whole concept of proprietary walled-garden databases is not exactly progress. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of progress.”

This is a stretch. Accessible data is the future, but proprietary systems that strictly limit access to and use of that data are employed by some of the world’s most successful companies, e.g. Apple. They may pull in outside data sources to supplement their applications, but they restrict the hell out of their proprietary pathways and their repositories.

There’s nothing in a technologically advanced world that impedes the use of data on multiple databases, with a single database as the verification point or key. Though not the same as new technologies like blockchain, there’s an ideological similarity in having an Upstream database that assures all downstream databases that they have a source of data to trust.

Sure, some MLS vendors today can call APIs to dynamically generate data from central databases, but many MLSs still use antiquated systems which require vendors to replicate and store a copy of their database for end user functionality. The MLS in its current form is not a pure database available to all who need its information. Upstream does not add a layer of complexity on top of a seamless, pure listing input and distribution system. It adds a layer of uniformity and clarity on top of a tangled web of disjointed nationwide databases.

“Words and phrases like ‘nuclear option’, ‘push the red button’, ‘don’t plan too many more of these CMLS events into the future’, and of course, ‘You have ten days’ are… shall we say… attention-grabbing? … Have the brokerages behind Upstream — particularly the Realty Alliance and LeadingRE — ever publicly stated that their beef with the MLS was done, over with, and behind them? That thanks to the conversations that the ‘You’ve got ten days’ and ‘Don’t plan too many more of these CMLS events into the future’ sparked, they’ve buried the hatchet, smoked the peace pipe, and sang kumbahya with the MLSs?
If they have, I missed it.”

We are 100% on the same page here. I think most of us were shocked by the nature of the comments at that event. They’re still burned into our memories. In hindsight, it was probably the worst way to introduce what would become a project like Upstream.

This may be the single most influential and damaging moment in the industry relations history between MLSs and the not-yet-revealed Project Upstream. There are some unbelievably intelligent and talented people running the organization. That day at CMLS probably haunts some of their dreams.

MLSs should have been brought into the conversation early, consulted often, and been party to decisions. Yes, many would have pushed back heavily. Many still will. But the acrimony of that day will live in Upstream infamy.

“So, the truth is that Upstream needs its own database to serve as the nuclear option against the MLS. Having its own database makes it possible for Upstream, and its brokers, to cut off the problematic MLS so that its listing count goes from 100% of a given market to something like 50%, thereby rendering it more-or-less useless.”

No, no, no. I haven’t spoken (or whispered) with a single broker nationwide who wants to cut off the MLS. Of course they want to add efficiency to those that need it, and many support consolidation of MLSs in “overserved” markets. So do many of the top MLS leaders. They’re on stage at Inman talking about how many consolidations we can make happen and how quickly.

“But one of the most read posts on this blog is the one where I talked about the announcement of RPR back in 2009. Yes, it was rather laden with hyperbole… it’s how I write… so sue me. What I didn’t even mention in that post, however, is that the origins of RPR was in a NAR Presidential Advisory Group that seriously discussed the creation of a single national MLS under NAR’s control and ownership. Their ultimate recommendation was somewhat short of that, but read between the lines and you can see why the MLS people might be a bit nonplussed about this ‘Gateway’ that ultimately took form as RPR:”

“RPR partnering with Upstream to the MLS looks like a backdoor strategy to create this ‘national gateway’ from the 2006 PAG which differs from the MLS not at all. A rose by any other name….”

This is my realtor.com trigger, when I lose my ability to politely defer away misdirection. It’s akin to the unending drone of arguments that attempt to shut down any progressive ideas from NAR with reticence about a decision that happened in the 1990s.

Here are some honest questions: How much relevance would a thoughtful leader give to a domain name agreement 20 years ago in his/her decision making about other initiatives today? How much weight should an industry executive put in the words of a volunteer PAG in a 10 year old brief? Would you trust your technology strategists if they kept talking about Yahoo and AOL instead of focusing on Google and Amazon?

This strand of an argument goes from volunteer committee prognostication to RPR as vendor for Upstream that becomes the national MLS. I can’t tell you that a national MLS will never happen–who would’ve thought banks nationwide would give loans to people with no jobs, credit, or assets? Crazy things happen in this world, but casting shade on Upstream because of a 2006 PAG isn’t passing the smell test.

These kinds of things can not drive our strategic vision today. It is the worst kind of grudge that allows a decade-old perceived threat to cause industry members to undercut one another in case those old feelings might still reside.

“I asked this question on stage at CMLS Las Vegas this year to a room full of MLS executives and MLS leadership:
‘If Upstream had chosen Corelogic or MRIS as its technology partner, would any of you here have a problem with Upstream?’ Not a single hand went up.”

Now, we’re getting somewhere. I’d love to point out the self-selected evidence and the expected lack of hands in a situation like the one described. But let’s take the situation as truth.

If so, then the MLS world and Upstream would be singing harmony, if only RPR wasn’t the vendor. Would MLS folks really undercut a broker initiative that would offer a streamlined industry data system and financial benefits to the brokerage community—its core customers, members, and creators—just to make sure that RPR isn’t successful? Is this actually the enigma in the room that no one will speak about?

(*Update – I neglected to mention that I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, but we’re working with the scenario that was presented.*)

MRIS was on board as a potential vendor for Upstream, for god’s sake. If, as this conversation seems to insinuate, MLS support existed before the vendor choice, but not after RPR’s selection, we are drowning in a quagmire of self-preservation.

There are MLSs with outstanding administrators, high quality products, and very happy customers. Then there are others holding down a geography. If they’re afraid of another company overtaking their business because they’re not providing a superior value to their members, they should be. That’s how brokers live. The focus on the RPR national MLS bogeyman is a distraction from the priority of running a competitive business. It just reinforces stagnation.

Next. Small vs. big brokerages is always a good way to divide and conquer.

“In every MLS in the country, the vast majority (I’m talking 70+%) of the Participant brokers are not HomeServices of America, NRT, or giant brokerage firms that belong to Realty Alliance. They are mom-n-pop shops with zero to five agents. They don’t work cross-market. They don’t have ‘overlapping market disorder’ problems. They don’t worry about flow of data into their back office systems, because they don’t have a back office system. In what conceivable way are these mom-n-pop brokerages in the same ‘broker sphere’ as the one Sam keeps insisting exists?”

At NAR’s MLS Technology and Emerging Issues Advisory Board (name dropping), we hear stories about small brokers who travel across state and county lines in rural areas. They do suffer the inefficiencies of overlapping market disorder and artificial geographic restrictions.

The follow-up conspiracy says that only big brokers will really benefit from the technological advances available from Upstream because they have more resources to build new tools and access the new functionality. Remove the word “Upstream” and replace it with anything else of value. Of course big brokers with more money will be able to leverage the tools more effectively. That’s how scale works. This has nothing to do with Upstream itself.

But let’s just include the next portion as we get to the bigger point:

“In Cthulu mythology, Hastur the Unspeakable is a mysterious evil Elder God also called ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’. Well, in the context of Upstream (and possibly in real estate industry in general), that role belongs to Zillow, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’. [DISCLOSURE: I have a business relationship with Zillow, but obviously, they have nothing to do with this post or these opinions. I sell my time, not my opinions. In fact, I may get in trouble with them for this post….]
The uncomfortable, unspoken truth about Upstream is that it is part of an overall strategy by the largest brokerages and national franchise companies to ‘take back power’ from Zillow.”

It’s funny, because in my household, we actually refer to someone as “He who must not be named”. He’s a tailback from USC who wore #5, whose family greedily ruined the football program for years by taking improper benefits and lost his Heisman trophy…but I digress (did that suffice as a “Rob tangent”?).

Honesty:

Rob says Hastur is Zillow. I’d say, for brokers, it’s Zillow, Move, Homes.com, and anyone not involved in the actual sales transaction who profits from it. Brokers don’t want or need to shut them down. They simply want more leverage over the data they’re creating. Whether big or small, brokers’ margins have been shrinking over the years. They didn’t have the impetus or foresight to create a collective, broker-controlled platform together at the dawn of online real estate. They see its value now. In one arena they’re competitors, but in this sense, they are are aligned.

Of course we have moments like Realogy’s Alex Perriello questioning the value proposition. Brokers are only aligned in some facets of strategy, and their other responsibilities will overlap and create tension. Upstream’s eventual adoption rate won’t prove or disprove that there is a “broker sphere.” The fact that these companies came together and built a beta version of the platform has already proven it to an extent.

As a reminder, supporters include:

  • Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate
  • Berkshire Hathaway Home Services (HSF Affiliates LLC)
  • Coldwell Banker
  • ERA
  • Keller Williams
  • NRT
  • Realogy
  • Re/Max Holdings Inc.
  • Realty Executives
  • Sotheby’s International
  • Leading Real Estate Companies of the World
  • The Realty Alliance
  • HomeServices of America
  • Baird & Warner
  • Long & Foster
  • Real Estate One
  • William Raveis Real Estate
  • Northwood Realty
  • Shorewest, Realtors
  • Pacific Union
  • Private Label Realty/Tenura Holdings
  • Century 21 Real Estate
  • Crye-Leike Real Estate

Controlling data: this is where we often hear clichés about the cat already being out of the bag, or “that time has passed.” Poppycock. We are in day 1 of the internet. For anyone who believes the current power structure is set in stone, it’s time to retire. We are living in the wild west of real estate data management. Things will change more in the next five years than they have in the last 20.

Brokers want more power, relative to the organizations which use their data for profit. Call it “taking back” if you must look at the world in the past tense, but it’s merely a strategic push in one direction in a landscape where power has recently shifted to the opposite direction.

Should brokers assume that they’ll never have control, standards, or rights to all of their data in perpetuity? Shall we accept that we’ll never capture a larger portion of the value created by listing data? Is there some Great Wall of China that’s been built in the middle of the cyber world that can’t ever be budged because someone said “Zillow has already won”?

It’s ludicrous. Yes, brokers want to gain more power, leverage, and potential profitability relative to their current position. They’d be negligent business people if they didn’t. The other benefits of Upstream do not preclude it from also creating greater leverage. There is no sin in wanting both.

When brokers are given a dashboard with the ability to opt-out or turn off their syndication to portals, less than 1 percent hit the off switch. They don’t want to cut off the flow. They just want to know that they control the switch, because things will change. Owning the switch allows greater control as to how they change.

“It is entirely possible — hell, I’ll even say it’s likely that I’m wrong for the sake of discussion. Upstream and the MLSs can prove me wrong very, very easily in a few steps.
1. Tell all of your CRM, CMA, back office, Accounting vendors to start coding against Retsly. They’re your vendors; they have to do what you ask, or you’ll find another vendor who will.
2. Go to the local MLS and tell them to install Retsly and Bridge.
3. Ask Zillow to build a non-listings database for all of the data that Sam and Alex insist are far more important than listings data, and to do it for free, in exchange for access to data.
But once we get honest about what’s going on here, and get real about the unspoken, unpublicized issues behind the scenes, then I think we see that most of the ‘shade’ is actually justifiable concerns on the part of people who don’t want to see the baby out with the bathwater.”

Quickly on these steps:

1, 2, 3: Why would brokers ask their MLSs and vendors to build these tools with a publicly-traded company they don’t own, when they can do it themselves and direct it going forward?

Change is inevitable. Much like the “taking it back” conversations, there seem to be so many arguments that assume players in the industry will in the near future be what they are today. Imagine just five years ago thinking that Rupert Murdoch might own realtor.com and Zillow would be doing transaction management and translation/aggregation for MLSs.

The industry is transforming rapidly, and the entities that brokers get into bed with today might turn out to be totally different in the morning. This is why they’re building their own platform. Yes, the brokerage and NAR-owned vendors could change in time, too. But at least we know that our core, simplest missions are driven by the same fundamentals: real estate salespeople earning commissions. We can never be fully sure of our future, but we can certainly buckle in with partners who need the same foundation.

We can agree that there are “justifiable” concerns from some in the industry about Upstream. At the same time, the idea that “RPR the unspeakable”, 2006 PAGs, and uncomfortable words are driving resistance to Upstream’s progress is painfully depressing for the future of the industry.

So if competition is the main concern of MLSs who are wary of Upstream, so be it. Find your core value proposition and own it. Find the services that someone else can do better and let them. Don’t hold back industry progress because some poltergeist from a volunteer committee or a hot-headed panelist put a decade-long burr in your boots.

We know that there are many MLS industry members who want to work together with us on this initiative. It can’t happen without quality MLS organizations’ support. These folks shouldn’t be drug down by the fears from the past or their cohorts who can’t keep up.

We do need more honesty in the Upstream conversation. We need it from all sides.

This is business. Speak the names out loud, or hold your peace.

Provoking, flipping and dropping bombs (Inman Connect Speed Wrap)

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

Last week was Inman Connect in San Francisco, one of the best events of the year (and no, not only for the parties).

I’m writing to you from a campground in the Cascade mountains, so I’ll try to wrap up a lot of content quickly.

Bots taking over

Connect is always looking for the leading edge of tech. Bots are right at our fingertips.

Amazon’s Alexa was on stage at #ICSF answering Brad Inman’s questions — the way lead management software will in the near future.

A number of companies are already providing a combination ofhuman/bot lead conversion that works for agents while they sleep. Those conversations are digitally stored.

The human concierges likely won’t last long. Machine learning and that database of interaction analyzed against conversion rates will create a finely tuned sales bot in no time.

It won’t replace the agent in the transaction, but it could replace the inside sales lead conversion/appointment setter. I’d hire one. (And this week, Inman launched its own bot for readers, too.)

The software has eyes

Speaking of machine learning, RealScout has nailed it. Millions of human eyes interpreting real estate images have been transformed into a software intellect.

The machine can read images more accurately than its human counterparts. It sees the open layout and the box beams, even if the agent doesn’t identify them in the listing.

Consumers use natural language search and enjoy a curated discovery process, free of the artificial constraints of archaic code.

This is where the real estate experience improves. MLS and agent/broker inefficiencies are overcome by intelligent investment. Technology and capital come together to add value to the process.

We need more of this.

‘MLX > MLS’

That headline on W + R Studios’ website might be unnecessarily provocative, but that’s pitchman Greg Robertson’s style. Cloud MLX won the Inman Innovator Award, and it’s better than any MLS interface I’ve seen.

Like RealScout, it breaks free of traditional MLS search constraints.

With instant search suggestion feedback and past favorites/saved searches built into real-time interaction, the user’s efficiency grows with continued use. It’s a secondary or complementary MLS interface (there’s no “add/edit” listing feature). For now, it’s not a direct competitor to the big primary MLS providers.

This company is doing CMAs better than MLSs. It has better listing alerts. Now it has a superior user interface. What’s next?

The arms race

Congrats to the entrepreneurs who are being acquired in this bubbly market. Commissions Inc, a little startup out of Atlanta, sold for $250 million. That’s one-quarter of what News Corp paid for Move/realtor.com.

Leads and customer management software are still the story, no matter how many speakers try to shout it down.

Bridge Interactive Group was just acquired by Zillow. If you’re not familiar with them, have a look at their services, then look at Project Upstream’s. There’s no cold war here, just some friendly comrades building agent tools and ad platforms.

 

Bridge Interactive Group

 

Flips, bidding wars, and discounts

There are a lot of new business models getting airtime at Connect.

Haus is a bidding war platform that promises transparency. The legend is that an Uber founder got angry when he was outbid on a home, so he started a new company where everyone can see everyone else’s offer.

It’s going to be as hot as the taxi business. The potential user base is sellers in hot markets who want to give away their strategic advantage. Why would listing agents encourage their sellers to dump their informational leverage? How did this question not come up immediately to the founders?

Knock is another startup. It flips homes by giving sellers a guaranteed price. The property is listed publicly, and either Knock buys it at the pre-arranged price, or the seller gets a premium if it sells for more to another buyer. Knock takes some kind of fee, which should be front and center on its website but isn’t.

Transfer taxes limit some flip models. They can be up to 2 percent of the purchase price. In a traditional flip with two sales, that 4 percent really squeezes the profit margins.

Opendoor is taking a strategic approach by traditionally buying/reselling flip homes in states with low/no transfer taxes. They’re pretty successful so far. Homeowners are willing to forgo the money available on the open market for a guaranteed price/easy closing. It will be interesting to see if they can scale in other states.

I have an uneasy feeling about how well these sellers are informed about the value of their homes. It’s one of those uncomfortable topics like pocket listings: consumers have free choice, but the quality of advice they receive from their advisers has a great effect on those choices.

SoloPro came to talk about its limited-service model. It embodies the philosophical disconnect between many outsiders and industry insiders.

The company “unbundles” real estate services. Its marketplace lets consumers meet licensees for flat fee, discount services. Open a door for X dollars, write an offer for Y dollars, Agent Z who happens to be available today will serve your needs.

The agency relationship can’t be dismembered without losing value. Piecemeal representation is lesser representation. Continuity creates value. Inexpensive is sometimes just cheap.

Hobbled-Leigh

You’d think the cast Leigh Brown had to lug around as MC of Connect would have slowed her down, but she came out swinging. Her performance was edgy and smart, in classic Inman style.

In a departure for Connect, she pitched politics and the Realtor PAC from the stage. Some cheered, some grumbled.

This is a pretty simple one, folks. You might not like politics, but we all enjoy the extra money RPAC is putting in our pockets. Anyone who sells, owns or vends to those who do, is benefiting from those carrying the water.

Dropping bombs

I don’t mind when speakers use off-color language, but it’s painful when they don’t know how to wield it. It’s a lot like a weapon. If you’re going to take it on stage, you’d better have a really good (expletive) handle on it.

A few wannabe gunslingers put us all through some pain last week. Don’t be one of them. If you’re not sure, don’t try it.

Startup Alley

Agents don’t want more tools. They want fewer, better tools, and First promises that.

Instead of adding a new CRM, First simply monitors a user’s social networks. Using predictive analytics, its algorithm identifies moments in your sphere’s lives that may signal a move. The agent is alerted to make contact.

Just keep doing what you’re doing on social media and your vendor will do the rest. We need more of this: horsepower on the back end, simplicity for the user.

Unsolicited advice

I’m always struck by the number of entrepreneurs that appear to not have sought broad guidance before launching. There are some really smart folks who could simply sit down with some savvy brokers and agents to find out that their product is functionally obsolete in this industry.

They might save themselves the first failure or pivot.

This isn’t about discouraging innovation. Push the edge, but first ask a few people if it’s just a cliff.

It’s not just the old stodgy guard that’s saying your product/model won’t work. It’s often someone who wants you to improve the experience but can already see what you can’t.

We just might save you a lot of time and money.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

The broker-driven future of the MLS

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

  • Brokers need to understand the new initiatives changing the way we work with MLSs.
  • New tools can create efficiency and improved data storage and analytics for brokers and vendors.
  • Consumers will have access to broader, more accurate information and tools.

New technology initiatives are reshaping the future of broker relationships with MLSs. The sheer magnitude of the changes coming to the MLS portion of our industry is creating uncertainty for some and unease for others.

These initiatives are complex. That’s why many agents, and even brokers, simply avoid them. It’s what we were taught: If the MLS is working, there’s no need to investigate further. Get back to business.

That focus is not selfish or small-minded — it’s a virtue to salespeople.

These are historic times, though. Brokers and vendors are driving the creation of tools that will radically change our industry’s data delivery system — streamlining and enhancing it significantly. These efforts will require not only understanding, but broad, demonstrative support by the broker community to come to fruition.

If we’re going to make intelligent decisions about the future of the MLS, we need to understand it. Many agents don’t know how their MLS works, let alone Upstream. Here’s a start, from one broker’s perspective:

The future of real estate data

 

To be clear, this is not a technical data flow chart. It’s merely a visualization of how the MLS world could fit together in the future. The intent is to illustrate the players involved and how they are connected. Many technical details will be glossed over in an attempt to provide brevity and clarity.

The players:

MLS service providers

Core MLS service providers handle the MLS’s listings and office information database. These could be Corelogic, FBS, Black KnightRappatoni, a custom solution, another vendor, or in the near future, RPR AMP. These companies provide the back end for the MLS and deliver data to some vendors for brokers.

They usually also provide a front-end interface for MLS users. This could be Matrix, Paragon, etc. In the case of RPR AMP, it could be multiple front-end interfaces for MLS users simultaneously sitting on top of the AMP database.

Secondary MLS interface providers

There are also secondary interfaces available to MLS users. Homesnap MLSand CloudMLX are optional enhancements to an MLS’s user interface options. They are built on top of any core MLS provider’s database. They don’t affect the primary MLS interface but provide a different (and sometimes more streamlined) way for a user to interact directly with the MLS database.

Upstream

Upstream is the database that would streamline brokers’ data output. Brokers who join Upstream would no longer send listing and office data to dozens of unconnected outlets. They would use the Upstream database to store and update all of their information.

All of their data could then flow downstream to their providers (including MLSs) at the individual broker’s discretion. This would increase efficiency and improve data storage and analytics for brokers.

Those brokers who do not join Upstream would continue the current process of listing and office data distribution on their own. They would send separate data feeds to multiple MLSs, office tools, vendors, portals, etc.

Aggregators

Aggregation products allow access to IDX data across multiple MLSs for brokers. They provide a feed that brokers can use with their office tools and vendors. The breadth of the data is dependent upon the aggregator’s MLS reach.

Some aggregators have additional data. Zillow’s Retsly Connect adds public records data for broker use. Trestle from CoreLogic adds consumer-facing public records data and AVM data. It’s far and away the largest with 100 MLSs already signed up, but it won’t be available until late 2016.

Broker office tools and vendors

One of the misunderstandings about Upstream is that it’s only about listings. Brokers are currently feeding different kinds of data to a wide range of office tools. Company records, office addresses and photos, agent rosters and photos, staff information, accounting, transactions, and customer records are all uploaded to disparate databases that don’t talk to one another.

With Upstream, these broker tools and vendors can all go to the single source of that data for the information. The broker merely needs to keep one central set of records with Upstream to ensure uniformity.

Portals

The major consumer-facing real estate portals currently receive listings from many sources. Agents, brokers, MLSs, franchisors, vendors and syndication systems send listings of different levels of quality to be displayed on these platforms. The data rights of the senders also vary widely.

In an Upstream world, a foundation of rights over the listing data and photos would be established for any broker or agent member using the system. Listings delivered by broker consent through Upstream to a portal would have pre-existing rules attached to their usage and display.

Brokers could negotiate different or superior agreements with the portals if they wished to. In short, portals wouldn’t be taking listing photos and recycling them as they please. The broker retains control of them.

Broker Public Portal

The BPP is a totally separate animal. It’s essentially another consumer-facing portal, but it’s broker-owned and managed. Its intention is to deliver an accurate, timely, responsibly displayed database of brokers’ listings to consumers.

BPP recently hired Homesnap to provide the technology for its product.Somebody pinch me. Homesnap has shown an uncanny ability to combine software interfaces that attract consumers, deep connections of MLS data and a cooperative style that works well with associations. If there is a company that fits the mold for this to be a successful venture, Homesnap is probably it.

The environment:

Friction

It seems logical that a broker with access to Upstream at the front end of data distribution and an aggregator such as Trestle at the nexus of multi-MLS data would be significantly more empowered than one using today’s traditional system.

It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that some of these initiatives face pushback from entrenched players. In some cases, they create significant new work and additional complexity for MLSs. MLSs need to be at the table with brokers in the planning and implementation phases. The transition will not be easy.

Action

There will be objections to this new model, some with genuine concern for viability and some self-preserving or self-serving. It will hit road bumps, and there will be growing pains. The rumor mill is already in full churn. That shouldn’t discourage us from seeking long-term improvement in our systems.

The funding is in place to begin the process, and most of the industry’s biggest players are on board. Upstream has five alpha markets already selected to begin testing the program.

Then what becomes of the MLS? I’ve heard intelligent people predict everything from a national MLS to the end of the MLS. Neither is happening nor would they be good for the industry.

Focused MLS

These initiatives are taking items off MLSs’ plates that create controversy. Most brokers don’t want the MLS to make advertising decisions for them. They want fast, inexpensive access to broad MLS data. They want flexible software options.

They want to have their data synchronized across their plethora of tools without having to update it manually in so many locations. Upstream, AMP, aggregators and secondary MLS interface tools take much of this burden away from the MLS.

Brokers also want the MLS to continue doing what it does so well — cooperation and compliance. Brokers are the MLS. Its existence is invaluable to us.

The idea of a compliance arm of a national MLS handling enforcement is frightening. Imagine the federal government replacing all local police forces with the national guard and expecting everything to be OK. “Seattle, you’re OK with people smoking pot in the park. Provo, you’d like to throw ’em in jail for the weekend. We’ve got a single answer for both of you that will please neither. Your papers, please.”

Painting the corners

There are a lot of angles and conspiracies regarding how these initiatives benefit some parties over others. Many have credence. These are businesses trying to make money.

That doesn’t have to be the narrative about these initiatives, though. They also create a picture of an MLS system that effectively serves its brokers, while brokers simultaneously gain back efficiency and control over their data distribution. They remove conflicting territories.

Will some outside platforms lose leverage? It seems that they might, but improving the business for the brokers and agents who actually generate transactions should always be viewed as a benefit to the industry.

And lest we forget, there’s a consumer angle. They’ll simply get more accurate data across consumer-facing outlets, better tools developed at faster rates and access to broader information across markets and MLS territories.

That’s worth a shot.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHomes.com and BellevueHomes.com.

Broker Public Portal: Angling for a new face

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

  • Accuracy isn’t enough. BPP needs attractive tools and media content.
  • BPP has valuable exclusive data that could be leveraged for exposure.
  • Public relations will generate earned media on a tight budget.
  • The name has got to go.

Organized real estate has undertaken some potentially transformative ventures in the past couple of years. Project UpstreamRPR-AMP and theBroker Public Portal have aligned the vision of brokers in numbers that would have been unthinkable in the recent past.

What these projects seem to have in common is that their progress since initiation has been difficult to follow. Although they have secured initial funding, the strategic direction of each feels like it’s taking shape in the dark.

It would be satisfying for industry constituents to have more insight into the mindsets of the leaders of these programs. In particular, the Broker Public Portal seems to be as much of an enigma today as it was when it was first proposed.

We know the leadership and the stated mission: to provide a simple, direct home search experience that connects consumers directly with brokers.

What we don’t know is how it intends to produce a distinguishable value proposition for consumer viability. Its success is reliant upon its ability to create a unique consumer benefit. That benefit then has to reach the general public’s consciousness — possibly an even greater task.

Doomed to fail

Some critics have already called BPP a failed concept — an exhibition built without an audience in an arena where the titans already own the stage. They’re correct to point out the challenges, but probably overstepping in the sweeping conclusion.

Detractors will point to NRT’s short-lived portal, homesforsale.com, as a cautionary tale. It was released and then mothballed in 2015 because it didn’t garner any consumer traffic. That venture’s difficulties should be poignant for BPP’s leaders. Homesforsale.com didn’t seem to have a particularly unique sales pitch to consumers.

BPP is a different animal, though. NRT’s site was intended as a lead-generation and referral-fee platform within a branded silo. BPP’s mission sounds more like a grassroots, brand-agnostic platform. It seems to want to be the Wikipedia of real estate listings, the Switzerland of the portal world.

Too small, too late

Many have pointed to Zillow Group portals and realtor.com and asked how BPP could possibly compete.

BPP has $500,000 in funding so far. Portals are billion-dollar operations.

BPP’s people have said repeatedly that they don’t intend to compete with the top portals. They’re just creating a different option, a product offering that might be preferable to some portion of the consuming public.

Let’s be honest: “We don’t want to compete with the big portals,” sounds a bit like a coach saying, “We’re only thinking about today’s game.”

BPP’s leaders must have large-scale aspirations. They want to be a champion as much as their portal competitors do. They’re just wise enough to avoid inciting rivalry right away.

Why BPP?

The most important question being asked is: “Why would a consumer use the Broker Public Portal?”

What angle will BPP leverage to make it successful?

Make no mistake, it’s an angle. Its success will require sharp differentiation. Simply creating a neutral platform with direct broker data won’t cut it. The big three already have unbelievable amounts of data, user interfaces that provide superior experience and enough capital backing them to buy consumer traffic for the foreseeable future.

Can BPP be the neutral source for listing data — the Wikipedia for real estate consumers — if consumers can’t hear the message?

Realtor.com has blanketed consumers with its marketing pitch of being the most accurate and up-to-date site. Its 800-plus feeds from MLSs make this claim difficult to dispute.

It’s true that BPP could eventually have a broader set of listing feeds, but could it outspend Rupert Murdoch and actually get that message to the general public? There’s a natural conflict of messaging between the two portals if this is BPP’s elevator pitch.

If practitioners prefer BPP’s model and display rules to those of the other portals, it could become the preferred platform for agents and brokers. That might have little effect on consumer traffic, though.

Realtor.com is coming back today from its recent slide, but not because Realtors prefer it. It’s gaining steam because its operator and owners, Move Inc. and News Corp, are hustling and spending to get in front of consumers.

Building the shiny proprietary tools

Consumers don’t choose a portal based on a lofty mission statement. They use a website with attractive tools. So the portal’s strategy shouldn’t be overwhelmingly focused on how to build the framework that combines nationwide listings (though that’s a necessary foundation). It should be initially focused on what kinds of consumer-centric tools will attract organic consumer traffic.

What could those shiny new tools be that generate traffic? They could come from access to exclusive data that the member MLSs allow BPP to display.

Imagine the clickbait that BPP could generate by creating visualizations of electronic keybox histories. Home showing velocity and volume could be displayed as heat maps, time lapses and neighborhood trending reports.

That’s just one set of data out of many that BPP might be able to leverage in its quest for unique exposure. Access to immediate updates from MLSs’ raw data would allow BPP to inform its consumer base through news, social media and messaging in ways not possible for other consumer portal sites.

That positions BPP less as Wikipedia and more as Wikileaks. The portal could expose information to consumers that they can’t get — or aren’t allowed to see — anywhere else. There’s nothing more viral than exclusive content.

Perception: Marketing and public relations

BPP’s obstacle and opportunity is perception. The portal needs to first be perceptible to consumers. Without generating initial awareness, the rest of the package is irrelevant. That was NRT’s portal’s downfall. The second portion is the perception that consumers will have of the brand’s personality — how will the public perceive its image?

The kind of proprietary data BPP has access to could allow it to establish itself as a unique information source to the news media. Traditional brokers and Realtor organizations often complain that media outlets seek out sources such as Redfin and Zillow for news stories.

What they don’t often admit is that those companies are proactively driving the publicity. They employ researchers to build attractive consumer stories and public relations teams to push them to reporters. The media coverage they receive is not accidental.

Public relations is a gaping hole in the broker world. BPP could become the go-to source for inimitable media insights on the real estate industry.

Creating this content would, of course, be constrained by formidable broker and MLS restrictions on how broadly their data is used. The opportunities, though, are great:

  • Immediate market reports, leveraging daily market statistics while other outlets are working with weeks-old or months-old data
  • Keybox showing analytics tied to effects on sales results: Sale-to-list price, DOM, regional and seasonal variations
  • The best times and days to show a home to buyers, based on their likelihood of writing an offer
  • How likely a new agent is to sell your home in 30 days vs. an agent with 10 years’ experience
  • How long a property stays on the market when listed by a Realtor versus a non-Realtor licensee
  • Whether homes listed by single agents or teams sell faster
  • Whether agents with larger listing inventory have a higher percentage of overpriced listings that don’t sell

These kinds of stories are irresistible to consumers and to the news media. To be able to publish this kind of content, BPP’s members will have to fully buy in to the concept and allow for a deeper exposure of their data.

Angling for success

BPP has some significant strategic disadvantages when going up against the biggest national portals. It doesn’t have to compete with them initially, though. It just needs to create a ripple to demonstrate its potential.

Some strategy to make waves on a tight budget:

  • Start by imagining attractive tools and content for consumers that sit on top of an adequate listing database — not an overbuilt database followed by an interface. Consumers rarely know what’s under the surface. Give them what they want upfront.
  • Leverage proprietary data and pitch it incessantly to the media. Public relations generates inexpensive “earned media” when the content is truly unique. BPP could be the easiest pitch in the industry if it curates its assets correctly.
  • Don’t lean too heavily on pitching the data as accurate. Realtor.com is already buying that space. Reporters don’t bite on accuracy stories as much as they go for “new,” “cutting-edge” or “exclusive.” Build the perception that consumers, and news media, must come to you first for the biggest scoop.

Drive at an angle. Say it out loud.

  • “Trulia’s data: weeks old. Case-Shiller’s data: months old. Our data: updated this morning. Know first.”
  • “Find out where your city’s buyers are moving with data no one else can see.”
  • “Real estate tell-all: Choose the right kind of agent with exclusive data direct from the source — their broker/owners!”

That name, that name — Broker Public Portal

We don’t know if Broker Public Portal is intended to be the name of this effort long-term. Let’s hope it’s not.

“Broker” is a term that is known in the industry but foreign to most consumers. It sounds like a middleman who carries jewels wrapped in velvet in his breast pocket. Consumers can’t even distinguish a Realtor from an agent. This isn’t a good start.

“Public” is important for industry distinction. It is redundant to the consumer. Telling them that a consumer website is public conjures images of Austin Powers: “Allow myself to introduce — myself.”

“Portal” sounds like a mystical doorway or a stark public restroom. Neither conjures the friendly, useful image that BPP should be portraying to consumers.

I’m sure the good people at BPP and their consultants are aware of this issue and are working on it. The brand needs a lot of makeup.

All bets down for BPP

A betting person would put a strong dollar on BPP never competing with the top-ranked portals. Based on the current landscape, that would probably be a winning bet.

We’ve seen so many gamblers squander their capital on ill-fated, poorly vetted real estate ventures, though. In this industry, what you don’t know can really hurt you.

And BPP’s media arm, if it plays its cards right, will know a whole lot more than its competitors. If it can leverage that proprietary knowledge into earned media, it could find an angle to unchecked publicity.

I’d put a buck on that dark horse.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.