Tag Archives: upstream

NAR politics, Instant Offers and a noisy week in real estate

This article was originally published on Inman News:

  • Credit unions are buying brokerages and bundling services.
  • Zillow isn’t a broker but its toes are deeper in the transaction.
  • Alexa’s going to serve you listings.
  • Upstream’s pragmatic pivot is causing a stir.
  • Your choice of MLS may be growing in the future.

NAR’s midyear meetings took place in Washington, D.C., last week. I was just finishing up a recap when two other big stories dropped.

Credit unions are buying up brokerages

Banks are prohibited from opening real estate brokerages. Credit unions, on the other hand, are not. Steve Murray of Real Trends says credit unions are rapidly purchasing brokerages and bundling services.

“Buy from us. Borrow from us. We’ll rebate 20 percent of the commission to you, and we’ll give you 20 basis points off your mortgage’s interest rate. Oh, and we’ll also make your agent whole on the rebate.”

To me, that’s the biggest news of the week. On to that other story you may have heard about:

Zillow Instant Offers

Zillow’s pitch to agents: We’ll facilitate direct purchase offers from our identified investors/venture capital firms/flippers to potential sellers. We’ll let you deliver a CMA to the same folks.

C’est la vie; it’s a business decision. Consumers are given options to work with agents, but some agent-free transactions will occur via Zillow initiation. Offers and transactions are managed in Zillow’s transaction management software.

Zillow’s not technically becoming a broker with this move, but it’s taking on every activity it can that doesn’t require a license — smart. Some agents are screaming. Some are yawning. Let’s just not pretend that initiating a purchase offer for a buyer, providing the forms for the contract, and directing the services upon which it will be transacted isn’t a big shift.

Some agents will love the seller leads. Some are just fed up with the long-running tap dance act of Zillow’s messaging to the industry. Brian Boero distilled it perfectly.

In the latest scene, we’re told, “It’s just a test.” This is apparently supposed to educate us that transactions happening in the real world are none of our concern until the “test” label is removed by the marketing department.

Of course it’s a test, one that management approved, to see if it’s worth expanding nationwide and monetizing. Just tell us, “Shareholders want profits so we’re looking for new revenue streams, and dipping our toes a little further into the transaction looks like a good direction.” We already know.

The Opendoor in the room

Opendoor is the Instant Offers precursor you’re probably most familiar with. While it was reported on Inman that I “chided” Opendoor previously, I’ll note that I commended Opendoor’s leaders and technology. I merely chided the media fawning over a supposed huge new value to consumers.

Flippers are not new, they’re just better financed with better tools, and now they’re getting better access to sellers.

Opendoor’s folks are genius, just as are Moneytree’s founders. They’re doing transactions with massive short-term fees and significant time savings, and putting their services in front of people who may want them. My opinion that these transactions make financial sense for a scarce few doesn’t preclude the businesses from selling them to whoever will buy them.

Alexa’s hawking listings

Back to NAR midyear: voice activated systems (like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home) became officially approved technologies for brokers to use for delivery of IDX listing data.

While there was some concern about the ramifications, brokers are already using this technology in the field. We want to ensure that the spirit of IDX cooperation and attribution continues, but not hold back innovative brokers.

Will this tech become popular? Spencer Rascoff said at the T3 Summit that he didn’t think it would be a big deal in real estate search. It’s difficult to say, but imagine what it could do to help folks with visual disabilities interact with brokers and agents.

The technology will change by the day. So maybe Rascoff’s right, or maybe brokers have an opportunity. He does have a lot of other things on his plate.

Upstream

Upstream had two big stories last week. First, more NAR funding was approved for RPR to build out the project. Second, instead of only allowing broker/agent listing input at Upstream’s interface, it will now accept a broker’s feed of listing data from the MLS itself.

Spending a week with much of the industry in one place reminds you how much you don’t know. The politics surrounding this initiative are staggering. There are plenty of folks proclaiming Upstream’s “pivot” as a sign of failure.

It’s a pragmatic swallowing of pride. Many insiders will tell you that the divide created by the unfortunate tone of UpstreamRE’s ancestors’ original messaging to the MLS community made this move a necessity. It’s also a big shift from the ideologically pure original intent.

At the same time, it removes the most significant hurdle to access for nearly every broker/agent in the country. There’s no retraining on listing input. You want Upstream? You got it.

The Upstream direct input (which is necessary in its system to solve multi-MLS overlap) requires technical development at the MLS level to accept the listings.

If multi-market brokers like what they see in the Upstream hybrid input product, they may eventually work with their MLSs and vendors to employ the single input solution. In the meantime, vendors may proactively develop software updates that provide faster Upstream implementation options on the most common MLS software platforms.

RPR in the mirror

It seems that someone whispers “National MLS” nearly every time RPR (Realtors Property Resource) is mentioned. If you’ve done the committee circuit for a few years, you know the routine.

Competitors have reason to keep looking over their shoulders, but this particular fear is tiresome. It’s as if we’re in the horror flick where the victims chant, “Candyman…Candyman…Candyman…” into the mirror to summon the Bogeyman.

Only in this version, the bogeyman RPR comes crashing through the mirror to take our cooperation and compensation agreements if we don’t keep whispering “National MLS…National MLS…National MLS…” to keep it at bay.

RPR has contractually agreed to never become an MLS. MLSs have been consuming each other at the rate of around one every four days. 100 have disappeared in one year. How many has RPR replaced?

‘Coming soon’ listings

MLSs across the country are trying to develop “coming soon” statuses. It seems like a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, but agents want another marketing angle. So MLSs are obliging.

Currently, any MLS could accept an active listing, allow for a restriction on showings for two weeks while the seller fixes things up (with a seller’s signed consent), and create the “coming soon” buzz without adding a new status for MLSs and standards developers to deploy.

If a new status is the hoop everyone wants us to jump through, though, we’ll probably do it. So let’s define it.

If the property is shown, it’s not “coming soon,” it’s active. If it starts as “coming soon,” then goes active, and one minute later goes pending, it probably wasn’t ever “coming soon.” It was active.

We can do “coming soon,” but only if we’re going to be honest about it — not to promote double-sides, in-house sales or preferred buyers.

Politics at midyear

There’s a lot of talk about tax reform. As we hit the hill in D.C., our message was as clear as ever. No matter the tax policy coming forward, it should incentivize investment in homeownership, much like we incentivize investment in health care, retirement and education. That’s a tough message in a D.C. atmosphere that’s very loud, but we’re still carrying it.

Some members want us out of politics, but today’s reality is that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. We’ll be at the table for our industry.

Can the Voice for Real Estate come through a revolving door?

I’m a local association president. Our board’s CEO relays media calls and interviews to me. I appreciate the deference and the recognition it creates, but I can see how it weakens the continuity of our voice as an organization. The tradeoff is difficult to swallow.

At NAR, we hoist a new name up for the media once per year and hope that it sticks. This is our tradition, and it’s a great gift to our presidents, but it’s probably time to take a hard look this practice’s effect.

Our voice needs to recognizable to stay on top. Our new CEO, or someone she/he hires, needs to be consistently in front of the media.

Is the board too big?

Most dare not even whisper these words, as a position on the board of directors is a sacred cow, not to be touched. NAR has about 900 directors on its board. What’s the ideal size of the board? Maybe it’s exactly what it is today, but it shouldn’t be heresy to ask.

Our volunteer members do amazing work supporting leadership from the committee levels. Can we have a real, effective debate at our current board of directors’ meetings with our current size?

Our data divisions make us vulnerable

Realtor members have less than ideal access to our data. Between NAR data, nationwide MLS data and RPR data, we have the opportunity to meld these resources into an incomparable asset for use by our membership. Yet we let it sit in artificial silos to protect our territories.

Meanwhile, innovative data companies create tools to aggregate and repurpose such data while we sit on our hands and watch or, better yet, cut them a check to buy it back.

There’s a lot of distrust within our organization. While there are many reasons for it, they make us weak relative to outside forces.

Legacy

Multi-generational Realtors are often the most devoted and knowledgeable leaders. I’m continually impressed when I travel to events at the percentage of committed volunteers who are second, third or even fourth-generation Realtors.

Our incoming president, Elizabeth Mendenhall, is a sixth generation Realtor. There’s no replacing that institutional knowledge. Kudos to those of you who carry that torch.

MLS of Choice

I’ll introduce this topic with the moniker it has taken on in the media, but this issue’s logistics are significantly different than Board of Choice. Yet, its intent is similar: to serve broker and agent members with a better, more flexible service model. Giving brokers and agents more choices in the MLS services they pay for is the path forward.

We’re looking into ways to incentivize brokers to grow and join MLSs without cost prohibitive policies holding them back.

The issue is complex and I won’t attempt to define all of the parameters here. Just know that we’re working with all of the stakeholders — MLSs, brokers, agents, associations — and trying to find a policy solution that positions all groups to be prepared to thrive in a changing marketplace.

You can contact us with your stories, concerns, and suggestions at mls@realtors.org. We’d love your feedback.

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

Shortcuts: Zillow Group’s power play, actual intelligence, and NAR’s next move

This article was originally published on Inman News: 

  • Zillow Group’s agent input ban will improve accuracy and squeeze brokers.
  • Its Premier Broker program and data management tools are taking aim at teams and Upstream.
  • Redfin uses agents to create better Zestimates, and no one should be surprised.
  • “Realtor” has immense value. NAR’s CEO search should keep D.C. in mind.

Zillow Group has been using its leverage in more dramatic fashion recently. The headline this week is an upcoming moratorium on agent-posted listings.

Beginning May 1, agents’ listings will only be allowed on the company’s portals if they come via a broker or MLS feed.

This is a power play, and one that the company has every right to make in its quest for a better product. Zillow Group is willing to crack a few eggs to make this omelet.

It’s being sold as an improvement to accuracy, and that checks out. Manually input listings are notoriously error-prone. (Of course, that’s not the only benefit.)

800-pound strategy

The ban creates an immediate friction point for agents whose brokerages and MLSs don’t feed to portals. It puts a wedge between agents and clients, and ergo, agents and brokers.

When clients find out that their agent literally cannot put their listing on Zillow, and their broker can’t fix it before open house weekend, the situation is going to get white hot.

A little message for Jay Thompson, Zillow’s director of industry outreach — please take some vacation and rest up now. May is going to be the season of 1,000 wildfires.

The move will create more feeds for Zillow, and some resentment. Strategically, though, it makes sense.

The big brokers won’t squawk. Most of the country has already signed on. Only the stragglers and iconoclasts will feel the squeeze.

Some agents will continue to be indifferent, some will demand their brokers create a feed — and those whose needs go unmet will find a new brokerage.

The 800-pound gorilla is tired of asking. Independent and holdout brokers: You’re going to feel the weight of its thumb coming down soon.

Premier Broker vs. hiring a team

Meanwhile, the concierge service for the Zillow Premier Broker program is the back end of a team in a box.

Lead generation, text/email/phone conversion, distribution, tracking and management — it’s done. Just answer the phone when your concierge wants to hand off a live one, and you, the solo agent, now have team support.

The program has huge upside. It’s not perfect. Many Zillow consumers have a bad habit of contacting a new agent for every listing and rerouting themselves into spirals of increasing contacts and annoyance from lead converters and concierges.

Those leads are not happy campers when they get an agent on the phone.

The back end works well, though. It affords brokers some shortcuts to team efficiency without all of the hiring and testing of products.

I’m surprised that Zillow Group is using a third-party CRM for tracking; they’ll probably have their own soon.

This program will be popular as long the pricing keeps brokers’ ROI (return on investment) in the black.

The data management arms race

Somebody recently told me to stop writing so much about Zillow. I will when ESPN stops covering the Patriots.

Build or buy? Zillow Group has clearly been leaning toward buying for its data management platform. Paul Hagey (of Inman fame) and I took a deep dive on the developments in this year’s Swanepoel Trends Report.

Jack Miller, president and CTO of the Swanepoel T3 Group, did an outstanding job fleshing out the entire industry’s competitive data management tools.

Bridge Interactive, Retsly and dotloop, when combined with Zillow Group’s in-house tools, could satisfy a wide range of broker demands. The real estate behemoth is buying up a set of tools that cross paths in major ways with Upstream.

Whether that’s the intention, the positioning, or the marketing angle doesn’t matter. The tools being purchased by Zillow Group are designed to solve some of the problems that Upstream solves — albeit perhaps in a way that’s less logistically elegant.

The company is shortening its timeline to a user base by spending instead of creating. We will see quickly whether or not that pays off.

AI (Actual Intelligence)

Inman reporter Teke Wiggin’s piece on a study of Redfin vs. Zillow online valuations sparked some interesting debate.

Wouldn’t every valuation improve with a human-derived “condition” factor added to the algorithm? Forget artificial intelligence, this is actual intelligence in the machine.

A real person’s insights about current condition would be an invaluable addition to an otherwise computer-driven model.

Redfin took the shortcut. Agents are already scoring these homes based on today’s condition. They even have market knowledge. Redfin simply leverages their insights via list prices and adds context to current data.

The results of the study were clear. When listing prices are available, Redfin incorporates them, and its estimates become significantly more accurate than Zillow’s. But Zillow’s estimates for unlisted properties are still more accurate than Redfin’s.

It seems obvious that Zillow could win in both categories by incorporating list prices on listed homes’ Zestimates.

Zillow argues that consumers don’t want that. They want “independence” in their estimates.

No, they don’t. Consumers want the right price — remember that accuracy we were striving for earlier? It’s right in front of you.

Save our CRM

Vendors at Inman Connect New York repeated a phrase to me that I don’t hear often enough: “We integrate with your CRM.”

For all of the tools offered to agents, too many are built as standalone or loosely connected functions. CRMs with APIs, and vendors willing to use them, are taking away major pain points.

Brokers want our agents focused on their database, in their CRM. Some vendors are getting this.

Aiva, the AI-powered assistant by Deckspire; “First,” featuring predictive analytics (guys, you’re killing our searches with that name); and Cloud Attract from W + R Studios were just some of the product folks I talked to that understood this concept as a core issue.

Don’t build another CRM. Build something that works with our current CRM.

Goggling vs. feeling

News Corp. has helped realtor.com do some leapfrogging in the virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR) world. Their work with Matterport and REA Group has provided the foundation for VR and AR in apps for goggles or the good old-fashioned mobile device in your hands.

They are a nice step forward, if VR’s where you think the industry is headed. Some of the hype is overblown, but it will be a nice a supplemental tool to increase conversions of internet traffic to in-person showings.

Buyers will love VR for property introductions. But when you think about downsizing mom and dad into a condo for their “final home,” or buying that first bungalow to raise children in, goggle-and-buy rings hollow. We want to smell how that home feels.

What’s in a name?

Marc Davison took us on an entertaining creative journey about the name “Realtor.” What’s the value? It depends on your audience.

When I go to Washington, D.C., in May and walk into a Senator’s office, you can be sure they understand it.

When our state’s legislative leadership calls us for insights on a policy negotiation, it’s clear that they know who we are.

Broker-owners ask us to come talk to their agents about what we do because they understand the value.

There is a disconnect with the public. It’s clear that they don’t distinguish between a licensee and a Realtor. But that in no way diminishes their knowledge of a Realtor’s value.

This isn’t a term that grew organically out of a need to describe a category of professions, like a doctor. It’s a trade organization being so effective with its label that its name has superseded the commonplace occupational designation.

The Realtor moniker being indistinguishable from a real estate salesperson makes us victims of our own success.

There’s clearly some frustration about the lack of distinction from consumers. We can continue to work to improve and distinguish Realtor members. But this is not such a bad problem to have.

Top job

National Association of Realtors CEO, Dale Stinton, responded to a reader letter on Inman. Read that twice.

Going forward for NAR, getting the right mix of transparency, accessibility, focus and resoluteness won’t be easy.

Kudos to Dale for being a leader willing to engage membership in an introspective and stout discussion about the association’s outlook.

Choosing the next CEO will be difficult. The right candidate needs a keen understanding of technology, communications, public policy and — most importantly — organized real estate’s multifaceted bureaucracy.

Somebody who knows D.C. pretty well just stepped aside from an MLS CEO position to allow the formation of a better marketplace for members.

That kind of leadership deserves a spot on the interview short list.

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.

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.

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.