In the U.S., you can find and bid on a house using an iPhone. So why is it that in Canada, much of the information prospective home owners need is a tightly held secret, unlocked only by real estate agents?...

In the U.S., you can find and bid on a house using an iPhone. So why is it that in Canada, much of the information prospective home owners need is a tightly held secret, unlocked only by real estate agents?

The battle to free real estate data is well advanced in the United States. Now, it is coming to a head in Canada as the technological attack on the old order is bolstered by both industry rebels and government: The federal Competition Bureau accuses the industry of dampening competition and consumer choice. To consumers whose houses often sell in a few days – but still net agents tens of thousands of dollars in commissions – Canada's real estate boom has made MLS's monopoly on information seem all the more anachronistic.

Like sectors such as travel and retailing before it, the multibillion-dollar Canadian real estate industry is finally facing a reckoning with the Internet's power to make data free and open.

Competition Bureau intervenes?

“There is a lack of information and a lack of transparency in this industry that simply does not exist in any other industry,” says Bill McMullin, an industry dissident who owns Halifax-based ViewPoint Realty. “The real estate industry may be uncomfortable with this, but once you automate a lot of that data, you circumvent the need for a realtor. Things are changing, and they are changing quickly.”

In 2009, 465,251 homes changed hands on the system, at an average price of $320,333. Owned by the Canadian Real Estate Association, the database amasses listings from Canada's 101 local real estate boards. Only registered real estate professionals can obtain key data such as selling prices, and only they may use the site to connect buyers and sellers.

CREA tightened its access policy in 2007, after rival real estate websites such as Toronto-based emerged. The interlopers downloaded data from MLS and enhanced it to draw consumers to their own services.

But the clampdown backfired, catching the attention of the federal Competition Bureau, which told the CREA that its rules “restricted consumer choice and limited the scope of alternative business models.” The bureau questions whether consumers should continue to be forced to employ a registered real estate agent to represent them throughout the entire listing and sale process on MLS, including the shepherding of all offers and counteroffers.

In a letter written last October, CREA said it hoped to resolve its differences with the Competition Bureau by Christmas. The bureau says it is willing to wait for a negotiated settlement, but it will move unilaterally if necessary. CREA says it needs more time to figure out what to do next.

See the full story by Steve Ladurantaye in the Toronto Globe and Mail »

Posted: 2010-01-30 12:52:36

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