The nation is glutted with nearly 700 separate multiple listing services, all purporting to do the same thing: provide a platform to share accurate property listing information and extend offers of cooperation and compensation between real estate brokers.
While there has been a push toward more MLS mergers in recent years, many of the larger MLSs who represent the bulk of the country’s agents and brokers are not waiting for their smaller counterparts to join them. They’re coming up with new ways to collaborate with each other, even if they don’t share geographic borders.
In that vein, eight of the nation’s largest multiple listing services have committed to taking decisive steps toward streamlining the delivery of listing data for real estate agents and brokers.
The MLS RoundTable (MLSRT), a strategic think tank whose member MLSs represent about 325,000 agents and brokers nationwide, made its public debut in September with a report called “MLS 2020 Agenda,” which called for changes to the way MLSs make decisions, where they invest their resources and how they operate in order to be nimbler, more efficient and more innovative.
Now, RoundTable members have laid out a four-step plan to update their technology infrastructure and “lead by example,” David Charron, chief strategy officer of Bright MLS, said in a statement.
The plan addresses one of the “Parker Principles” created at Inman’s Disconnect event in Palm Springs, California last month by varied industry stakeholders aiming to enact change: No. 7 — “Free up property data feeds and remove barriers for innovators.” The RoundTable is “pretty pleased to deliver” on that principle with this plan, Charron told Inman.
The RoundTable MLSs are:
- California Regional MLS (CRMLS) – 86,000+ subscribers (represented by Art Carter, CEO)
- Bright MLS in the Mid-Atlantic area – 85,000+ subscribers (represented by Tom Phillips, CEO and David Charron, CSO)
- MRED in the Chicago area- 43,000+ subscribers (represented by Rebecca Jensen, CEO)
- MLS PIN in New England – 35,000+ subscribers (represented by Kathy Condon, CEO)
- Northwest MLS (NWMLS) – 30,000+ subscribers (represented by Tom Hurdelbrink, CEO)
- NorthstarMLS in the Twin Cities area – 18,000+ subscribers (represented by John Mosey, CEO)
- CarolinaMLS – 15,000+ subscribers (represented by AnneMarie DeCatsye, CEO)
- RealTracs in the Mid-South area – 13,000+ subscribers (represented by Stuart White, CEO)
Inman interviewed Carter, Jensen and Charron to learn more about the plan.
The four-step plan
Step one: All RoundTable member MLSs will adopt and become certified in data standards from the nonprofit Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO) at the platinum (highest) level.
Currently, the National Association of Realtors requires Realtor-affiliated MLSs to comply with RESO Data Dictionary and Web API standards at the silver level, while gold will be required in 2019 and platinum will be required in 2020, according to Carter, who is also chair of the RESO board of directors.
The higher the level, the more complete the compliance with the data standards, which means that the listing data feeds that go out from MLSs to broker-designated websites and tools and to broker back-end products get more and more standardized — and therefore easier to deal with — the higher the level.
“The goal is that vendors and brokers will get the same feed in California that they get in Maryland that they get in Seattle,” Carter told Inman.
“So a vendor will understand exactly what they’re going to get from a data standpoint and they know how they’re going to have it fed to them” from anywhere in the U.S.
This change will mean that brokers and tech vendors will more easily be able to expand into different markets and brokers and agents will have more products available to them, Jensen told Inman.
“It takes out the guesswork. It makes it super simple to get what [brokers and vendors] need when they need it,” she said.
RoundTable MLSs want to do more than what’s required, according to Jensen. “We’re kind of like the A students that want to bust the curve,” Carter added.
Step two: All RoundTable member MLSs will get rid of their Real Estate Transaction Standard (RETS) accounts and RETS servers. RETS is a programming language to transfer data between an MLS server and a vendor, according to Jensen.
“I use the analogy of RETS is like Latin. It’s an old language that has seen its time and now needs to go away,” she said.
RoundTable MLSs will move from RETS, which is proprietary to the real estate industry, to the RESO Web API standard to transfer data, which uses a global protocol familiar to technologists around the world. The RESO Web API delivers the data brokers and vendors need, whether they need real-time listing updates or need to replicate the entire MLS database on their servers, according to Carter.
“From a broker and consumer standpoint, anything that the MLS industry can do to streamline data on our brokerages’ behalf we absolutely need to do it,” Carter said.
“The API is going to deliver data that is being delivered in a language that literally anybody can walk in off of the street if they’re familiar with [it and use].”
He acknowledged that killing RETS would be “a short-term pain point” for brokerages and vendors that will need to pay for the cost of programming to change from one standard to the other to receive MLS data.
But in the long term, vendors and brokers will see savings in time and money with each MLS they integrate, Carter said, citing a RESO case study on how the Web API helped Homes.com save 90 percent in development time and costs.
“Especially for new players in the industry it’s a no-brainer. They’re going to choose the Web API and the platinum-certified feed,” he said.
Moreover, brokers and vendors have known for three years the transition to the API was coming — the MLS RoundTable is just putting a deadline on it, Charron told Inman. He expects that most RoundTable MLSs will have completed the plan’s first two steps by September.
Step three: All RoundTable member MLSs will endorse the MLS Grid, a platform that seeks to offer a single license agreement and a single, standardized listing data feed for brokers and vendors who want to pull property data from MLSs in different markets.
So far, RealTracs, Northwest MLS, CarolinaMLS, NorthstarMLS, and MRED have committed to joining the MLS Grid. CRMLS and Bright MLS are in discussions to join the platform and expect to make that decision sometime over the summer, Carter and Charron said. Most RoundTable members expect to complete step three by the end of the year, Charron added.
Step four: The RoundTable member MLSs will create a consolidated back end, also referred to as a common data repository, by the end of 2019. It would not be a national MLS, as each MLS will maintain its separate identity and rules on top of the common database and each MLS will keep its own user interface, or “front end”.
“The MLS Grid right now is multiple databases replicating into one,” Carter said. “This would be collapsing the MLS Grid … into a single database.”
Jensen added, “The Grid is a consolidated database, but each member of the Grid still has their own database. The vision would be for each of those MLSs in the Grid to completely migrate over to the Grid and give up their current separate database.”
Carter noted that “a significant amount of cost” is involved in aggregating data from multiple MLSs and expenses increase as each new MLS joins the Grid. But that expense would be eliminated if there were only one database.
“It’s so much easier to deliver data and technology out of one instance than it is to deliver out of the 600-plus MLS that we have today,” Carter said.
Charron cited step four as an example of MLSs “staying in our lane” and leveraging their core competency: database management.
“One of the big advantages for having this consolidated database is to make sure we are all working toward the next generation of technology solutions. Each of us independently working toward that same end-goal seems kind of silly,” he said.
“Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the group believes that maintaining control of this database, that housing the most important asset, the listing, is an imperative. We shouldn’t cede responsibility of that to any third party whose business model might change and put that brokerage data at risk.”
Asked whether he was referring to any particular third parties, Charron said, “No. I just think it’s important [to maintain] control of that asset, the broker’s asset. It’s kind of why you don’t let anybody else manage your checkbook — it’s yours.”
For brokers and agents, the look and feel of their MLS will remain the same, Carter said. “The delivery of data is going to be the point where you get the efficiencies.”