By David Staebler
Once a factual tool shared by brokers, MLSs recently have been called upon to reach a new audience—consumers. Can MLSs maintain the integrity of their traditional role while simultaneously evolving as a marketing tool?
Today’s MLSs remind me of the “Shimmer” skit with Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Radner opened the mock commercial by saying, “New Shimmer is a floor wax.” Then Aykroyd broke in, asserting, “New Shimmer is a dessert topping.” As they argued back and forth, Chase stepped in between them and said, “Hey, hey, you two stop arguing. New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping.”
First and foremost, MLSs are cooperatives that maintain accurate property information to encourage and facilitate communication and compensation between brokers. But MLSs are also technology providers for brokers who depend on them to market their listings to consumers, either through cooperating brokers and agents, public Web sites, or data feeds to listing aggregators, such as REALTOR.com and brokers’ IDX sites.
The disparate goals of these two functions have led to creative manipulation of the service in some instances, and a weakening of the foundation on which the MLS is built—an unbiased presentation of the facts.
For example, a New Jersey broker listed a Lawrence Township property as a Princeton Township property—a high priced and desirable area. Asked about this decision, the broker explained, “I initially listed it in Lawrence Township, but it wasn’t getting many showings. When I switched it to Princeton Township, showings immediately picked up.” The broker went on to say, “I’ve been hired by the sellers to expose their house to the greatest number of potential buyers. Because of the way agents do searches, placing the property in Princeton Township in the MLS accomplishes what I’ve been hired to do.”
In another example, a rural practitioner listed a manufactured home (commonly referred to as a mobile home) as a single-detached ranch. The rationale? According to the practitioner, the MLS categories of “manufactured” and “single-wide” or “double-wide” would stigmatize the listing.
Brokers who knowingly provide the MLS with misleading information face fines and disciplinary actions. Regardless, instances of factual manipulation and out-and-out lying may be on the rise.
MLS participants complain that it is unfair for MLSs to operate in ways that systematically under-expose and stigmatize listed properties in the eyes of cooperating agents and their potential buyers. With that in mind, more associations and MLSs are addressing their members’ marketing needs in a variety of creative ways, including: rewriting MLS categories and many rules, building separate home listing databases, creating open-house searches where members are allowed more lenient description parameters, and assisting members in setting up their own property Web sites.
MLSs must be accurate, reliable databases, but they also need to be marketing technology partners for participants. The future of MLSs depends on figuring out how to evolve and deliver both of these needs, even when they may seem incompatible.
I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the challenges you’re facing with the MLS’s dual roles? What solutions have you come up with to accommodate the need for factual accuracy as well as attractive marketing? In the next issue of this column, we will explore your real-life experiences with the changing role of the MLS.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the National Association of Realtors®.
David Staebler is the manager of industry relations at TREND, a regional MLS in southeastern Pennsylvania, south central New Jersey, and northern central Delaware. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.