Lew Sichelman

Real estate agents who are up on the latest technology are at a distinct advantage these days. They can search the market on behalf of buyers and set up appointments almost instantly; for sellers, they can create videos and marketing plans at the touch of a button or two. 

Those who still operate like they did in the old days – that is, just a few years ago – can still get the job done, but it’s often a slow, arduous task. It’s like driving a six-cylinder car on five cylinders. It will still get you there – eventually – but it won’t be a smooth ride. 

Whether old-fashioned or tech-savvy, though, some agents are being held back from the best, newest versions of their greatest tool: their local multiple listing service, or MLS. 

An MLS is a cooperative database of houses for sale in a local or regional market. There are nearly 600 MLSs across the country, powering more than $2 trillion in annual residential sales. Using a specific format, agents can search these databases for houses listed by other agents. They can specify any number of criteria, from the number of bedrooms and bathrooms to swimming pools and acreage.  

Even when people shop online before contacting an agent, an MLS is valuable because it sets the rules of the road – protecting consumers as well as agents and brokers. 

In effect, MLSs are the governing bodies by which houses are bought and sold within a given market area. Listing services rule the roost. Without them, there would be chaos. 

But some MLSs are being prevented from modernizing by their own business rules – the foundational instructions that guide technology firms in deploying their products and services inside their systems. And that’s keeping their agent-members from adopting the newest technology. 

Services’ Rules Create Obstacles 

No one disputes the need for these rules; they are vital in allowing MLSs to copyright their proprietary information and determine how that data is organized and presented.  

But without getting too deep into the weeds here, some listing services are still operating under outdated, sometimes inaccurate, regulations and controls. They may have switched vendors, for example, or changed their software in some way that is in conflict with what the rules require. 

For example, suppose an MLS wanted to adopt a new technology that would speed up the system and keep listings up-to-the-minute fresh. But if the rules contained an outdated mechanism that requires two software components to communicate with each other – or if the mechanism no longer existed – the tech firm would have to start over from scratch. 

Consequently, vendors tell me that flawed business rules extend the time it takes to integrate the latest software, as well as the time it takes to deploy it after it is successfully incorporated. And they could create a liability and possible litigation risk for the MLS, leading to increased costs. 

Ocusell, a platform working to modernize the listing process, is one firm finding it difficult to penetrate the boundaries of the outmoded firewalls around MLS data. And it is not alone. 

“It’s not just us that’s trying to break through antiquated rules,” co-founder Hayden Rieveschl told me in an interview. He said outmoded rules have become “a huge barrier to implementation. They are creating major headaches.” 

Bill Fowler, a real estate technology veteran, said he has “repeatedly run up against” obsolete rules over the course of his 23-year career. He adds that MLSs, which started out as printing companies publishing books of listings but are now basically technology firms, have been slow to adapt. 

Hard for Vendors to Learn 

Greg Moore is chief technology officer of RMLS in Portland – one of eight MLSs in Oregon and the only one with its own development team. He said the rules many listing services use “have evolved over decades.” 

“[Services] don’t have a single document that said, ‘These are our rules,’” Moore explained, “so they almost have to reverse-engineer the process to get to the point where they can add or change content.” 

Both Rieveschl and Fowler have empathy for listing services trying to deal with the problem.  

“Business rules often are unreliable because they can be tedious and expensive to maintain,” Rieveschl explains. 

“It’s not because they are against change,” added Fowler. “It’s governance that’s the problem. They recognize they need to change with the times, but they are not structured to work that way.” 

The good news is that MLSs are accelerating their adoption of new technology from various vendors. And as more of them merge with one another, they acknowledge the need to update their business rules so they can onboard new tools for their agents and brokers – and ultimately their members’ clients. 

Fowler, for one, said “the tide is turning.” Some MLSs, he reports, are now hiring staff whose job is to “go out and find the newest technology.” 

“The easier we can make it for MLS members to integrate with cutting-edge tech,” said Rieveschl, “the more MLS members, buyers and sellers will benefit.” 

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at lsichelman@aol.com. 

Other States’ Listings Services Stick with Old Tech

by Lew Sichelman time to read: 4 min