Real-estate court fight hinges on public access to MLS listings

Photo credit: Real estate listing online. Stock photo by Getty Images.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had the same access to real estate listings as realtors? Imagine being able to see how many weeks a property has been on sale, or the current and previous selling price without having to pay an agent.

This is the fodder in an ongoing battle between the Toronto Real Estate Board and the federal Competition Bureau. This week, the two sides appear yet again before the Competition Tribunal to argue whether the board is restricting public access to important home-sales information in an unfair manner. The Bureau feels TREB is doing this in the Toronto housing market.

The bureau’s mandate is to ensure consumers and businesses operate in a competitive marketplace. The bureau feels the Multiple Listing System, or MLS, access restrictions are hindering competition in the housing market by not allowing low-fee brokers to offer information to buyers and seller who want to exchange property without an agent. The bureau also feels TREB is contributing to the problem of artificially high commissions.

In its notice of application, the bureau alleges TREB is engaging in anti-competitive acts, which are defined in the Competition Act as practices aimed at “impeding or preventing the competitor’s entry into, or eliminating the competitor from, a market.”

The notice alleges TREB’s MLS restrictions have the purpose and effect of disciplining and excluding innovative brokers who would otherwise compete with its member brokers that use traditional methods.

The MLS platform is trademarked by the Canadian Real Estate Association. It’s only accessible by real estate agents who have a membership with the local real estate board. In other words, only agents can have full access to MLS details.

The public version of the website — www.realtor.ca — doesn’t offer all the data available on MLS. TREB also prohibits agents to post MLS information on their websites, also known as “virtual offices.” It only allows them to share MLS information with clients through e-mail, fax or in person.

Over the years, some agents have tried to get crafty and attempted to offer MLS information through newsletters, but TREB was quick to warn them to stop or they would lose their access altogether. What agent could afford this?

All along, TREB maintains that by restricting access to MLS, it’s protecting the privacy of buyers and sellers. It’s unclear whether this is a concern that is actually valid.

Hearings will happen all week in Toronto and another week of hearings is slated for Ottawa next month.

If the federal bureau gets its way, even partially, the Canadian housing market will see a profound change in home-sale data sharing practices.

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