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Pacific Union CEO Mark McLaughlin featured on California Association of REALTORS® panel of industry experts

California Brokers: MLSs Need to Catch Up

California Association of REALTORS® CEO Joel Singer led a panel of industry experts Wednesday in search of ideas for how to move the multiple listing services industry forward. “Can this current structure survive?” Singer asked after outlining the many issues MLSs face, from technology to competition and changing consumer behavior. “Should this current structure survive, if it doesn’t alter?”

Singer asked if any attendees disagreed that there is a need for a national back-end technology for listing data, regardless of the quantity of MLSs that remained on top of the system offering access to local brokers and agents; none objected. But there was little agreement on what group or system might step into such a role. Dale Ross, CEO of REALTORS Property Resource®, was on hand to talk about the well of property information from RPR that bolsters initiatives such as Upstream and AMP, which he said would both be launching this year. While both tools are designed to help enable access to MLS data, neither was conceived as a platform from which to launch a national or regional MLS.The event, held in Los Angeles, included a dozen professionals from the brokerage and MLS worlds, and was sponsored by CAR’s Center for California Real Estate. The two-hour discussion was streamed live and is now available for playback on CAR’s Facebook page.

Another tool for smoothing the ripples between listing databases that plans to launch this year is called MLS Grid. It’s a data-sharing partnership that’s envisioned as a single, standardized data access point for MLSs and brokers. MLS Grid board member Rebecca Jensen, who is also president and CEO of Midwest Real Estate Data, a regional MLS in the Chicago area, said the system will represent 150,000 real estate professionals and offer standardized license agreements.

But regardless of how a widespread back-end MLS technology might be provided, the call for a wider-reaching data source was universal. Even panel members from the MLS community agreed. “There needs to be one database for the whole state of California—possibly the entire West Coast,” said Art Carter, CEO of the California Regional Multiple Listing Service. He said that this year, CRMLS will be moving aggressively to merge or at least share data with other MLSs across the state. “We could have one database in the state of California in three months” if all MLSs were willing to participate, he said.

That was on the minds of many on the panel and those in attendance at the event Wednesday. Smaller MLSs are often resistant to consolidation talks because they have less leverage than regional offerings such as CRMLS. Many of the board members on small MLSs, who would have to agree to consolidation, could be signing their own pink slips. “The fight for maintaining those jobs is incredible. How do you overcome that?” asked panel participant Sandra Deering, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Irvine, Calif.

The effort to create Bright MLS out of nine MLSs on the East Coast was one of the more closely watched stories in 2017 for the listing services industry. David Charron, chief strategy officer of the new company, was on hand to offer his experience with the merger. He noted that while it needed “all hands on deck that first year,” Bright MLS does plan to reduce staffing by around 20 percent in 2018.

Jeremy Crawford, CEO of the Real Estate Standards Organization, struck a hopeful note about how the demographics of the industry could benefit the consolidation effort. “There are a lot of people looking to retire,” he said, adding that CEOs of smaller MLSs may be more interested in cementing their legacies by forging a path toward “regional databases for multiple MLS marketplaces,” as long as they’re provided with a succession plan.

While the story of Bright MLS offers an example of how MLSs can quickly and successfully merge, some on the panel expressed concern that such a route to listing innovation would be too slow. “I have significant concerns about whether that path gets us over the finish line in time,” said panelist Wes Burk, broker-owner of Patterson Realty in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He worried that if consolidation took too long, the real estate community would work to find ways around the “roadblock” that MLSs represent.

Mark McLaughlin, CEO of Pacific Union, a brokerage headquartered in San Francisco, told attendees his company has been working to create its own database to get around the problem of not being able to get its listing data back from MLSs. He said Pacific Union is building on the limited listing data it was able to acquire back from MLSs by asking agents custom questions and gathering data that will help them understand their local market better and compete with listing portals. McLaughlin predicted other brokerages would soon follow suit if MLSs fail to innovate fast enough. “We’re looking for alternatives to the MLS,” he said. “We might have moved early, but we’re not going to be the only one.”

One persistent concern throughout the event was the idea that the entire MLS system is out of sync with today’s market and should be rethought entirely. “We’re talking about perfecting a VCR in a world of streaming video technology,” said David Silver-Westrick, a partner at Keller Williams OC Coastal Realty in San Clemente, Calif. Silver-Westrick warned that a separate national database, along with an app-based lockbox and offer-making system, could arrive soon to challenge the real estate industry. “The world has moved on, and we’re unwilling to.”

As the forum moved back to the realities on the ground in California, both panelists and audience members called on the state association to take charge. Attendee Virginia Butler of Coldwell Banker’s Palos Verdes-Beach Cities office in California told the story of a seller who came to her a few days ago with valuations from Redfin, Trulia, and Zillow in order to convince her of the correct listing price for his home. “We’re the ones who sit at the kitchen table and take the listing,” she told the panel. “We should start with California, because we may not be able to wait for the rest of the U.S.”

Deering agreed. When asked what she’d like to see happen in the next year on the topic of modernizing MLSs, she replied, “I would like to see CAR spearhead discussions between the MLSs.” And on the issue of MLSs who aren’t interested in talking? “Leave the others behind and move forward with the ones who are willing to cooperate.”

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