Sunday, October 24, 2004

Why end Web house listings?


Dropping MLS from site raises questions

By Jeff McKinney
Enquirer staff writer

For eight years, CincyMLS.com has been one of the basic tools for house hunters in Southwest Ohio and Southeast Indiana.

But the recent decision by the board of directors of the Multiple Listing Service of Greater Cincinnatito remove listings from the Internet site Jan. 1 has created controversy for what would seem to be an innocuous selling tool in the region's $3 billion residential real estate industry.

Some Realtors are questioning the motives behind the decision to limit public access to listings.

Meanwhile, consumers accustomed to shopping a vast array of neighborhoods from their computers at one Web site will have to navigate the Web sites of any one of 67 separate real estate agencies.

The listings of 200 or more local agencies will no longer appear on one universal neutral site, but only on any one or all of the participating brokers' sites.

In Northern Kentucky, Realtors decided this fall to keep their online public MLS site, nkar.com, intact. So why would Realtors on the Ohio side of the river, in a region that is in the midst of one of the hottest runs of home buying ever, want to rock the boat?

The answer from the MLS of Greater Cincinnati is that the site was created in 1996, when most real estate companies did not have Web sites. Technologically, times have changed, so there is no longer a need for a separate MLS site, the argument goes.

"When the site was originally created, there was a need for a one-stop shop for the broker listings," said Sandra Butler, president of the MLS of Greater Cincinnati. "Now, the brokers' Web sites are the one-stop shop for that information."

Small brokers worry

Smaller and medium-size brokerages fear that directing MSL access to 67 local agency sites - Web sites that will be able to place nearly all of the homes in the region on those companies sites - will hurt them and drive the lion's share of home buyers to major brokers.

John Trautmann, broker/owner at J.A. Trautmann Realtors in Withamsville, said he is concerned the restructuring of CincyMLS.com could make it harder for smaller residential firms to compete.

"Consumers will go to the sites they're directed to and that have most of the listings in the market," he said. "If it's not broke, why fix it?"

But other Realtors say smaller firms should consider investing in a Web site with the search capability that allows consumers to access all available MLS listings that the 67 brokerages will offer on their Web sites.

Non-sales services

The increasingly competitive and diversified nature of the business of home sales also may be a factor behind the changes.

Larger firms such as Sibcy Cline Realtors, Coldwell Banker West Shell, Huff Realty, Comey & Shepherd Realtors, Star One Realtors and Re/Max supplement their home sales line with related services, including homeowners insurance, mortgage financing and title services.

The additional businesses allow the companies to generate income beyond the commission on the sale of a home. So their Web sites become one-stop shops where a buyer might locate a home, contact a mortgage lender and buy insurance.

Norman Miller, director of the University of Cincinnati's real estate program, said the decision to pull all the listings from CincyMLS.com could be viewed as an effort by larger real estate firms to capture more consumers on their Web sites and sell them such services.

"They want to capture who is looking at their listings and searching their Web sites and see if people are buying other things like homeowner's insurance, title assistance or moving assistance," Miller said.

But Bob Stanley, president of Coldwell Banker West Shell in Kenwood, one of the region's largest residential real estate firms, discounted the notion that the larger brokerage firms pushed for the removal of CincyMLS.com to lure more business and boost profits.

"The services we offer on the Internet are no different than what we've always offered through classified advertising," Stanley said.

Deleted listings?

Another buzz among Realtors is that the changes to CincyMLS.com could mean the new listings in January might not appear on the Web site as they do today. That's because about 20 real estate firms -- including some of the region's largest ones -- who now receive MLS data for their Web sites have the choice to display all listings of member MLS companies or to exclude certain company listings. But executives at some of those firms say it would put them at a competitive disadvantage if they didn't list as many competitors' listings as possible.

Dean Congbalay, vice president of development at Comey & Shepherd Realtors in Mariemont, said brokers want to provide the most complete database so house-hunting Web surfers choose to use their sites.

"Why would a broker intentionally delete listings from their site?" said Congbalay, a board member of the MLS of Greater Cincinnati who made the motion to change CincyMLS.com.

Still, that could happen: Roughly 510 companies, including real estate and appraisal companies, are part of the MLS of Greater Cincinnati. Of that number, roughly 290 have listings in Southwest Ohio and parts of Southeast Indiana on CincyMLS.com.

Moreover, 67 of those 290 firms have a Web site with the search capability that allows consumers to access about 98 percent of the available MLS listings. (The remaining 2 percent are listings from firms that have chosen not to take part in the MLS reciprocity program.) The 67 companies' listings account for 73 percent of the listing base of the MLS.

The other 223 firms have so far either chosen to not have a Web site or don't have a search engine that consumers could tap into beginning in January.

Ed Rothenberg, a Cincinnati Realtor who is leading a group of 70 Realtors and sales associates to force a vote to reverse the decision to change CincyMLS.com, said smaller companies don't have the financial resources to promote Web sites, diminishing their ability to compete with larger companies.

His group is trying to force a vote among the roughly 4,200 members of the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors to stop the decision to delete the listings from CincyMLS.com. The MLS of Greater Cincinnati is a subsidiary of the Board of Realtors.

Rothenberg said the new CincyMLS.com site could hurt consumers because they may not learn about commission discounts if some of the brokers who offer them are eliminated from the large companies' Web sites. Butler said brokers have the right the right to market themselves however they see fit saying that's not the role of the MLS.

"The most frightening aspect is the control that these larger companies will have in deciding which brokers to allow on their Web sites," Rothenberg says.

But MLS officials say they were not influenced by larger firms on the content change at CincyMLS.com. "The perception is that we have received pressure from those firms, but that's absolutely not the case," Butler said.

E-mail jmckinney@enquirer.com




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