OPF bares listing data

Agency's Web site to give addresses of all homes in MRIS

Homebuyer breakthrough

Information access is a move toward `broker reciprocity'

November 11, 2001|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

In a move that most likely will prompt other brokers to follow suit, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA will give users on its Web site specific addresses to nearly every property listed for sale in the Metropolitan Regional Information System, the multiple-listing database used by area brokers.

The ability to get specific addresses is a major breakthrough for potential homebuyers, who will find it easier to zero in on a property instead of having to settle for a general neighborhood description.

This liberalization of what once was highly protected information by brokers comes as the industry moves toward "broker reciprocity" or "Internet Data Exchange" - better known in the industry as IDX. In its simplest form, IDX is when local brokers are allowed to present one another's listings on the Internet, eliminating the need for a user to have to jump from one site to another to find out what's for sale.

The other key aspect of IDX is that it gives the Web user anonymity - not having to register names or e-mail addresses as a prerequisite for entry into the site. OPF's site provides that anonymity - a user just clicks the property search button, fills in where and what is sought, and up come the listings.

So important is this change that the National Association of Realtors is requiring its sanctioned multiple-listing systems nationwide to be able by Jan. 1 to provide download capability to companies that want to implement broker reciprocity.

"No longer are real estate people going around and hiding this giant MLS book that was published every week," said Jeanna Porter Tucker, vice president and director of marketing for NRT Mid-Atlantic Inc., the parent company of OPF.

"If you give [buyers] the freedom, and don't force them to [register], they will do what they need to do, and they will go with you if they are serious buyers. If not, they were just the ones kicking the tires anyway."

OPF calls its search engine "House Key." When users go to the site, www.OPF.com, properties not listed by OPF are labeled with an "Other Broker" tag and only contain the name of the company, not the agent or phone number. The user can then either e-mail OPF's service center or call it.

But a natural loophole - with addresses now available - is that a buyer can go right to the house and get the competing listing agent's name and number off the for-sale sign. It seems, however, that brokers are willing to bet that most Web surfers won't do that.

According to Jonathan Hill, executive director of the Rockville-based MRIS, brokers have two options when it comes to the IDX program: They can "opt out" entirely or they can stay in but suppress the addresses of their listings. Hill said only eight brokers in the system have decided to opt out of the IDX system, and another eight have elected to suppress addresses. Overall, 3,515 brokerages subscribe to the MRIS system.

The downside for brokers who limit their involvement is that "if you don't give, then you don't get," said Michael B. Koval, vice president and chief information officer for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

Tucker said it took OPF approximately six months to develop the search engine after disdaining a similar product - called the Bridge - first offered by MRIS last spring.

The Bridge search engine, now being used by 38 brokers in the area, requires a user to register to view listings. When it was first introduced to brokers, the engine also, in effect, created a "buyer agency" agreement when the user agreed to the site's terms of use. Therefore, it meant that a buyer was wedded to that company even if the buyer ultimately didn't want to do business with that broker.

"The Bridge product had this sign-in, registration form, it was quasi-buyer agency form. But people screamed about it," Tucker said. "They felt they were being trapped into something that they didn't want. They wanted to be able to surf without having to give away their identity until they were ready to buy.

"True broker reciprocity allows for that ... it allows them to come into our site, without signing anything, registering anywhere, and anonymously go in and search not only OPF listings, but all other participating brokers' listings."

After some scrutiny by those in the industry, MRIS dropped the buyer agency clause used in the Bridge search engine and instead alerts users that registering does not constitute any kind of agency agreement.

Koval said Long & Foster's Power Search on its Web site still uses the Bridge technology, but the Fairfax, Va.-based company hopes to launch its own version of "House Key" early in 2002.

"What we are going to try and do at Long & Foster is to present as much information as we can and in the best fashion," Koval said. "As far as having the registration process, it seems like it is going to be a thing of the past, and that is wonderful. I can't see, unless there is somebody telling me to do otherwise, where our company would do anything different."

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