RealEstate.com: Bad Business for Our Industry

Logo of RealEstate.com

RealEstate.com is leveraging our listings thanks to a loophole

In recent months, Pacific Union International and many other brokerages have worked closely with real estate listing aggregators Trulia and Zillow to address some issues that were causing our industry concern.

To their credit, they not only listened, but made concrete changes to fix what we believed was broken –by improving listing accuracy, enhancing attribution, and treating our proprietary content with more care.

But now there’s a new listing player in town. And they’re not playing fair.

Meet RealEstate.com, which has done what Zillow and Trulia never stooped to doing: taking our listings without our permission and making money from them.

What is RealEstate.com?

RealEstate.com is a consumer-facing site filled with listings pulled straight from more than 150 MLSs nationwide. That doesn’t seem so bad on the surface. After all, a similar site, Realtor.com, also offers all listings direct from the MLS, with updates every 15 minutes.

For that matter, our own site at PacificUnion.com provides listings direct from the MLS.

But here’s where RealEstate.com differs.

The site’s owner, Market Leader Inc., isn’t an operating real estate brokerage.  It doesn’t have offices, buyer or seller clients, agents, or its own listings to share with other brokerages. Nor does it seem to have any intention of acquiring any of these things.

It got its start 12 years ago as HouseValues.com (with a rebrand four years back) and has been a provider of digital marketing tools for real estate professionals.

It’s basically a software company. But it managed to secure broker licenses in many states  – and thus, access to MLS data – thanks to its acquisition of RealEstate.com last fall.

Meet the Paper Broker

Becoming a “brokerage” by buying someone else’s licenses seems a lot like signing up online to become an “ordained minister” in order to marry friends. You have no intention of creating a congregation; you’re taking that action to achieve a particular goal. You’re only a clergyman on paper, just like Market Leader is only a brokerage on paper.

Legal? Absolutely. Honorable? We don’t think so.

This paper broker’s goal is unfettered access to our real estate listings, without our specific permission or approval, and leverage the IDX rules of engagement so it can do anything it wants with them on RealEstate.com.

Market Leader has managed to avoid the pesky “getting permission” hurdle that Trulia and Zillow have overcome by finding an ethically questionable shortcut – securing those broker licenses – that just lets it grab our information, whether we like it or not.

We think it’s despicable. Here’s why.

1. It violates the spirit (and maybe the rules) of IDX

IDX, or Internet Data Exchange, is a system through which brokers in an MLS area agree to display each others’ listings online.

IDX, also commonly referred to as “Broker Reciprocity,” was implemented with a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” understanding – that it benefits everyone, from the brokerages to the agents to the clients, to have each other’s listings in multiple places.

But there’s no mutual benefit with what RealEstate.com is doing. It has no listings of its own to share. It’s using brokerage licenses to leverage a database of listings to which it doesn’t contribute, in a business they do not actually practice. And we think it’s skating on thin – and perhaps even fractured – ice.

2. It’s a significant insult to the industry

By bending IDX, and the MLS, towards purposes for which it was never intended, Market Leader has intensified a deep conflict within the real estate industry about the use of real estate listings online.

We have just emerged from a years-long process of finding the right balance between content owners (brokers) and content distributors (media companies like Zillow and Trulia).  You can liken it to negotiating the terms for borrowing our car: Please fill the gas tank, keep it clean, and make sure your insurance is up to date.

By that analogy, RealEstate.com is just stealing the car. And if they want to drive it off a cliff, or sell it to the highest bidder, we can’t stop them. The only recourse for brokers is to get rid of our cars – to yank our listings from IDX and all shared sites to prevent them from being misappropriated, to pull back from online distribution to avoid theft.

But if we choose to yank our listings, we’re not allowed to showcase anyone else’s on our own sites, either. Market Leader knows it’s got us between a rock and a hard place.

3. It’s not good for consumers, either.

And lest you think Market Leader is providing an altruistic service for home buyers, consider this: The key moneymaker for Market Leader is that it sells all leads from all brokerage listings in a city or neighborhood to the highest bidder.

Not to an agent who’s the neighborhood expert, not to a brokerage that’s steeped in the local market: to the individual who’s willing to pull out his or her wallet to corner the market on a ZIP code.

We find it amusing that the home page of RealEstate.com exhorts consumers to work with a real estate professional (“If you are looking to buy a house, you will definitely need the help of an agent who is a local expert in your neighborhood”) while ignoring their own advice by sending leads to anyone willing to pony up the dollars – regardless of that person’s neighborhood expertise.

And that’s not just idle speculation: Our review of the RealEstate.com website turned up a disturbing number of instances where the agent advertised has only a tenuous connection to the area.

Is directing consumers to one agent who may or may not actually know anything about the area a good consumer experience?  We think that answer is obvious.

We’ve heard people try to rationalize what Market Leader has done by comparing it to buyers’ agents, who use IDX and the MLS even though they don’t contribute listings to the MLS.

These are false analogies that work only when detached from reality. The fact is you know a broker, or a real estate professional, when you see one, and Market Leader is neither.

Some have called this move “brilliant”; others have called it “disruptive.” It is neither. It’s blatantly disrespectful in an industry that prides itself on its code of ethics.

It will not lead to innovation, only industry fighting; it will not lead to a better consumer experience, only confusion. It won’t produce meaningful changes, but will create drag on the reputations of the honest, accomplished, locally focused, and trusted real estate professionals in our industry. These are the experts the consumer should be seeking — not an agent who is buying leads instead of working to earn them by becoming a market expert.

Closing the Loophole

Simply put, Market Leader is a software company that’s found a loophole. It started as a service provider to brokers and real estate professionals, but is now essentially picking the pockets of the same community.

How do we close the loophole? Here’s how we’re starting: Pacific Union International will not do business with Market Leader until it changes the way it uses IDX and balances that use with our industry ethics.

We may further need to work with our local MLSs to modify IDX rules to provide for a “cafeteria plan” in which each brokerage may specify the distribution channels through which we syndicate our listings.

Finally, Pacific Union International encourages all brokerage companies to proactively and regularly review their vendors’ or suppliers’ practices and only engage with firms that support and uphold the same ethical standards that we adhere to.

We welcome your comments and opinions.

Share this post:
  • Jake W.

    Sorry, my post was a question posed to Pacific Union, not to Concerned Agent.

  • Concerned Agent

    Hi Pacific Union, Looks like you are filtering your comments pretty closely.  Where is my last comment on restricting agent choice? 

  • Concerned Agent

    Wow.  Did not realize that Pacific Union was so far in Zillow & Trulia’s back pocket to publish a blog like this.  Watch out to the rest of California real estate agents and brokers.

    • Concerned Agent — thanks for the comment. While we do have relationships with Trulia and Zillow, we’ve chosen to engage with these companies because they respect the industry’s code of ethics and best practices. We have written critically about both companies in the recent past, before they made significant changes in their policies that provide more respect to brokers’ listing content.

      We’ve created today’s post because we do not see any respect whatsoever evinced in the actions taken by RealEstate.com.

      While Trulia and Zillow only display listings from brokerages that have given them permission to do so — and allows brokerages to opt out at any time — RealEstate.com and its parent, Market Leader, simply take the listings whether brokerages like it or not.

      We find these actions contrary to the spirit of IDX, as well as a surprising tactic from a company that has previously made its living supporting real estate professionals and brokerages with digital marketing solutions.

      Thanks again for your comment, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.

      • Concerned Agent

        I think it is very very disappointing to see real estate brokers dictating how agents spend their money and what marketing solutions or software vendors agents are using.  Real estate agents pay their brokers significant amounts of money for their brand. 

        Pacific Union should not forget who drives their business and what their business.  Let me remind you – it is the real estate agents on the street.  Real estate brokers should not be fettering how the agents is conducting their business.

        If any marketing or software partner is making agents more productive, amen – be it Market Leader through Real Estate.com or Zillow or Trulias.

        For any agent thinking about joining Pacific Union or their current position with Pacific, I would advise him or her to think about actions and statements in light of blogs like this.

        • Concerned Agent — sorry, maybe we weren’t clear in our post: We *as a brokerage* will not be using Market Leader’s services. However, we support our real estate professionals in making any choice they want to make in their personal marketing endeavors.

          We are quite cognizant and appreciative of the value of our outstanding team of real estate professionals, which is in part why we are so displeased with how RealEstate.com is using their listings.

          It is frustrating if not infuriating for real estate professionals see their listings used to generate leads that might go to an agent who has no insight or expertise into the home or its neighborhood. This does both the listing agent and his/her clients a disservice. As an agent yourself (what brokerage are you affiliated with, by the way?), I’m sure you can appreciate that.

          Thanks for the continued discussion.

        • Jake W.

          I can’t quite understand the concern you’re voicing. Is it that the brokerage is losing the ability to make more money via dual agency? 

          Market leader’s site seems to abide by IDX rules as far as providing proper citation. And it would only seem since they get the data from the MLS that the data has more (or at least the same) accuracy as Trulia/Zillow.

          The only difference I can see on any given listing on this site vs. what Trulia shows is that Trulia seems to allow someone to click to contact the listing agent. BUT they do prominently show other agents who’re advertising right alongside the listing. There’s no way that all agents who advertise alongside listing in Trulia are somehow local market / home experts. They’re paying for that spot and want buyer leads.

          •  Hi Jake! Thanks for the comment. You’re correct, Market Leader absolutely abides by the IDX rules, and we’re not suggesting otherwise. But we believe what they’re doing goes against the grain of the “share and share alike” ethos of brokerages who contribute to, and share listings from, IDX.

            The difference between RealEstate.com and Trulia/Zillow is that we give our listings to those latter two sites voluntarily, and have the ability to pull them if we want to. RealEstate.com simply takes our listings via IDX, uses them in a manner in which we have no input or say, and with no opt-out option.

            As we said in the post, it’s technically legal. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good practice, and it thumbs its nose at our industry.

            That’s the crux of our first two points.

            As for our third point — the consumer viewpoint — you’re right when you say there’s no guarantee that all agents who advertise next to listings in Trulia are local market experts. But at least on Trulia the consumer has the option of quickly and easily contacting the listing agent, by means of a prominent email form, for specific and highly accurate information about that property.

            In February, we took Trulia and Zillow to task for exactly this issue (http://blog.pacunion.com/truli.....nd-or-foe/). Recent changes with Trulia and Zillow were due in part to brokerages like us speaking out about the practice of highlighting a paid placement for an agent who may not know much about the property or the neighborhood. So our argument with RealEstate.com is consistent with that position.

            Hope this answers your questions! Again, thanks for the comment.

          • Reinsider

             Actually, I don’t believe Market Leader does abide by the IDX rules.  Specifically the rules state that only a Participant in the MLS can receive an IDX feed, and one of the criteria that define what a Participant is, is that they must “actively endeavor to list property and/or accept offers of cooperation and compensation…”  The exact wording in the rules is:
            “Mere possession of a broker’s license is not sufficient to qualify for MLS
            participation. Rather, the requirement that an individual or firm “offers and/or accepts
            compensation” means that the Participant actively endeavors during the operation of its
            real estate business to list real property of the type listed on the MLS and/or to accept
            offers of cooperation and compensation made by listing brokers or agents in the MLS.
            “Actively” means on a continual and on-going basis during the operation of the
            Participant’s real estate business”

          • Reinsider, that’s an interesting point! Our comment about them abiding by the IDX rules referred to Market Leader providing proper citation in the listings, which they in fact do. Whether or not they are a legitimate participant in the MLS, as specified in what you quoted, is a larger question — one that we’ll be very interested in hearing the answer to.

Sign Up for Daily Blog Updates

Receive daily blog posts from Pacific Union in your inbox.

Sign up for Monthly Market Updates

Receive monthly real estate news from Pacific Union in your inbox.