The country's four largest real estate companies are close to an agreement to share their listings, a move that comes as the industry is trying to negotiate a truce with the Competition Bureau.
The Financial Post has learned that Century 21, Royal LePage, Re/Max Ontario- Atlantic Canada and Coldwell Banker have met several times over the past 12 months to hammer out an agreement under which they could take sales listings from each other's websites and post them to their own.
The realtors say the move is unrelated to the ongoing Competition Bureau inquiry into the Multiple Listing Service and its restrictive access, but it could provide the industry with an alternative to the MLS system if it is forced to radically change in the wake of the government agency investigation, which started in 2007.
The MLS is controlled by the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA), but the four major players are now listing on the MLS through their various agents.
The Competition Bureau has requested CREA remove all rules that prohibit or impede the posting of property information on MLS systems. Currently, only licensed real estate agents who are members of local real-estate boards can post listings on MLS. The change is expected to provide the public with improved and cheaper access to the system, while potentially lowering real-estate agent commissions. CREA is considering a settlement on the issue.
"We've been working on an agreement with real-estate companies for the past year," confirmed Phil Soper, chief executive of Royal LePage. "It's moving along. The agreement in principle is among the major real-estate companies, but it's just a framework to move forward. The next move is we have to reach out to the real estate brokers and they have to agree to share [their listings]."
The main agreement is said to be between Royal LePage, Century 21 and Re/Max, with Coldwell Banker asking to be kept in the loop with the intention of joining later. Re/ Max of Western Canada and Re/Max Quebec are not part of the deal.
Mr. Soper said he's not concerned about non-agents being able to pay to list their information on the MLS system.
"From my perspective there is so much else that goes into the advisory services that are provided by a professional than just the listing," Mr. Soper said.
While the industry is gearing up to provide better access to its listings, it is also clear many plan to zealously guard who can take the listings and post them to their own site.
Century 21 Canada is suing Rogers Communications Inc. subsidiary Zoocasa Inc. for obtaining information from sites provided by the company's brokers and representatives. Don Lawby said the fight with Zoocasa got him thinking about sharing data with the other real-estate companies.
"All of a sudden I had a competitor that was scarping listings from everybody else and I can't get them and that's where we started. The discussions started well before the Competition Bureau [investigation]," said Mr. Lawby. "We have brand names and we drive a lot of content. The more traffic we can get the better it is."
He said it is too early to say whether the sharing of information between the real-estate companies would provide an alternative to the MLS system.
"Part of the problem was organized real estate got together [through MLS] to share data. It was never meant to go directly to the consumer," said Mr. Lawby.
Technology has also been an issue impeding information sharing between brokerages because not all the data are compatible with each other, said a source. The purchase this month of Columbus-based Real Living Inc. by LePage parent Brookfield Asset Management Inc. will partially help get around that hurdle because Real Living's technology helps interpret differences in data.
Some say the move by the brokerages to share data is coming too little too late.
"They are doing this to make themselves more relevant. Each of them has only a fraction of the data that is out there [on homes for sale]," said the owner of one independent brokerage, adding the real-estate companies can agree on a corporate level but that doesn't mean agents will go along with it.