It's a little device, wafer thin and about half the size of your finger that every realtor in Toronto has attached to a key chain.
It spits out constantly changing passwords that are used to guard access to one of the most precious resources the Canadian real estate industry owns -- MLS or the multiple listing service. Every board in Canada has its own security system.
The Internet was supposed to make the real estate agent redundant. The theory was people would simply go online and find a home for sale. But even today, estimates are that at least 90% of all real estate transactions go through an agent connected to the MLS, which serves as the central system for real estate listings.
There is no question the publicly accessible site of the real estate industry is much better than it used to be at providing consumers with information. When the site first opened in 1996, listings were protected with such zeal that you could see a home but not the address.
The Canadian Real Estate Association owns the rights to the multiple listing service, which has been around since the 1950s. When an agent gets a listing, he or she collects data on the property and then puts it on the local board's system. CREA represents more than 97,000 real estate brokers, agents and salespeople working through 100 real estate Boards and Associations.
It's up to the seller to decide if he or she wants that listing to be made public. If the answer is yes, the data is uploaded to the national site, mls.caor, as it is marketed these days, realtor.ca.CREA gravitated towards the realtor.casite because it did not want to confuse consumers into thinking they were getting full access to the multiple listing service. It also did want to give up the name to major league soccer. What's the difference between the public system and the private site that the agents guard so closely? For starters, the agents-only site has historical data that makes it much easier to get a sense of the value of the home. It also provides commission rates, tells you who the seller is and in most cases has superior search options.
"There is still so much more on the private site than the public site and why shouldn't there be? It's our site," one real estate veteran said.
How has MLS been able to stave off competition from for-sale-by-owner sites -- called FSBOs -- and other third-party sites on the Internet, when information is supposed to flow freely?
One answer is that the MLS has reached such a critical mass it is impossible, or simply not smart, to sell your home any other way. Sell it privately or through another Web site and there is a greater likelihood of missing out on potential buyers willing to pay a higher price.
The MLS has grown in dominance from having just $1-billion in sales in 1960. Sales through the system climbed to $7-billion by 1976, and by 1986 had soared to $30-billion. Last year, close to $131.9-billion of residential sales were listed through MLS.
The federal Competition Bureau has an open file looking into whether the MLS system has rules that violate the Competition Act. At one point, Stephen Moranis, the former owner of Realtysellers (Ontario) Ltd. sued the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) and Canadian Real Estate Association, alleging the two organizations were forcing the company to raise the price it charged home buyers and sellers. Realtysellers was offering at the time a program that allowed you to get an MLS listing for $695.