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Opinion Editorials

Neighborcity.com alleges NAR, MRIS, NorthstarMLS violate anti-trust laws: op/ed

Neighborcity.com has filed a countersuit against two MLS operators, naming NAR as a co-defendant, claiming anti-trust laws are being violated by all three.

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Allegations that two MLS operators violate anti-trust laws

In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by telling you that while researching this editorial, I discovered I’m almost a zero. At least, according to neighborcity.com, which is in the news for recently filing countersuit against the NorthstarMLS and MRIS, naming the National Association of Realtors (NAR) as a co-defendant.

The operator of neighborcity.com, American Home Realty Network (AHRN), alleges both MLS operators are in violation of anti-trust laws, and that the original copyright suit brought by the two MLS operators is just a bogus claim to prevent AHRN from exercising their “right to inform American consumers to assist them in making choices on the biggest purchases of their lives.”

According to their own website, neighborcity.com – owned and operated by AHRN, is an “operational brokerage” by which I believe they mean “paper brokerage” since they don’t actually employ agents. Their business model is, as far as I can tell, based upon receiving referral fees from “non-paper brokerages” that have “non-paper agents” to assist “non-paper consumers” in buying “non-paper houses.” Although, to be fair, buying all those “real” houses does actually generate quite a lot of paper.

Operating across different regions

AHRN/neighborcity.com operates with a San Francisco address as a California “brokerage” but the two lawsuits involve MLS services that are far, far, far from the sunny hills and valleys of San Francisco. Which gets to one part of the problem: the collision we’ve repeatedly seen between the competing business models of geographic “flesh-and-blood” brokerages and virtual websites that want to make money in the realm of real estate.

Under CA state law, a real estate brokerage is defined as including anyone that “solicits prospective sellers or purchasers of [real estate],” but are you really a brokerage in St. Paul Minnesota (Northstar) or Maryland (MRIS) if your mailing address is in San Francisco, you don’t employ agents in either Minnesota or Maryland, and your business model is based upon taking a cut of an industry derivative? In other words, do you deserve to be called a stockbroker if you don’t actually buy or sell stocks, but provide information about stock brokers and make a profit every time you refer a friend or relative to a preferred stock broker?

…and then the internet came along…

While I don’t know the complete history behind the evolution of California brokerage law and it’s definition, I’m willing to make a friendly bet that the definition of brokerage has been expanded over the years and widely interpreted to consider any plausible behavior that pertains to real estate as engaging in “brokerage.”

Why? Again, I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is to make it easier for the state to protect consumers from fraudulent or misleading advertising, and to make it easier to bring claims of fair housing violations against a wider audience of individuals. Historically, a broad definition of a brokerage gave the state greater regulatory control over a business that was by its nature (and existing technological limitations) inherently local. And then the internet came along…

Neighborcity’s fight for information

I’m sure that neighborcity.com will argue that they bring value to the real estate transaction by providing “hidden” information to the consumer that those un-fair people-based brokerages want to hide. However, providing information about a market isn’t the same as providing that market. I can tell you all day long which cardiologist is the cutest, but that doesn’t mean you should trust me to crack your chest open and put some stitches in your ticker.

In addition to the fact that they aren’t capable of actually closing a transaction involving a home because, you know, that would involve something more than paper (like a human being), the information that neighborcity.com does provide seems abysmal. Which is where that disclaimer from the introduction becomes relevant. Apparently, I suck.

How I don’t match their algorithm

I’m not sure exactly why, but my best guess is that I’m almost a zero (07 out of 100 to be exact) because I work as part of a two-person team. We’ve been a team for more than a decade (ie, we aren’t just a “paper team”), and sometimes we list properties under my MLS ID. Other times we use Britton’s ID. Sometimes our closings are reported under my MLS ID, other times they are reported with her ID. Go look either one of us up on neighborcity.com, and you’ll quickly discover that despite our great reputation in the SF brokerage community, the incredible number of referrals that power our business, our raving testimonials, and our great Yelp reviews that… we both suck. Because the “operational brokerage” that is neighborcity.com isn’t designed to deal with anything that doesn’t match their algorithm.

Well, fine, you might say, teams are an exception to the rule, no algorithm designed by incredibly super-smart engineers with advanced computer science degrees can ever get everything right (but we should still trust the algorithm over our flesh and blood friends)…

Ok then, how about this example? A home we listed in the San Francisco MLS four days ago isn’t in the neighborcity.com database. I searched by street name “4064 17th” and zip code “94114” and then tried multiple variations with no success. So finally I gave up and just exasperatedly typed in the exact MLS listing number. And then I got results! Neighborcity.com returned one listing – a house located in Hesperia, California that sold in November of 2010 for $100,000. Which is almost exactly like my listing in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco for $1,695,000. Except that the home in Hesperia is 425 miles to the south-east of San Francisco and $1,595,000 cheaper. Oh, and it isn’t even for sale anymore. Yeah, that.

Bad information is not valuable information

The usual argument is that the consumer benefits when the most information possible is made widely available. As I hope the two examples above demonstrate, bad information is not valuable information (if you recently upgraded to iOS 6, you’re probably with me on this). So let’s flip the argument around. Do the owners of the data have the right to ensure that it is used accurately?

I say that yes, absolutely, the owners of the original data have the right to ensure that their data is used accurately and responsibly. Why? It isn’t to protect me or my flesh-and-blood business. I’m doing just fine, thank you very much.

Consumers are the biggest losers when inaccurate information is gussied-up and trotted about as beautifully accurate data that can be relied upon. And if you look at the disclaimer page of neighborcity.com you’ll be delighted to discover that “[AHRN]… disclaims any warranties concerning the accuracy, quality, title or timeliness of the content on the [neighborcity.com] website.”

This is exactly why I support NAR, Northstar MLS, and MRIS in their lawsuit to ensure that their data is used in a way that helps consumers.

Matt Fuller, GRI spends most of his waking hours obsessing over all things San Francisco real estate. He is half of the successful JacksonFuller real estate team, and also writes at the San Francisco real estate blog about all things SF. He is also a father, husband, foodie, avid runner, and slave to his Newfoundland and Basset Hound dogs.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. victorlund

    October 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    I can’t imagine why MLSs or Brokers would care about this.

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Opinion Editorials

DNA tests are cool, but are they worth it?

(OPINION EDITORIAL) DNA tests are all the rage currently but are they worth potentially having your genetic makeup sold and distributed?

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Over the last few years, DNA testing went mainstream. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have offered easy access to the insights of your genetics, including potential health risks and family heritage, through simple tests.

However, as a famously ageless actor once suggested in a dinosaur movie, don’t focus too much on if you can do this, without asking if you should do this.

When you look closely, you can find several reasons to wonder if sending your DNA to these companies is a wise choice.

These reasons mostly come down to privacy protection, and while most companies do have privacy policies in place, you will find some surprising loopholes in the fine print. For one, most of the big players don’t give you the option to not have your data sold.

These companies, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, can always sell your data so long as your data is “anonymized,” thanks to the HIPPA Act of 1996. Anonymization involves separating key identifying features about a person from their medical or biological data.

These companies know that loophole well; Ancestry.com, for example, won’t even give customers an opt-out of having their DNA data sold.

Aside from how disconcerting it is that these companies will exploit this loophole for their gain at your expense, it’s also worth noting that standards for anonymizing data don’t work all that well.

In one incident, reportedly, “one MIT scientists was able to ID the people behind five supposedly anonymous genetic samples randomly selected from a public research database. It took him less than a day.”

There’s also the issue of the places where that data goes when it goes out. That report the MIT story comes from noted that 23andMe has sold data to at least 14 outside pharmaceutical firms.

Additionally, Ancestry.com has a formal data-sharing agreement with a biotech firm. That’s not good for you as the consumer, because you may not know how that firm will handle the data.

Some companies give data away to the public databases for free, but as we saw from the earlier example, those can be easy targets if you wanted to reverse engineer the data back to the person.

It would appear the only safe course of action is to have this data destroyed once your results are in. However, according to US federal regulation for laboratory compliance stipulates that US labs hold raw information for a minimum of 10 years before destruction.

Now, consider all that privacy concern in the context of what happens when your DNA data is compromised. For one, this kind of privacy breach is irreversible.

It’s not as simple as resetting all your passwords or freezing your credit.

If hackers don’t get it, the government certainly can; there’s even an instance of authorities successfully obtaining a warrant for DNA evidence from Ancestry.com in a murder trial.

Even if you’re not the criminal type who would worry about such a thing, the precedent is concerning.

Finally, if these companies are already selling data to entities in the biomedical field, how long until medical and life insurance providers get their hands on it?

I’ll be the first to admit that the slippery slope fallacy is strong here, but there are a few troubling patterns of behavior and incorrect assumptions already in play regarding the handling of your DNA evidence.

The best course of action is to take extra precaution.

Read the fine print carefully, especially what’s in between the lines. As less scrupulous companies look to cash in on the trend, be aware of entities who skimp on privacy details; DNA Explained chronicles a lot of questionable experiences with other testing companies.

Above all, really think about what you’re comfortable with before you send in those cheek swabs or tubes of spit. While the commercials make this look fun, it is a serious choice and should be treated like one.

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Opinion Editorials

How to deal with an abusive boss and keep your job, too

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Sometimes bosses can be the absolute worst, but also, you depend on them. Here’s how to deal with an abusive boss and, hopefully, not get fired.

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Nothing can ruin your work life like an abusive boss or supervisor. But when you’re dependent on your boss for assignments, promotions – heck, your paycheck – how can you respond to supervisor abuse in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your job or invite retaliation?

A new study to be published in the next Academy of Management Journal suggests an intriguing approach to responding to an abusive boss. As you might expect, their study shows that avoiding the abuser does little to change the dynamic.

But the study also found that confronting the abuser was equally ineffective.

Instead, the study suggests that workers in an abusive situation “flip the script” on their bosses, “shifting the balance of power.” But how?

The researchers tracked the relationship between “leader-follower dyads” at a real estate agency and a commercial bank. They found that, without any intervention, abuse tended to persist over time.

However, they also discovered two worker-initiated strategies that “can strategically influence supervisors to stop abuse and even motivate them to mend strained relationships.”

The first strategy is to make your boss more dependent on you. For example, one worker in the study found out that his boss wanted to develop a new analytic procedure.

The worker became an expert on the subject and also educated his fellow co-workers. When the boss realized how important the worker was to the new project, the abuse subsided.

In other words, find out what your boss’s goals are, and then make yourself indispensable.

In the second strategy, workers who were being abused formed coalitions with one another, or with other workers that had better relationships with the boss. The study found that “abusive behavior against isolated targets tends to stop once the supervisor realizes it can trigger opposition from an entire coalition.”

Workplace abuse is not cool, and it shouldn’t really be up to the worker to correct it. At times, the company will need to intervene to curb bad supervisor behavior. However, this study does suggest a few strategies that abused workers can use to try to the tip the balance in their favor.

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Opinion Editorials

Avoid the stack, conquer busy work as it comes

(PRODUCTIVITY) It’s easy overwhelmed with emails and a stack of real mail. But tackling as it comes may help to enhance organization and productivity.

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A few weeks ago, I was walking through my office (also known as my bedroom after 5 p.m.) and I noticed a stack of mail that I had tossed aside over the course of the last few months. While they were non-urgent, this collection of paperwork had been opened, read, and left unattended.

Now, this was a classic move of mine – leave a mess for Future Taylor to clean up. So, imagine my surprise when Present Taylor woke up and decided to put an end to “the stack.”

I sat down, went through everything, and took care of what needed to be done. Even though my wallet took a few hits, it felt great to have this cleared up and off my desk.

Right then and there, I made it a rule to let things only cross my desk once (unless there’s some extenuating circumstance in which it requires me to come back to it; i.e. my favorite sentence on this paperwork “This is not a final bill.”) There’s no point in drawing out the stress that “the stack” induce.

This led me to finally attacking something that’s been on my to-do list since I created my Gmail account in 2009 – create an organizational system.

I set aside some time to create folders (for individual projects, people I communicate with frequently, etc.)

While this is all stuff that you may have already implemented, my point is that this increase my productivity and lifted a weight off of my shoulders I didn’t acknowledge was there.

So, I encourage you to find one of those menial tasks that has been on your to-do list forever and tackle it.

This can include, organizing all of your electronic files into folders, updating your phone and email contacts, or going through all of your desk drawers to get rid of unneeded items. Organizing and freshening up your workspace can help increase your focus.

Once you’re organized and in gear, try the “let it cross your desk once” method. When an email comes in, respond to it or file it. When a bill comes in, pay it. You may be surprised at your rise in productivity.

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