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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 brings decades of experience and industry leadership as co-founder of San Francisco real estate brokerage Jackson Fuller Real Estate. Matt is a Past President of the San Francisco Association of Realtors. He currently serves as a Director for the California Association of Realtors. He currently co-hosts the San Francisco real estate podcast Escrow Out Loud. A recognized SF real estate expert, Matt has made numerous media appearances and published in a variety of media outlets. He’s a father, husband, dog-lover, and crazy exercise enthusiast. When he’s not at work you’re likely to find him at the gym or with his family.

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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

Shady salary transparency is running rampant: What to look out for

(EDITORIAL) Employees currently have the upper hand in the market. Employers, you must be upfront about salary and approach it correctly.

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Man holding money in the dark representing false salary transparency.

It’s the wild wild west out there when it comes to job applications. Job descriptions often misrepresent remote work opportunities. Applicants have a difficult time telling job scams from real jobs. Job applicants get ghosted by employers, even after a long application process. Following the Great Resignation, many employers are scrambling for workers. Employees have the upper hand in the hiring process, and they’re no longer settling for interviews with employers that aren’t transparent, especially about salary.

Don’t be this employer

User ninetytwoturtles shared a post on Reddit in r/recruitinghell in which the employer listed the salary as $0 to $1,000,000 per year. Go through many listings on most job boards and you’ll find the same kind of tactics – no salary listed or too large of a wide range. In some places, it’s required to post salary information. In 2021, the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act went into effect in Colorado. Colorado employers must list salary and benefits to give new hires more information about fair pay. Listing a broad salary range skirts the issue. It’s unfair to applicants, and in today’s climate, employers are going to get called out on it. Your brand will take a hit.

Don’t obfuscate wage information

Every employer likes to think that their employees work because they enjoy the job, but let’s face it, money is the biggest motivator. During the interview process, many a job has been lost over salary negotiations. Bringing up wages too early in the application process can be bad for a job applicant. On the other hand, avoiding the question can lead to disappointment when a job is offered, not to mention wasted time. In the past, employers held all the cards. Currently, it’s a worker’s market. If you want productive, quality workers, your business needs to be honest and transparent about wages.

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Opinion Editorials

3 reasons to motivate yourself to declutter your workspace (and mind)

(EDITORIAL) Making time to declutter saves time and money – all while reducing stress. Need a little boost to start? We all need motivation sometimes.

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Clean work desk representing the need to declutter.

It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few years. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob, an un-alphabetized bookshelf, or that we’ve put off ‘declutter’ on our to-do list for too long.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, taking time to declutter can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those 3 things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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Opinion Editorials

How to identify and minimize ‘invisible’ work in your organization

(EDITORIAL) Often meaningless, invisible tasks get passed down to interns and women. These go without appreciation or promotion. How can we change that?

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Women in a meeting around table, inclusion as a part of stopping gender discrimination representing invisible work.

Invisible work, non-promotable tasks, and “volunteer opportunities” (more often volun-told), are an unfortunate reality in the workforce. There are three things every employer should do in relation to these tasks: minimize them, acknowledge them, and distribute them equitably.

Unfortunately, the reality is pretty far from this ideal. Some estimates state up to 75% or more of these time-sucking, minimally career beneficial activities are typically foisted on women in the workplace and are a leading driver behind burnout in female employees. The sinister thing about this is most people are completely blind to these factors; it’s referred to as invisible work for a reason.

Research from Harvard Business Review* found that 44% more requests are presented to women as compared to men for “non-promotable” or volunteer tasks at work. Non-promotable tasks are activities such as planning holiday events, coordinating workplace social activities, and other ‘office housework’ style activities that benefit the office but typically don’t provide career returns on the time invested. The work of the ‘office mom’ often goes unacknowledged or, if she’s lucky, maybe garners some brief lip service. Don’t be that boss that gives someone a 50hr workload task for a 2-second dose of “oh yeah thanks for doing a bajillion hours of work on this thing I will never acknowledge again and won’t help your career.”  Yes, that’s a thing. Don’t do it. If you do it, don’t be surprised when you have more vacancies than staff. You brought that on yourself.

There is a lot of top-tier talent out there in the market right now. To be competitive, consider implementing some culture renovations so you can have a more equitable, and therefore more attractive, work culture to retain your top talent.

What we want to do:

  1. Identify and minimize invisible work in your organization
  2. Acknowledge the work that can’t be avoided. Get rid of the blind part.
  3. Distribute the work equitably.

Here is a simple example:

Step 1: Set up a way for staff to anonymously bring things to your attention. Perhaps a comment box. Encourage staff to bring unsung heroes in the office to your attention. Things they wish their peers or they themselves received acknowledgment for.

Step 2: Read them and actually take them seriously. Block out some time on your calendar and give it your full attention.

For the sake of demonstration, let’s say someone leaves a note about how Caroline always tidies up the breakroom at the end of the day and cleans the coffee pot with supplies Caroline brings from home. Now that we have identified a task, we are going to acknowledge it, minimize it, and consider the distribution of labor.

Step 3: Thank Caroline at the team meeting for scrubbing yesterday’s burnt coffee out of the bottom of the pot every day. Don’t gloss over it. Make the acknowledgment mean something. Buy her some chips out of the vending machine or something. The smallest gestures can have the biggest impact when coupled with actual change.

Step 4: Remind your staff to clean up after themselves. Caroline isn’t their mom. If you have to, enforce it.

Step 5: Put it in the office budget to provide adequate cleaning supplies for the break room and review your custodial needs. This isn’t part of Caroline’s job description and she could be putting that energy towards something else. Find the why of the situation and address it.

You might be rolling your eyes at me by now, but the toll of this unpaid invisible work has real costs.  According to the 2021 Women in the Workplace Report* the ladies are carrying the team, but getting little to none of the credit. Burnout is real and ringing in at an all-time high across every sector of the economy. To be short, women are sick and tired of getting the raw end of the deal, and after 2 years of pandemic life bringing it into ultra-sharp focus, are doing something about it. In the report, 40% of ladies were considering jumping ship. Data indicates that a lot of them not only manned the lifeboats but landed more lucrative positions than they left. Now is the time to score and then retain top talent. However, it is up to you to make sure you are offering an environment worth working in.

*Note: the studies cited here do not differentiate non-cis-identifying persons. It is usually worse for individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community.

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