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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 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

Ways to socialize safely during quarantine

(EDITORIAL) Months of isolation due to quarantine is causing loneliness for many, but joining virtual social groups from home may help fill the need for interaction.

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Quarantining, sheltering in place, staying home. We’re tired of hearing it; we’re tired of doing it. Yet, it’s what we still need to be doing to stay safe for a while longer. All of this can be lonesome. As the days turn into weeks and weeks into months, the alone time is getting to even the most introverted among us.

Solitary confinement is considered one of the most psychologically damaging punishments a human can endure. The New Yorker reported on this in a 1992 study of prisoners in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, as well as Vietnam veterans who experienced isolation. These studies showed that prisoners who had experienced solitary confinement demonstrated similar brain activity to those who’d suffered a severe head injury, noting that “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”

We aren’t meant to be solitary creatures. Your “pandemic brain” is real. That fogginess, the lack of productivity, can be attributed to many things, including anxiety, but being kept apart from other humans is a big part of it too. Be kind to yourself, give yourself grace, and join others virtually. Be it an app, a class, a Facebook group, a chat room, or a livestream, someone somewhere is out there waiting to connect with you too.

The good news? We are lucky enough to live in an era of near limitless ways to interact socially online. Sure, it is different, but it is something. It’s important. The best thing about this type of social interaction is being able to hone in on your specific interests, though I’d caution you against getting caught in an online echo chamber. Diversity of interests, personality, and opinion make for a richer experience, with opportunities for connecting and expanding your worldview.

Here are a few suggestions on ways to socialize while staying home and staying safe. Communicating with other humans is good for you, physically and mentally.

Interactive Livestreams on Twitch:

Twitch is best known as a streaming service for video game fans, but it offers multiple streams appealing to different interests. This is more than passive watching (although that is an option, too) as Twitch livestream channels also have chat rooms. Twitch is fun for people who like multi-tasking because the chat rooms for popular livestream channels can get busy with chatter.

While people watch the Twitch hosts play a video game, film a live podcast, make music or art, mix cocktails, or dance, they can comment on what they’re watching, make suggestions, ask questions, crack jokes, and get to know each other (by Twitch handle, so it is still as anonymous as you want it to be) in the chat room. The best hosts take time every so often to interact directly with the chat room questions and comments.

Many Twitch channels develop loyal followers who get to know each other, thus forming communities. I have participated in the Alamo Drafthouse Master Pancake movie mocks a few times because they are fun and local to Austin, where I live. Plus, in my non-quarantine life, I would go to Master Pancake shows live sometimes. The chat room feels familiar in a nice way. While watching online is free, you can (and totally should) tip them.

Online trivia in real time:

There are some good options for real-time online trivia, but I’m impressed with the NYC Trivia League’s model. They have trivia games online on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. The NYC Trivia League seems to have figured out a good way to run the game live while keeping answers private from the other teams. They run games on Instagram Live with a live video of the host, and participants answer via the question feature. Clever!

Online book club:

First I have to shout out my Austin local independent bookstore, BookPeople, because they are fantastic. They run book clubs throughout the year, along with readings, book signings, and all things book-related. BookPeople hosts several online book clubs during these lockdown days, and most people will find something that appeals to them.

I’m also impressed with this list from Hugo House, a writer’s resource based out of Seattle. This list includes Instagram and Goodread book clubs, book clubs for Black women, rebels, and poetry lovers. The Financial Diet recommends the Reddit book club, if you are comfortable with the Reddit format. Please note that it’s a busy place, but if you like Reddit, you already know this.

Cooking class or virtual tasting:

This is doubly satisfying because you can follow these chefs in real time, and you end up with a meal. There are a couple on Instagram Live, such as The Culinistas or Chef Massimo Bottura.

You can also participate in virtual tastings for wine, whiskey, or chocolate, though you will have to buy the product to participate in the classes (usually held over Zoom or Facebook Live). If you are in Austin, Dallas, or Houston, I recommend BeenThere Locals. The cost of the course includes the wine, spirits, or cooking kit in most cases, and all of the money goes to the business and expert hosting the class.

Look for your favorite wine, spirits, cheese, chocolate makers, and chefs that are local to you to find a similar experience. Most either prepare the class kit for pickup or delivery within a local area.

Quarantine chat:

To interact with another quarantined person seeking social interaction, there’s Quarantine Chat. Quarantine chat is one of the ways to connect through the Dialup app, available on iOS and Android devices. Sign up to make and receive calls when you want to speak with someone. The Dialup app pairs you randomly with another person for a phone conversation, at a scheduled time, either with anyone or with someone with shared interests.

Quarantine chat takes it a step further with calls at random times. When your quarantine chat caller calls, you will not see their number (or they yours), only the “Quarantine Chat” caller ID. If you are unable to pick up when they call, they will be connected with someone else, so there is no pressure to answer. It’s nice to hear someone else’s voice, merely to talk about what you’ve been cooking or what hilarious thing your pet is doing.

Play Uno:

Uno Freak lets people set up games and play Uno online with friends or strangers. Players do not need to register or download anything to play. Uno Freak is web-based.

Talk to mental health professionals:

If your state of loneliness starts sliding toward depression, call someone you can speak to right away to talk over your concerns. When in doubt, call a trained professional! Here are a few resources:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 am–6 pm, ET, 800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org.
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to this text line 24/7 for someone to text with who will also be able to refer you to other resources: U.S. and Canada: 74174, U.K. 85258, Ireland: 50808.
  • Psych Central has put together this comprehensive list of crisis intervention specialists and ways to contact them immediately.

There are many ways to connect even though we are physically apart. These are just a few real time ways to interact with others online. If you want something a little more flesh and blood, take a walk around the block or even sit in a chair in front of where you live.

Wave at people from afar, and remember that we have lots of brilliant doctors and scientists working on a way out of this. Hang in there, buddy. I’m rooting for you. I’m rooting for all of us.

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Opinion Editorials

Working remotely: Will we ever go back? (Probably not)

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Now that the pandemic has opened the door on working remotely, there’s no way we’ll put the genie back in the bottle. But, here’s some ways you can adapt.

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Woman working remotely on her couch with a laptop on her lap.

When it comes to working remotely, will the toothpaste ever go back in the tube?

Mark Zuckerberg recently said, “We are going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale…” By 2030, Zuckerberg anticipates that over half of Facebook’s workforce will be remote. Many other companies are jumping on the work from home bandwagon. Working remotely has helped many businesses manage the pandemic crisis, but it’s unsure what form remote working will take over the next 10 years.

We know that employees are responding positively to WFH, as reported in this article – Employers: Lacking remote work options may cause you to lose employees. As offices transition to a post-COVID normal, here are some things to consider about your office and remote work.

What does your business gain from allowing workers to WFH?
The future of remote work depends on a conscious application of WFH. It’s not just as easy as moving employees out of the office to home. You have to set up a system to manage workers, wherever they are working. The companies with good WFH cultures have set up rules and metrics to know whether it’s working for their business. You’ll need to have technology and resources that let your teams work remotely.

Can your business achieve its goals through remote work?
The pandemic may have proved the WFH model, but is this model sustainable? There are dozens of benefits to remote work. You can hire a more diverse workforce. You may save money on office space. Employees respond well to remote work. You reduce your carbon emissions.

But that can’t be your only measure of whether remote work fits into your vision for your organization. You should be looking at how employees will work remotely, but you need to consider why employees work remotely.

The work paradigm is shifting – how will you adapt?
The work environment has shifted over the past century. Remote work is here to stay, but how it fits into your company should be based on more than what employees want. You will have to work closely with managers and HR to build the WFH infrastructure that grows with your organization to support your teams.

We don’t know exactly how remote work will change over the next decade, but we do know that the workplace is being reinvented. Don’t just jump in because everyone is doing it. Make an investment in developing your WFH plan.

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Opinion Editorials

The truth about unemployment from someone who’s been through it

(EDITORIAL) Unemployment benefits aren’t what you thought they were. Here’s a first-hand experience and what you need to know.

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Have I ever told you how I owed the government over two grand because of unemployment in 2019, and only just finished paying it back this year?

This isn’t exactly the forum for memoirs, but this is relevant to everyone. So I’ll tell y’all anyway.

It all started back in 2018 when I came into work early, microwaved my breakfast, poured coffee, and got pulled into a collaboration room to hear, “We love you and your work, April, but we’ve been bought out and you’re being laid off.”

It was kind of awkward carrying my stuff out to the car with that Jimmy Dean sandwich in my mouth.

More awkward still was the nine months of unemployment I went through afterwards. Between the fully clothed shower crying, the stream of job denial, catering to people who carried rocks in their nostrils at my part-time job (yes, ew, yes, really), and almost dying of no-health-insurance-itis, I learned a lot!

The bigger lesson though, came in the spring of the following year when I filed my taxes. I should back up for a moment and take the time to let those of you unfamiliar with unemployment in Texas in on a few things that aren’t common knowledge.

1: You’re only eligible if you were laid off. Not if you had quit. Not fired. Your former company can also choose to challenge your eligibility for benefits if they didn’t like your face on the way out. So the only way you’re 100% guaranteed to get paid in (what the state calls) “a timely manner”, is a completely amicable split.

2: Overpayments have to go back. Immediately. If there’s an error, like several thousand of Texans found out this week, the government needs that cash back before you can access any more. If you’re not watching your bank account to make sure you’re getting the exact same check each time and you have an overpayment, rest assured that mistake isn’t going to take long to correct. Unfortunately, if you spent that money unknowingly–thought you got an ‘in these uncertain times’ kinder and gentler adjustment and have 0 income, you have a problem. Tying into Coronavirus nonsense is point three!

3: There are no sick days. If ever you’re unable to work for any reason, be it a car accident, childbirth, horrible internal infection (see also no-health-insurance-itis), you are legally required to report it, and you will not be paid for any days you were incapacitated. Personally, my no-health-insurance-itis came with a bad fever and bedrest order that axed me out of my part time job AND killed my unemployment benefits for the week I spent getting my internal organs to like me again. But as it turned out, the payment denial came at the right time because–

4: Unemployment benefits are finite. Even if you choose to lie on your request forms about how hard you’re searching for work, coasting is ill-advised because once the number the state allots you runs out…it’s out. Don’t lie on your request forms, by the way. In my case, since I got cut from my part-time gig, I got a call from the Texas Workforce Commission about why my hours were short. I was able to point out where I’d reported my sickness to them and to my employer, so my unpaid week rolled over to a later request date. I continued to get paid right up until my hiring date which was also EXACTLY when my benefits ran out.

Unemployment isn’t a career, which is odd considering the fact that unemployment payments are qualified by the government as income.

Ergo, fact number five…

5: Your benefits? They’re taxed.

That’s right, you will be TAXED for not having a job.

The stereotype of the ‘lazy unemployment collector burdening society’ should be fading pretty quickly for the hitherto uninformed about now.

To bring it back to my story, I’d completely forgotten that when I filed for unemployment in the first place, I’d asked for my taxes NOT to be withheld from it–assuming that I wasn’t going to be searching for full time work for very long. I figured “Well, I’ll have a tax refund coming since I’ll get work again no problem, it’ll cancel out.”

Except, it was a problem. Because of the nine month situation.

I’d completely forgotten about it by the time I threw myself into my new job, but after doing my taxes, triple checking the laws and what I’d signed, it was clear. Somehow…despite being at my lowest point in life, I owed the highest amount in taxes, somewhere around the 2k mark.

Despite being based on a system that’s tied to how much income you were getting before, and all the frustrating “safeguards” put in place to keep payments as low and infrequent as possible, Uncle Sam still wants a bite out of the gas-station Hostess pie that is your unemployment check. And as I’m writing this, more and more people are finding that out. And even as we enter 2021, there is still more to be aware of – we’re not out of the woods yet.

I’d like to end this on a more positive note… So let’s say we’ve all been positively educated! That’s a net gain, surely.

Keep your heads up, and masked.

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