There are some past real estate practices that are now explicitly illegal. Referral fees deemed harmful to consumers were explicitly banned by RESPA. Dual agency is likewise under scrutiny, with mandatory disclosures being created to discourage the practice and the practice is now illegal in several states, with more states likely to come. If a practice is bad for consumers, it’s not likely to stay legal for long, and those who engaged in the practice might find themselves in serious trouble.
Pre-MLS, listing clubs, pocket listings, and off-MLS listings all fall into this category. All of these involve an agent or broker keeping a property for sale off of the MLS, for sale to a buyer:
- found by word of mouth
- found by sharing the property with agents in the same office,
- found by sharing the property with a larger group of agents over coffee, through email, or through Internet sites.
In all cases, the agent’s aim is to get the entirety of the commission, or at least to have it stay within his own brokerage or other group that provides the agent some advantage. Given everything we know about the dangers of these forms of non-listing for the client:
- minimizing exposure to audiences, both local and on web, who might purchase the property,
- minimizing the number of offers received, and
- property fetching lower sales price,
the agent is clearly privileging his own interests over the client’s. Like referral fees and dual agency, this practice is bad for consumers.
Even the government has taken action
We’ve already seen those “in the know” enact rules requiring MLS listing. In August of 2013, Fannie Mae said that it wouldn’t approve short sales unless the property had had an active MLS listing for at least five straight days including a weekend. I think that’s just the start – the government is aware of the financial harm caused by not giving a listing proper exposure. Take heed.
Some might ask, “Is MLS entry really needed to get top dollar for a listing?” Where it has been studied so far, the answer has been, “Yes!” In one study (at MLSListings), for every $100,000 of home sold, not having an MLS listing cost the sellers an average of $15,000. Do agents really think that once a consumer realizes they may have taken a $150k haircut on that million-dollar home just so the agent can get an extra 2-3% on a transaction, they’re not going to take action?
Financial harm to the consumer isn’t the only issue at hand
Financial harm to the consumer isn’t the whole of the issue either. In a recently published article, attorney Grant Harpold made the following additional points:
- If a consumer makes a claim against the broker, the insurance company carrying the liability insurance may “take the position that intentionally leaving a property off of the MLS is not covered, i.e., no REALTOR® should be that careless.”
- Such listings may actually “deny certain people access to the purchase of property. If only certain buyers are allowed to bid on the property, then the REALTOR® runs the risk of being party to a discriminating act, even if unintentional.”
- A broker or agent may also “be subject to antitrust laws that are in place to promote competition.”
Handling off-MLS listings when clients request them
While the practice may still be legal, Mr. Harpold recommends that agents engaging in the practice explain the risks to the property owner and have them formally sign off on all of the risks – in writing. There may be instances where a sophisticated client – a celebrity or other high-net-worth individual – wants to use an off-MLS listing to protect his/her privacy.
If so, s/he can sign a form explicitly acknowledging the dangers of such a listing. It is worth noting, though, that there are alternatives to off-MLS listing in such a case, such as restricting the listing’s Internet display in the MLS context.
The practice is increasingly popular
In desirable areas with a shortfall in housing inventory, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, this practice is increasingly popular. Fully 29.4% of listings in Contra Costa County, in the Bay Area, were off-MLS in 2012. This provides increasing occasion for bad outcomes and even abuse, all of which will filter back to regulators, trial lawyers, and legislators. Without some tangible incentive for agents to keep listings within the MLS, an unwanted, imposed solution is likely down the road.
If the practice of off-MLS listing continues, we may expect one or more of the following outcomes.
- NAR will step up and require MLS entry as a standard of practice.
- Attorneys will smell blood and start a class action lawsuit against brokerages, leading to the practice’s decline.
- A law will be passed prohibiting the practice.
The real question I’m left pondering is whether this practice will worsen perceptions of the industry before the trend fades away due to market conditions or is stopped by legal means.
This editorial first published in May 2014.