By Kathy Bevan

 

When CREA introduced its Permissions’ guidelines for Internet Data Exchange (IDX) at the end of March, there were satisfied smiles on the faces of a number of members of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver (REBGV). 

Canada’s second largest board pioneered IDX in Canada three years ago; the London and St. Thomas Real Estate Board launched their IDX last year.  REM senior editor Kathy Bevan talks with two Vancouver veterans about the system their board has been operating since 2001:  MLS Reciprocity.

 

Richard Laurendeau remembers well what inspired him to push for an IDX system in the Vancouver area, only months after taking on management responsibilities at Royal Pacific Realty.  He had just finished another frustrating day trying to figure out how to keep potential customers who were visiting his company’s website from clicking off in other directions through links to larger listing sites.

“As with any other company advertising its own listings on its own site, we had only a percentage of the overall listings available to Vancouver consumers,” says Laurendeau.  “Consumers would drop by our site, and then travel on to larger ones and never come back.  I mean, why go back to a pool with 200 fish when you can visit one with 2,000 fish?  That’s what got me going.”

Laurendeau approached about 30 brokers in the Richmond area to see if they would like to electronically share their listings with each other.  With their agreement and support, he then went to the Vancouver board to propose a local Richmond data sharing service.  In the discussions that followed, the concept expanded into a Vancouver area service, and a task force of brokers was created to gather input from other board members.  Research into one of the first IDX systems in the U.S.Minnesota’s Broker Reciprocity program – gave Vancouver the basic framework it needed; the board’s own RealtyLink website technology provided the means.  In September 2002, MLS Reciprocity became a reality, offered first to brokers and then, three months later, to Realtors through their brokers’ offices.

“This was a natural extension of broker co-operation, the kind of broker co-operation I believe is essential to our business,” says Laurendeau.  “And it showed the board was co-operating with brokers as well – a sign that they had heard some of the issues we had been concerned about and were responding.”

Brokers had complained that the board’s RealtyLink site, as well as mls.ca, were competing with their corporate websites by pulling consumers away to the larger databases.  A real estate company that had spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to create and manage their websites was losing consumer traffic to the much larger RealtyLink and mls.ca sites.  The board was amalgamating all Vancouver area listings on the web; the brokers wanted to have a way to share all those listings with consumers as well, without consumers clicking onto links that would take them away from a broker’s site, never to return.

“The idea behind IDX or reciprocity is that if you get people to your site, they don’t have to leave, because what they’re looking for is on your site,” says Harvey Exner, manager of member services for REBGV.  “If I’m a Realtor, I can go to my clients and say, ‘Just go onto my website – everything’s there.’  And while not all MLS listings are in our reciprocity pool, the majority of them are.  The consumer goes to your website and you now have some loyalty building up, knowing they don’t have to go somewhere else.”

Exner says, “It’s all about marketing, and providing the consumer with the ability to search for properties without having to go to 10 different websites. Yes, they can do this on mls.ca and yes, they can do it on RealtyLink, but that is clearly seen as competition by a lot of the big brokers and franchisors.  So we’ve provided reciprocity and we’re not pushing our own website, RealtyLink, anymore – we say they should go to their Realtor’s website for listings.”

The reciprocity program seems to be working for small as well as large brokers.  “The costs of setting up a website and maintaining it have come down to the point where even the smallest guys can have a website.  Reciprocity then gives them the same number of listings on their site as the biggest of brokers, so that works out really well for them,” says Laurendeau.  “And for the big brokers, even the biggest don’t have all the board’s listings on their corporate sites; with reciprocity, they do.”

When MLS Reciprocity was introduced in 2002, the board used the ‘negative option’ approach:  brokers were part of MLS Reciprocity unless they opted out of the program.  According to the board, very few brokers have opted out, and the board’s MLS Reciprocity ‘pool’ now has approximately 95 per cent of all the MLS listings in the greater Vancouver area, through the 700 brokers who are in the program.

By using the technology the board already had in place for the RealtyLink website it created in 1996, REBGV has managed to keep costs low.  Brokers pay the same minimal monthly fee whether their office holds 150 Realtors or 10; they then sign a licence agreement with the board to be part of the reciprocity program.  Individual Realtors can then opt in by signing a sub-licence agreement with brokers who are part of the program. 

All participants in the reciprocity program have to take the data feed from the Vancouver board. “Some companies are providing the entire data to an IDX third party supplier, and then they are hosting that on their own server,” says Exner.  “Our broker task force agreed with our staff’s recommendation that we shouldn’t do that, because the more we give the data away, the less secure it’s going to be.”

The board’s feed supplies reciprocity brokers and Realtors with listing information within a well-defined border that appears exactly as it does on the board’s own RealtyLink website.  Brokers and Realtors can have their own personal information and links above, below and beside the border that surrounds the listing information, but can’t put any information within the actual listing itself. 

“It’s set up so that when you have reciprocity on your website, you cannot make any sort of impression on the consumer that those are all your own listings,” says Exner.  “You can’t touch anything that’s inside the delineation of the listing information.”

Exner and Laurendeau believe MLS Reciprocity has been a successful initiative for the Vancouver board.  And with the national guidelines CREA brought out in March, both expect to see reciprocity spread across the country.

“How can a board say ‘no’?  How can a board say that we can share data with consumers who walk in our door, or over the phone, or by fax, but not over our website?  How can they draw that line?” says Laurendeau.  “The road has been paved and made very easy for them, with CREA’s national policies now in place.  The template is there; I don’t know what people would have to wrestle with anymore.  The question will be if they have the technology to manage this kind of display program. If not, it could be very expensive.”

In the meantime, Laurendeau is quietly pleased that a project he helped initiate on the west coast has led the way for other boards to follow.  “Four years ago, I would sit in my office thinking, ‘The board will never agree to this – I’ll be retired before the board gets their head around this idea.’  I’m very happy I was wrong!”

 

In an upcoming issue of REM:  the IDX system the London and St. Thomas Real Estate Board introduced for its members last year.