Matt Gurney | Financial Post Sep 26, 2012 12:33 PM ET (please see my comment at the end)
Toronto’s realtors have seen the enemy. And it is them.
The realtors, represented by the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) have been scrapping with the federal Competition Bureau all year. The core issue is the detailed information on homes up for sale that realtors have access to, through the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), an online database of information relating to properties on the market. There are two levels of information contained within MLS. There’s the low-hanging fruit that anyone can access at Realtor.ca, which includes information like the number of bedrooms a house has, the number of bathrooms, its postal code and often some photos and a promotional blurb of the “Great deal! Stunning renovation!” variety.
But there’s also more detailed information, that’s supposed to be used only be real estate agents. It includes the names of the owners of the house that’s for sale, their personal contact information, times they are home (and the house is thus not available for showing) and sometimes information about their mortgage. This kind of info is clearly sensitive, and realtors aren’t supposed share it freely.
The Competition Bureau thinks they should. They feel that anyone out there online, looking to buy a home, should be able to access this kind of information without having to go through a realtor. Cut out the middle man, as it were, and arm yourself with information necessary to perhaps make a direct offer to the seller.
That’s an understandable threat to the realtors’ business model. Having access to privileged information is obviously an advantage for them, and they’d be well within their rights to object on those grounds. We did the legwork, we should reap the benefits — that sort of thing. It might not work against the Competition Bureau, but it would be a defensible, honest argument.
But that’s not the one TREB decided to go with. They declared that putting this information out there online for all to see would constitute a public safety risk.
As reported in the Globe last March, TREB was launching a public-relations campaign to convince people that giving out the more thorough information possessed by realtors — names, phone numbers, detailed pictures of the home — would put people selling their homes at risk of home invasion, assault and robberies. Toronto police seemed bemused by the suggestion, but TREB rolled with it. Keeping the information secure isn’t just about securing our incomes, by golly. It’s about securing your very life!
It was a weird argument. Last March, I spent a whopping 45 seconds looking out the window of my home office at a local home for sale, then maybe another two minutes surfing the web, and was able to come up with virtually all of the personal information that TREB is worried will spell doom for families everywhere. The only thing I couldn’t discover about the family I randomly selected to stalk (for entirely professional reasons, of course) was the sale price of their home when they’d bought it. But that information is also publicly available, just not online. A quick trip to the town record’s office and some loose change for photocopies was all that’s needed to get the last bit of ultra-dangerous, ultra-secure info.
Or, I could just ask a real estate agent or wander into an open house.
This awkward admission came out at the Competition Bureau hearing with TREB, which has finally gotten underway. As was reported in local Toronto media, the chief executive of TREB acknowledged that real estate agents frequently share the more personal information with anyone who asks, even if they’re not yet a client. Maybe the person picks it up off a brochure during an open house. Maybe the realtor shares it in hopes of locking up the customer. Either way, the public is getting easy access to the “dangerous” information TREB was so worried about getting out there … and they’re getting it from TREB agents.
TREB’s case that it was fighting for public safety was always weak. It’s now positively hobbled. If the realtors are so worried about protecting the safety of clients, they should be policing themselves first and worrying about the Internet later. Or, even better, they should stop arguing that this was ever a public-safety issue at all, and stick to the truth: This is about protecting their livelihoods. They might be surprised how understanding people are of an honest declaration of self-interest when the alternative is a exaggerated warning of great danger.
As an investor in both Canada & the US, I have been frustrated with the lack of property info available in Canada and enjoyed the ease at gathering information in the US. As the author stated, all information on a property in Canada can ultimately be gathered, it just takes longer, unless you are dealing directly with the seller.
I see no reason why the buyer can’t have access to any and all information about the property. In the US, even with property information being publicly available, I still believe there are plenty of working realtors, so Canadian realtors should not see this as a threat to their livelihoods.
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To your wealth