Brokerage Control Over Listings: One Small Data Sample

Command and Control...
Command and Control…

At the Midyear meetings, I got into some conversations with fellow attendees about the whole MLS public website debate. Obviously. Again. Still. It was a lot of fun, and interesting thoughts were shared. But given that I have written that agent teams are the biggest threats to brokerages, I kinda got curious about something.

Just how much control do brokerages actually have over their listings?

Legally speaking, it cannot be argued that the broker owns the copyright to all of the listings. The MLS owns the compilation copyright, and may acquire a license from the member broker to use the listing data, but the broker owns the data. Period. They can do whatever they want with those listings — syndicate them, not syndicate them, put them on the Web, put them on billboards, whatever strikes their fancy.

But practically speaking, since the listing agent is the person who acquires the listing, and there’s plenty of competitive pressure between and amongst brokerage companies, I got to wondering just how much control a broker actually has in practice over their listings.

Ye Olde Boring Project

So since I got back from Midyear, I hired some kid off of Craigslist to do a boring-ass project for me. The project? Go count the number of listings of Edina Realty on Trulia and Zillow on a given day. I then had a friend of mine who works at an IDX company (name withheld to protect the innocent) give me a count of all Edina listings that appear in the IDX feed on that same day.

The results:

  • IDX: 3,907 listings for Edina Realty, Inc.
  • Trulia: 1,938 listings
  • Zillow: 989 listings

It goes without saying that this is hardly scientific. I trust my Craigslist associate to have done an adequate job, since I’m not all that inclined to sit there and manually count listing after listing. There may be all sorts of things he was missing, and it’s possible his eyes glazed over after viewing a couple thousand listings just to see who the listing broker was. If someone wants to finance a more complete study, let me know.

If you’d like to say that the “study” (it was hardly that) is deeply flawed, totally unreliable, etc., hey, I’m with you. If you have actual data that is more reliable that you’d like to provide, I’m all ears.

With All The Appropriate Caveats and Disclaimers In Place…

Nonetheless, if we acknowledge that even though manually counting stuff isn’t the most scientific, there’s some kernel of truth in the above, a couple of big picture things emerge.

I chose Edina Realty because it has been a leader in the anti-syndication fight. It is the largest brokerage yet that has publicly stated that it will not send listings to Trulia or Zillow. But its policy has a rather significant loophole. An agent may individually and directly submit listings to either company. We knew from the start that when Edina pulled out of, there was an exception for Edina agents who were paying to upgrade their listings:

It also now means Edina Realty agents who want their listings on can only do this via paid advertising and not through our free basic listing products.

So the loophole appears to be that while Edina Realty, as a company, will not send listings to Trulia or Zillow or, an Edina agent is fully authorized to submit his own listings to either or both companies. And at least for Trulia and Zillow, it appears an agent can do this for free.

Here’s an example from Zillow, of Andy Baer, an Edina Realty agent. From the lack of the “PREMIER AGENT” tag on his profile, I gather than he’s not a paying subscriber. But nonetheless, here are six of his listings.

On Trulia, we find Adam Duckwall, an Edina agent, who doesn’t have the PRO tag on his profile (i.e., not a paying subscriber) and there are two of his listings right there on the profile.

Given the numbers above, it appears that at least some Edina Realty agents are in fact syndication listings directly to Trulia and Zillow. About half of Edina’s listings are on Trulia, and a quarter are on Zillow. (One wonders why there is so much variance between the two portals.) That’s a lot of listings. That’s a bunch of effort by some number of listing agents to go direct to those portals.

Keep in mind that the brokerage, Edina Realty, owns the copyright to these listings. These listing agents are violating Edina’s copyright if they’re posting the listings to Trulia and Zillow without consent. Legally speaking, Edina can demand that these agents remove those listings from Trulia and Zillow immediately. If they do not comply, Edina can sue them for breach of copyright. Edina can take disciplinary action against these agents, including terminating the subcontractor relationship. No one doubts that Edina has the power and the ability to any or all of these things.

Practically speaking, however, that’s a pipe dream.

These are listing agents we’re talking about here. Maybe some of them are your onesie-twosie agents who get the listing from their sisters and cousins. But most listing agents are your top producers, who have been in the business the longest, have the strongest networks, and do the most deals. They’re the ones who get recruited the most heavily by every brokerage in town, and should no one recruit them, they likely have the qualifications to open a boutique brokerage themselves.

Could a brokerage fire an agent for syndicating a listing? Yes, of course. Would a brokerage fire an agent — especially a productive listing agent — over that? I just don’t see it. If you’ve heard of such a firing, please let me know.

At Midyear, I spoke with an Edina Realty agent from Minneapolis who told me that he sends about half his listings to Zillow. Which half? The ones he knows won’t sell immediately whether because of the property itself or because of the price. The ones he knows will go like hotcakes with multiple offers, he doesn’t bother to syndicate those, because he’ll get offers on them within a few days. But the others? He sends them to Zillow. And to Trulia. And anywhere else he feels like sending them. The thought that he cannot do this has never occurred to him, even though he knows about his company pulling out of syndication.

Let us end with a question, that is mostly rhetorical.

If brokerages either cannot or will not enforce their data policies against the listing agents themselves, just how much control do they actually have over listing data?

Followup question, not so rhetorical: If a brokerage does enforce its data policies against its own listing agents, how can it keep those listing agents from jumping ship to a competitor who will not?

Your thoughts and answers, as always, are welcome. But if you want to dismiss the “data” as too small, too unreliable, etc., yeah — save yer breath. I already know that. If you have better data, and wish to make it available, wooha! Post away or email me. 🙂


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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