Why A National MLS Is Quite Unlikely: The Road Trip Edition

Tennessee is gorgeous...
Tennessee is gorgeous…

Blogging has been very light as I’ve been at the wheels of a large Penske truck driving across half the United States. The reason: my mother is retiring and moving overseas, and there is a piano that I could not allow to be sold or taken out of the country. Tons of sentimental value to that 25 year old piano. A lot of hours of my misspent youth represented in it. I hope to inflict my two boys with the same misspent youth learning Bach and Schubert.

So I flew up to New York, loaded up the piano (along with some other stuff), and drove down to Houston. When you have four days of staring at highways and taillights of large 18-wheeler trucks, you have a lot of time for thinking and reflection.

Lessons Learned

One of the things that I realized driving across this great beautiful enormous country of ours is that Tennessee is absolutely gorgeous. If my personality didn’t fit Texas so well, I’d seriously consider moving to the Knoxville area.

I also learned that most of Mississippi is covered with trees. And that living between New York and Philadelphia is some sort of punishment from the traffic gods. (I crossed the Verrazano Bridge on a Friday afternoon. It was about 3pm when I started. It was close to 4pm when I got on the other side. Almost an hour to go 4,260 feet. And when I got to the other side, I was greeted with a toll in the amount of $30 — yeah, that’s THIRTY US Dollars — for the privilege. Like I said, this is some sort of manifestation of the wrath of traffic gods.)

Another thing I realized, however, is that a national MLS — something brought up quite often in the REThink Future results at Midyear — is basically impossible.

There are some things about America you can learn only when driving (or walking? biking? horseback riding?) across it. It probably says something about my mental state of being that MLS issues are one of those things….

In any event….

Three Reasons Why National MLS Is Quite Unlikely

First, this is a big country. A BIG country. I know that we all know that intellectually, but just like there’s a difference between knowing that China has 1.5 billion people and standing on a street corner in Shanghai on a Wednesday afternoon to see and feel the wave of humanity coming towards you, there’s a difference between knowing how big America is and driving across just half of it over four days. Plus, what you realize when driving across America is that most of it is empty.

Second, as a result, there is far too much variation between urban/suburban areas and rural/exurban areas. Driving from say Fairfax, VA to Woodstock, VA — a distance of only 80 miles, or an hour-and-a-half of driving — is quite like going from one country to another wholly different country. In fact, I imagine there’s less difference driving from one side of the Canadian border to the other. In Fairfax, you see huge office and shopping complexes, and subdivisions, and apartment complexes, and an hour later, you are driving across miles upon miles of undeveloped forest land or wide open spaces of the American farm.

Third, there really are enormous regional differences between the people. We’re all Americans, sure, but somehow, there’s a real difference psychologically and culturally between the Dunkin Donuts guy in Staten Island and the Iron Skillet ladies somewhere in Alabama. What would pass for friendliness in one would be considered downright rude in the other. The aesthetics are different. The lifestyle is different. Even the language is different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The diversity really adds to the fabric of the whole, but it also makes the idea of a one-size-fits-all MLS really seem fanciful.

What Could Work

The above, however, is based on my insistence that the MLS is not technology at all. If you think of the MLS as a database of properties, then no, we can certainly have a single repository of all of the property data in the US. In the age of Cloud Computing, that’s trivial.

But I don’t think of the MLS as a technology provider at all. I think of the MLS as civil organizations: it makes and enforces rules. The MLS is not analogous to Amazon.com (or Trulia/Zillow/Realtor.com closer to home); it is more analogous to municipal government. From that standpoint, just as the City Council of Philadelphia could in no way shape or form make rules for Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, and the sheriff of a rural Virginia county couldn’t really manage law enforcement in Camden, NJ, we’d need to look at each local MLS on a case by case basis.

I say this as one of the biggest proponents of MLS consolidation out there. Even so, this roadtrip enforced on me the necessity of drawing the proper lines, of the limits on uniformity and size in a country as large, as empty, and as diverse as ours.

So what could work in terms of consolidation?

Technology consolidation is a no-brainer and relatively easy to accomplish. Data is data wherever it is stored.

Regional consolidation, I think, can work extremely well but I suspect that the division between the urban and rural markets would become an issue. I think organizing a MLS consolidation effort should probably consider the real differences between the urban/suburban markets and the outer exurban/rural markets. It seems to me that the two need separate rules and adjudication methodologies.

In fact, I actually now believe that the urban vs. rural distinction is more important than geography. I believe that culturally, business-wise, and basic needs of say Philadelphia and New Orleans are likely to be far more similar than the needs of Philadelphia and Coatesville, PA.

Culturally, there are enough differences between large parts of the country (shall we say, divided along college football divisions? SEC vs. ACC vs. Pac-10 vs. Big 10, etc.?) that even with maximum consolidation, there will likely be some large regional centers of rulemaking, decisionmaking, and enforcement.

The point, after all, is to help fierce competitors who wake up every morning thinking of how to bankrupt the others somehow get along for cooperation and compensation. To think that we could have one-size-fits-all, or even several-sizes-fit-everybody, is likely an exercise in wishful thinking.

In any event… if you have never done a real roadtrip (and if you live in the Northeast, there’s a very good chance you’ve never actually done a real roadtrip since driving 4 hours takes you through three states) I highly recommend it. Not just as a real estate person, but as an American. There are things difficult to put into words, but they are real as the hills and the trees whizzing by you at 60MPH.

Next up… someday, I’ll do the drive across the Southwest. That should be eye-opening as well.


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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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