What is MLS®?
A multiple listing service (MLS, also multiple listing system or multiple listings service) is a suite of services that enables real estate brokers to establish contractual offers of compensation (among brokers), facilitates cooperation with other broker participants, accumulates and disseminates information to enable appraisals, and is a facility for the orderly correlation and dissemination of listing information to better serve broker's clients, customers and the public. A multiple listing service's database and software is used by real estate brokers in real estate (or aircraft broker in other industries for example), representing sellers under a listing contract to widely share information about properties with other brokers who may represent potential buyers or wish to cooperate with a seller's broker in finding a buyer for the property or asset. The listing data stored in a multiple listing service's database is the proprietary information of the broker who has obtained a listing agreement with a property's seller.
According to the U.S. National Association of Realtors:
In the late 1800s, real estate brokers regularly gathered at the offices of their local associations to share information about properties they were trying to sell. They agreed to compensate other brokers who helped sell those properties, and the first MLS was born, based on a fundamental principle that's unique to organized real estate: Help me sell my inventory and I'll help you sell yours.
There is no single authoritative MLS, and no universal data format. However, in real estate there is a data standard—the Real Estate Transaction Standard—which is being deployed among many[who?] MLSes in North America. The many local and private databases, using XML data feeds to input and output agents listings—some of which are controlled by single associations of realtors or groupings of associations (which represent all brokers within a given community or area) or by real estate brokers—are collectively referred to as the MLS because of their data sharing or reciprocal access agreements.
Purpose and benefits
The primary purpose of an MLS is to provide a facility to publish a "unilateral offer of compensation" by a listing broker, to other broker participants in that MLS. In other words, the commission rate that is offered by the listing broker is published within the MLS to other cooperating brokers. This offer of compensation is considered a contractual obligation, however it can be negotiated between the listing broker and the broker representing the buyer. Since the commission for a transaction as well as the property features are contained in the MLS system, it is in the best interests of the broker participants (and thereby the public) to maintain accurate and timely data.
The additional benefit of MLS systems is that an MLS subscriber may search an MLS and retrieve information about all homes for sale by all participating brokers. MLS systems contain hundreds of fields of information about the features of a property. These fields are determined by real estate professionals who are knowledgeable and experienced in that local marketplace, whereas public real estate websites contain only a small subset of property data.
Limitations on access and other criticisms
Most MLS systems restrict membership and access to real estate brokers (and their agents) who are appropriately licensed by the state (or province), are members of a local board or association of realtors, and are members of the applicable national trade association (e.g., NAR or CREA). Access is becoming more open as Internet sites offer the public the ability to view portions of MLS listings. There still remains some limitation to access to information within MLSes; generally, only agents who are compensated proportional to the value of the sale have uninhibited access to the MLS database. Many public Web forums have a limited ability in terms of reviewing comparable properties, past sales prices or monthly supply statistics. This represents the cornerstone of several ongoing arguments about the current health of the real-estate market, which are centered on free and open information being necessary for both the buying and selling parties to ensure fair prices are negotiated during closing, ultimately allowing a stable and less volatile market.
A person selling his/her own property - acting as a For sale by owner (or FSBO) seller - cannot generally put a listing for the home directly into an MLS. An example of an exception to this general practice is the national MLS for Spain, AMLASpain, where FSBO listing are allowed. Similarly, a licensed broker who chooses to neither join the trade association nor operate a business within the association's rules, cannot join most MLSes. However, there are brokers and many online services which offer FSBO sellers the option of listing their property in their local MLS database by paying a flat fee or another non-traditional compensation method.
In Canada, CREA has come under scrutiny and investigation by the Competition Bureau and litigation by former CREA member and real estate brokerage Realtysellers (Ontario) Ltd., for the organization's control over the Canadian MLS system. In 2001, Realtysellers (Ontario) Ltd., a discount real-estate firm was launched that reduced the role of agents and the commissions they collect from home buyers and sellers. The brokerage later shut down and launched a $100 million lawsuit against CREA and TREB, alleging that they breached an earlier out-of-court settlement that the parties entered into in 2003.