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Big-name realtors plot rival listings site Add to ...

The Canadian Real Estate Association's lock on real estate listings is being challenged from within, as the country's largest brokerages accelerate plans to build an alternative version of the association's Multiple Listing Service.

Canadians looking for homes are used to visiting the industry-funded Realtor.ca to browse listings. But the brokerages feel the site lacks the advanced information features about specific neighbourhoods that are needed to deal with a slew of anticipated rivals, all of whom are investing heavily in technology to lure home buyers - and advertisers - away from the MLS.

The battle matters to realtors because it is about who controls the information buyers have access to when buying a home. To view detailed information about a listing on Realtor.ca, a prospective buyer has to contact an agent. But as more third-party companies offer listings, the brokerages worry that their brands will be diluted and information will become commoditized.

"Many of our companies have iconic brands that have been built over the years," said Don Lawby, president of Century 21. "What will happen is other companies are going to depreciate those brands if we don't find a way to offer something better than we are currently putting out there."

Realtor.ca isn't as technologically advanced as its competitors, lacking information that prospective home buyers like, such as demographic data, school zones and average prices for neighbourhoods.

The brokerages - including Century 21, Royal LePage and ReMax - will meet Tuesday to try and agree to an alternative listings site that would pool their offerings. The meeting comes a day after Yahoo Canada announced it will offer listings on its main search page using database and real-time search technology from Toronto-based Zoocasa.com.

Zoocasa has been criticized by the industry for scraping listings off the MLS, but Zoocasa president Butch Langlois said it is operating within the industry's rules, with each agent voluntarily offering to post their listings in exchange for the advanced features offered on the site.

It's a slick offering that is comparable to services in the United States such as Zillow, which has become a major hub for listings and a major headache for the brokerages that used to control the flow of information. "People have embraced the site but we need to increase awareness that Realtor.ca isn't the only place to go when looking for a home," Mr. Langlois said.

While Zoocasa, backed by Rogers Communications Inc., is the highest profile competitor to take on the MLS to date, there are several private networks under development across the country that want to compete with MLS.

The brokerages intend to build their own site that would run parallel to Realtor.ca and be governed by the same rules, using listings from their offices across the country. They would be able to control what features are offered, and upgrade the technology as they see fit without having to go through CREA, the trade association that represents the country's 100,000 agents.

"We support organized real estate and this has nothing to do with pulling out of what they are doing," Mr. Lawby said. "But the consumer wants to see as much data as they can and we want to make sure they are able to do that effectively."

The brokerages also want to ensure that listings remain accurate. Phil Soper, chief executive officer of Royal LePage, said the quality of listings could deteriorate if too many players get in on the action. As long as the brokers remain in control of their data, he said, they can ensure that changes are made when needed and that information is up to date.

"It comes back to who has the responsibility to oversee the safekeeping of a client's personal information," Mr. Soper said. "There's no guarantee these syndication sites will keep that information safe. If you get into the habit of allowing third parties to post your data, then what is the integrity of your data?"

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