When the federal Competition Bureau won a seven-year legal battle with the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) last summer over housing data, the ruling was billed as the dawn of a new era of innovation and choice for consumers.
For years, TREB had claimed that for privacy reasons its rules had to restrict realtors from posting certain categories of data on what it calls virtual office websites. The federal watchdog argued that providing the public with more information would mean better informed consumers and would promote competition.
On August 23, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear TREB’s final appeal, an order from the federal Competition Tribunal came into effect, and within months TREB was no longer able to block its members from posting data, such as the selling price of a home.
A year after the ruling, a shift is under way. But it hasn’t been the revolution some had predicted.
In many markets, a lack of available data is making it difficult for consumers to determine a home’s selling price. In larger markets where more data exist, information is often guarded behind a password, or pricing data are weeks or months old. Still, changes are afoot.
“From our perspective, this is a clear victory for consumers,” said Anthony Durocher, deputy commissioner of the Competition Bureau, noting that one of the ruling’s effects was the arrival of international real estate companies such as Redfin Corp. “These are [companies] who publicly stated competition action and law in general is motivating them to enter the Canadian marketplace. It’s vindicating to see the impact competition law can have.”
Lauren Haw, chief executive of Toronto-based online real estate brokerage Zoocasa, said her business saw benefits as soon as the data were online.
“Growth has been amazing, more than double over last year – everything from agents, clients, sales, all of it is up,” Ms. Haw said. Traffic spiked in the early days, but customer interest has stayed above the levels she saw before the data were liberalized. “We saw an increase 50 fold the day of, everyone did a looky-loo, but year over year the actual conversion of account creation per user is up 10-fold.”
“Conversions” are key, because in order to see sold data on a website such as Zoocasa under TREB’s rules, a potential client needs to create a login that is password protected.
Outside of TREB’s region, it gets harder to find data. Zoocasa doesn’t have anything close to national coverage with its sold-price data. The largest and most popular listings site is Realtor.ca, maintained by the Canadian Real Estate Association in co-operation with its many member boards, but until recently it didn’t have any sold data either.
That began changing in March and May of this year, when Nova Scotia and New Brunswick boards came together to allow some historical sold price data to appear on Realtor.ca, without a password.
“When we made this decision at the national level it was for boards to opt in, we just wanted them to have the platform available,” said Jason Stephen, the current president of CREA. Mr. Stephen said it’s not his role to try to convince any other region they should follow suit, ditch the passwords and put their data on Realtor.ca, but he does say, as a realtor who happens to be from New Brunswick: “It went live in NB and the real estate sky didn’t fall.”
Across the country there are other examples of sites where the data can be found, but in many cases local rules still put a damper on making it accessible to consumers.
Adam Major, managing broker of Holywell properties in Vancouver, is the co-founder of site called Zealty.ca that publishes sold data for the Vancouver area, one of the first to do so in the region after the TREB ruling.
“REBGV [the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver] has been fairly decent. They said we might be in violation of their rules and we responded that their rules were no longer up to date, and they never pushed back. We could have gotten our hand slapped worse than we did,” Mr. Major said. He said he would like to expand to the rest of British Columbia, but finds himself stalled.
“We have lots of people inquiring about Okanogan and Victoria,” he said. “One challenge [is] you have to be a member of that board … there’s 11 or 14 boards in B.C., and each one is its own little fiefdom.”
Even though the specifics of the TREB order only applied to that board, the spirit of the decision – more data for more consumers – is something the Competition Bureau still intends to see applied nationally.
“We’ve had a lot of encouraging conversations with other boards across Canada. Generally speaking, we’re pleased with how boards and their members have reacted to the decision,” Mr. Durocher said. “But we remain vigilant.”
And some inside the industry also take the longer view that eventually all these data restrictions will fall.
“If the consumer wants something and the only reason you’re not providing it is you think you can benefit somehow by keeping it for yourself, in the end you lose,” Royal LePage CEO Phil Soper said.
He’s of the view that the TREB decision didn’t change the industry in a big way, in part because the role of the real estate agent has already transformed dramatically from the days of clients having to come into an office to see physical books of listings.
“Today’s consumers were raised on search, they are search experts. Finding them a home is not – in its purest sense – what we get paid for,” Mr. Soper said. “We get paid for being a complex project manager and adviser for helping them when things go wrong, which they often do.”
TREB’s CEO John DiMichele has said from the beginning that the Bureau’s case had been “misconceived” and was “based on old facts and an earlier time.” He also said the order has created confusion in its interpretation of the value of TREB’s Multiple Listing Service database.
“What we do see is that some information, such as photos, that would normally have been included in a listing but are not mandatory are either not being provided or being deleted, at the direction of the consumer, and therefore diluting the MLS,” Mr. DiMichele said. “In this way, the Order is hurting innovation. … Also, if the dilution of the MLS system continues through decreased or loss of information it will hurt consumers the most as transparency and valuable information is critical in order to make informed decisions.”
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