While the Competition Bureau fought its losing battle to force the Toronto Real Estate Board to enable more online competition, the industry has been opening up the flow of information, rendering the dispute less relevant, dominant players in the sector argue.
The federal bureau filed its case with the Competition Tribunal in May, 2011, after a lengthy investigation into the industry. The bureau accused the country's largest real estate board, which represents more than 35,000 agents, of anti-competitive practices, alleging that the Toronto Real Estate Board was retaining a stranglehold on certain data about house sales, making it more difficult for new Web-based entrants to compete.
The case was dismissed Monday, but an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal is still possible. While the bureau decides whether to take that route, the industry is pointing out that it is doing more now to stoke online competition than it did when the case was filed. And it is characterizing the dismissal as a win for consumers' privacy, because information about the price a house has previously sold for will remain locked down.
"This whole battle hasn't been about information being out there, it's been about private, confidential information," said Von Palmer, chief government and public affairs officer at the Toronto Real Estate Board. "What we were being asked to do is provide private confidential consumer information, such as what your property has sold for and the seller's name, so I could go online and find out that you sold your property for X dollars."
But the information at the heart of this dispute, data about how much a house has sold for in the past, is key to buyers. If the bureau does not appeal Tuesday's ruling, then a number of new entrants to the field will likely file a complaint to try to force its hand, said one source at an online home-searching site who did not want to be identified.
Members of the industry stress that information about listings is now flowing more freely. Mr. Palmer pointed to the Toronto Real Estate Board's virtual office website policy, which enables realtors to sign a contract and then receive data they can post on their own password-protected website.
Royal LePage Real Estate Services launched a revamped website this week with about 100,000 property listings, roughly double what it had before. The increase came after the Canadian Real Estate Association released a "data distribution facility" that allows agents to advertise their listings on each other's websites.
"Five years ago, the concept of displaying a Century 21 listing on a Royal LePage website would have been completely unacceptable to most members of our company, but they've got their head around it," said Royal LePage CEO Phil Soper. "In the length of time that it has taken to bring down this ruling, the entire playing field has changed."
Still, new players such as Rokham Fard, co-founder of TheRedPin.com, said that if the bureau had won the case, it would have enabled his firm to put data online about previous selling prices for houses. Real estate websites have been forging ahead. Zoocasa, which is owned by Rogers Communications, recently applied to become a licensed real estate brokerage, largely so that it can access the latest housing data.
The new players argue that while the Toronto board is now providing more information, many other real estate boards still do not. They had been hoping the case would set a national precedent. And they point out that, since brokers can opt in or out of the data distribution facility, it's not comprehensive.
In its order, the Competition Tribunal suggested the bureau filed its case under a section of the Competition Act that does not apply, so the tribunal did not deal with the merits of the case.
Still, the Toronto Real Estate Board is declaring victory. "We don't know what the Commissioner of Competition will do, but what we do know is that the bureau took its best shot at what it thought was its best case and lost," Mr. Palmer said.