Realtors across the country are closely watching what is expected to be a precedent-setting ruling by the federal Competition Tribunal that could strike a blow to the industry's tight control over resale housing data.
In its ruling, issued Wednesday, the tribunal sided with the Competition Bureau, which had argued that the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) was stifling competition in the industry by restricting brokers' access to bulk electronic data about the housing market.
The real estate board had argued that allowing easy access to such data, known as the Multiple Listings Service (MLS), would violate the privacy of clients. The tribunal has yet to issue a full public ruling and is holding a new round of hearings to decide what changes it may order TREB to make to comply with competition laws.
However, industry players expect the ruling to help open up the real estate sector to technological innovation by allowing online brokers to offer much more information and analysis about the market to buyers and sellers.
At the heart of the Competition Bureau's case was a battle over whether TREB should add extra MLS data – particularly a home's selling price and details of agent commissions – to the electronic data feed it currently provides its members.
The ruling applies only to TREB's roughly 40,000 realtors in the Greater Toronto Area.
But the close to 100 other local real estate associations across Canada are likely to follow any changes forced upon the country's largest real estate board by a federal ruling.
"This will be the trigger point which will result in the orderly transition to a more open market right across the country," said Phil Soper, chief executive officer of Royal LePage.
With the exception of Nova Scotia, where the real estate industry has taken a more relaxed stance on how realtors share data, most other boards in Canada have followed TREB's restrictions to varying degrees and often relied on TREB's argument over privacy concerns to resist making changes, said Walter Melanson, director of partnership at PropertyGuys.com "TREB is the most important real estate board in the country," he said. "So that's why the battle is there and why it's so important to every single board across the country."
In Saskatchewan, where local boards have also restricted bulk electronic access to their MLS data, the industry is watching to see if the decision will force it to change its policies.
"Anyone that does have an MLS system could be affected by it," said Bill Madder, CEO of the Association of Saskatchewan Realtors. We're watching it and, obviously, if it's been deemed to be a legal requirement, we'll make the changes."
Other major boards outside of Toronto are following the events closely, but saying little. Calgary's Real Estate Board declined to comment, saying it is still waiting for a final ruling. The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver did not follow up on a request for more details about its own MLS data policies.
The local board has maintained similarly tight controls over home sales data in the Vancouver area, says Mayur Arora of Surrey, B.C.-based low-fee real estate brokerage OneFlatFee. Recently, the board sent a bulletin requiring all its members to change their passwords after reports that a realtor had shared login information with the media, he said.
He hopes the ruling will lead to sweeping changes across the country. "The more they open up, the better it is for the public," Mr. Arora said.
As the head of Canada's largest residential real estate firm, Mr. Soper also supports the tribunal's rulings, which he said would help improve the services that realtors already offer and do little to drive down commissions. Clients already spend an average of 16 weeks researching real estate online before contacting an agent, he said. Many are looking for much more from a realtor today than just access to listings or home sales data.
"They're paying for negotiating services, the efficacy of a large value transaction where mistakes are expensive," Mr. Soper said. "They're not paying our realtors to do home searches for them any more like they used to back in the day."