In a bid to satisfy the Competition Commissioner, the Toronto Real Estate Board has unveiled a new website policy for agents that would give them the power to create personalized listing sites so customers can browse for new homes from their living rooms.
While some of Canada's 101 real estate boards already allow agents to set up password-protected sites for their customers, the country's largest board does not.
What happens next could set a national precedent for the way home buyers research the biggest purchase of their lives, because other boards are expected to adopt the same policy once it's instituted.
The Competition Bureau launched a lawsuit against TREB in May, saying it prevents brokers from sharing information online with their customers. It was the latest move in the protracted fight between the bureau and real estate agents, who have come under increasing scrutiny as commission-based payments have grown along with the price of Canadian homes.
The Competition Bureau appears less than thrilled by TREB's overture, however, saying it would still prefer the real estate association to enter a legally binding consent agreement guaranteeing the sites can operate.
"We continue to believe that a legally binding consent agreement, or Competition Tribunal decision, is necessary to achieve a lasting permanent solution that will prevent TREB from denying consumer choice and the ability of real estate agents to introduce innovative real estate brokerage services though the Internet," said bureau spokesman Greg Scott.
The Toronto board allows real estate agents to provide information - such as the number of days a house has been on the market and previous selling prices - by hand, telephone or e-mail, they are not allowed to create websites where customers can look up the information on their own.
The new policy - which TREB members have 60 days to comment on - would allow the sites to exist as long as they meet certain requirements. The sites must be password protected; they must be available only to clients; TREB would be able to monitor activity; sellers could opt out of having their home appear on the site; and the seller's name and contact information must never appear in the listings.
That last rule would keep "for sale by owner" listings off the sites, which could be a concern for the Competition Bureau. The last time the bureau locked horns with the industry, the result was that flat-fee listing companies were able to post ads to the Multiple Listing System on behalf of people selling their own homes. Anything that keeps those listings away from prospective buyers isn't likely to be acceptable to Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken.
TREB said it has been working on the proposed new policy since last August. However, the Competition Bureau says TREB hasn't been willing to go far enough to satisfy the bureau's concerns. Both sides met several times before the bureau's complaint was filed.
Incoming TREB president Richard Silver said the policy confirms the board's "strong belief in open competition and in its members competitive spirit, quite independent of the Competition Commissioner's claims and approach."
The bureau said it would rather settle the complaint before an appearance at the Competition Tribunal, which can issue fines and binding rulings.
TREB's new policy is based on one adopted by the U.S. National Association of Realtors to satisfy the U.S. Department of Justice several years ago.