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John Woods

Zoocasa, an online service for people searching for a new home, is seeking to become a licensed real estate brokerage as it pushes further into the business.

The young firm, which is owned by Rogers Communications, does not plan to employ any agents of its own, president Carolyn Beatty said in an interview. But it is looking to become a brokerage in every province, starting with Ontario, with the aim of accessing the latest housing data. The company needs to become a licensed broker to get the most up-to-date listings information from local real estate boards.

In addition, being licensed will allow Zoocasa to offer a referral service for real estate agents, connecting them to potential customers.

Access to the data that real estate boards collect by way of the Multiple Listing Service is a contentious issue, and Zoocasa's move to become licensed comes as various startup companies are seeking to access such information.

The Competition Tribunal is still deciding the outcome of a case that the Competition Bureau has brought against the Toronto Real Estate Board, arguing that the board, which represents about 35,000 agents, is unfairly keeping data about home sales away from online services that threaten to compete with real estate agents. For its part the board argues that it is upholding privacy laws that protect the personal information of home buyers and sellers. The outcome of the case is expected to have implications across the country.

Matthew Slutsky, president of real estate marketing firm BuzzBuzzHome, which published a blog Friday about Zoocasa's move to obtain a brokerage license in Ontario, said "it's like a backdoor to get this information."

Ms. Beatty said that Zoocasa, which has long dealt with licensed realtors, is looking for access to listing feeds from the boards, and that the outcome of the Competition Bureau's process will not impact its business model, which the firm is revamping.

Zoocasa is planning a re-launch for mid-May, and the brokerage license is key to its transformation.

"What we've decided is our next evolution of Zoocasa is to go from home-search with smarts to home-and-agent-search with smarts," Ms. Beatty said.

Up until now the website's revenue model has been based on advertising that realtors and financial institutions pay for. Now it wants to earn referral fees for connecting realtors to customers. "In order to do a referral business, you actually do need to be licensed," Ms. Beatty said.

"We're not planning on having any agents of our own," she added. But the company will pre-screen agents and decide on a select group from across the country, who work for existing real estate agencies, to feature on its site. Those agents will have a profile and be able to market themselves by talking about their track record, or languages they speak, or their local knowledge.

Ms. Beatty said the firm's research suggested that consumers were able to do a lot of searching online but then didn't know where to turn when they wanted to hire an agent. And real estate agents were less interested in purchasing online ads than in finding actual business leads.

The move is part of a broader trend as websites seek new revenue models besides basic banner ads.

"The agent brings a lot to the table and we're not changing the full-service nature of that, we're just helping create that connection," Ms. Beatty said.

"At the end of the day the value an agent brings is not," she said. "The opportunity for the agent is to be able to communicate and demonstrate their value outside of that, outside of the porection."

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