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John Woods/john woods The Globe and Mail

Anyone looking to buy a house in Canada this spring can now use a BlackBerry to search the Canadian Real Estate Association's popular listings service – and to connect directly to a real estate agent anxious to close the sale.

The trade association, which represents the country's 100,000 agents and maintains the Multiple Listing Service, said Tuesday that the BlackBerry application allows users to take advantage of the smartphone's ability to determine a user's geographic location. It's another way in which the association is trying to differentiate itself from a host of for-sale-by-owner companies that have aggressively entered the market this spring.

Using the built-in GPS, the app can point users to nearby homes that are for sale, show new listings in a neighbourhood and direct users to nearby open houses. An iPhone version of the app was rolled out earlier this year, and has been downloaded 117,608 times.

Story continues below advertisement

The app comes a few weeks after the association launched its annual spring ad campaign, which was geared toward consumers who may be considering selling their homes. In it, "The Old Lady Who Lives In A Shoe" explains how a licenced real estate agent helped her find the perfect home for her and all of her children.

The ads and the apps come as the industry enters its critical spring market, a time when the majority of homes in Canada are usually bought and sold. This spring, however, the country's professional agents face new threats because of a deal with the federal Competition Bureau that has made it easier for homeowners to conduct their own sales.

Previously, sellers needed to hire an agent to handle the whole sale process if they wanted a listing on the Multiple Listing Service, which is owned by CREA and is the main source of home sales in Canada.

After the October settlement with the bureau, a seller can now have her house listed by an agent for a fee and then handle the rest of the sale herself. For-sale-by-owner companies have sprung up to offer assistance to home sellers who want to save money on fees.

Sellers paid billions of dollars in commissions to agents last year. There were 447,010 sales on the MLS system in 2010, at an average price of $339,030. Commission rates tend to hover around 5 per cent, which implies nearly $9-billion in real estate commissions paid last year, though each agent is able to charge whatever she can command, and many consumers try to negotiate a lower rate.

The most recent sales data from CREA was released on April 15, with home prices up 8.9 per cent from a year ago. However, most of that growth came from the hot Vancouver market. Without Vancouver, prices gained 4.3 per cent.

Inventory could be a problem through the spring. Seasonally adjusted unsold inventory on the market stood at 5.6 months at the end of March on a national basis. That was unchanged from the previous month. About half of all local markets saw inventory shrink compared with the previous month.

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