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(John Woods/John Woods/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Real estate agents poised to vote on shakeup of industry Add to ...

Real estate agents are making a last-ditch effort to stave off pressure from the Competition Bureau by voting Monday on an overhaul of the way Canadians buy and sell homes.

Agents could find their job descriptions dramatically rewritten as the Canadian Real Estate Association votes on changes that would allow individuals to handle a greater portion of home sales on their own, while still taking advantage of the organization's powerful listings database.

More than 300 representatives from the country's real estate boards will gather in Ottawa to determine whether individual sellers should be able to pay a flat fee to an agent to post a listing on the organization's proprietary Multiple Listings Service. Sellers could then negotiate the sale without the help of an agent. The proposed change would differ from the traditional method where agents handle the listing and sale process and take a percentage of the transaction as a commission.

The vote is a way for Canada's real estate sales industry to satisfy concerns raised by the Competition Bureau, which has filed charges with the Competition Tribunal alleging the real estate association makes it impossible for any of its members to offer consumers fee-based services for particular portions of a transaction, such as listing on the MLS or negotiating a sale price.

This leads to higher prices for consumers, the Bureau alleges.

The proposed changes are a key pillar in the real estate organization's defence before the Tribunal. The association must submit its response to the charges by March 25 and the organization hopes a strong vote from its members on the key issues troubling the Competition Bureau would be enough to have the charges set aside.

"CREA has been clear with the Competition Bureau that it was prepared to be pro-active and recommend rule changes that we believe address the board's concerns even in the absence of a settlement," the organization stated an internal memo to its members last month.

The MLS has operated for more than 50 years and only registered agents are allowed to list homes on the service. The MLS trademark is owned by CREA, and each real estate board operates the service in their region.

The main change being proposed by CREA would allow an agent to list a property on the MLS, leave the consumer to fend for herself throughout the rest of the process. Currently, if the MLS is used then the agent must be employed throughout the process.

Another change would allow a seller's name and phone number to be contained in the system so buyers can contact them, though they would still need to ask an agent to pass that information along.

While the changes would address many of the Competition Bureau's concerns, the agency may prefer to press ahead with its case because the language of CREA's proposal contains wiggle room, lawyers say, that would allow local real estate boards to retain the power to enforce their own rules.

The bureau also has something to prove. When Commissioner Melanie Aitken was appointed last summer, she promised to improve the bureau's record of challenging organizations accused of anti-competitive conduct. By taking the case against CREA to a tribunal, the bureau will have to convince a specialized body that the association's practices are limiting competition in the home-selling business.

CREA president Dale Ripplinger - who is a full-time agent in Saskatchewan - refused to comment on the meeting or its implications for his almost 100,000 members. The locally elected presidents of each of the country's real estate boards have also been instructed to not speak with the media.

If the members approve the changes, a CREA spokesperson said the changes would be implemented "as soon as it is reasonable at each local board."

Those who work with the public have been spending a great deal of time trying to figure out what the changes would mean to their businesses and their industry.

Nawel Seth, a broker at Coldwell Banker Trail Blazers Realty in Markham, Ont., said he plans to offer a la carte services - flat-fee listing, one-off advice, negotiating help - as soon as he's given the green light.

"I can tell you that most agents I've spoken to across the country are comfortable with any changes that may be coming," he said.

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