Toronto home buyers could be browsing websites containing enhanced real estate listings within weeks, as the Toronto Real Estate Board scrambles to avoid a prolonged fight with the federal Competition Commissioner by improving access to data for tens of thousands of real estate agents and their customers.
While some of Canada's 101 real estate boards already allow agents to set up password-protected sites for their clients, the largest board in the country does not.
What TREB decides to do next will set a national precedent for the way in which home buyers research the biggest purchase of their lives, because other boards are expected to adopt the same policy once it's instituted.
In a bid to head off a protracted battle with the Competition Bureau, TREB is turning to a 2008 deal struck between the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Association of Realtors that opened the data taps for U.S. real estate brokerages and led to the creation of popular house-hunting websites such as Zillow.com and Redfin.com.
"This is a document that the board has used, consulted and adopted in a significant way with necessary amendments while developing its own policy," said TREB spokesperson Mary Gallagher.
The Toronto board is showing the new policy to stakeholders, and will vote on its implementation June 23.
The U.S. settlement stated that any information an agent could provide in person could be distributed via the Internet, and led to the creation of agent-created websites that give buyers more information about the local market and a home's history than a simple MLS listing.
The Competition Bureau launched a lawsuit against TREB in May, arguing that it prevents brokers from sharing information with their customers via the Internet. It's the latest move in the protracted fight between the bureau and real estate agents, who have come under increasing scrutiny as their commission-based payments have grown along with the price of Canadian homes.
While 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.
In a strategic review last August, led by TREB president Bill Johnston, the board listed the creation of an online system similar to that in the U.S. as one of its priorities for the next 12 months. But Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken said she hasn't seen any signs of progress. Restricting the information agents can put on the Internet stifles competition, she said, and makes agents less productive, ultimately keeping prices higher than they need to be for consumers.
"All I can say is, we met with them several times over the last year and felt it necessary to move ahead this way," Ms. Aitken said.
Mr. Johnston, who has spoken out harshly against the lawsuit and accused Ms. Aitken of "career building" on the back of the real estate industry, said the Toronto board's executive will vote on a slightly modified version of the U.S. settlement, tailored to meet Canada's privacy laws.
The U.S. system allows homeowners to opt out of having their listings appear online, and does not require that listings be made available to the general public. U.S. real estate boards are also allowed to pass on "reasonable costs" to any agent who downloads their data.
While the U.S. settlement led to a proliferation of richly featured websites for the general public to browse, Canadians won't see a Zillow equivalent any time soon. That's because the data being pushed out of the Toronto Real Estate Board, or any other, will be available only to home buyers who have an established relationship with a broker.
"We really do think it's important that there is a relationship established," said Mr. Johnston. "There are privacy concerns and we need to know who is using the system, but creating it has been a priority."