Anyone who has purchased a home over the last couple years has probably experienced the phenomenon of knowing more than their real estate agent about the available homes in a particular area. Apps and online services from Zillow, Redfin and others have empowered homebuyers with all sorts of information that was previously the exclusive domain of agents and brokers.

This week the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, owned by the region’s real estate firms, jumped into the game with its first apps for iPad, iPhone, and Android. A BlackBerry version is on the way. Features include the ability to find homes using GPS, access MLS-listed properties, retrieve up to 12 months of historical data, and find open houses and broker-only previews.

A virtual reality feature called “Homespotter” is similar to the Yelp feature that shows information about restaurants and other destinations overlaid on the camera, except for houses.

However, the new NWMLS apps can only be used by NWMLS members — real estate agents and brokers, for an optional subscription on top of their existing membership to the group. (Access to the apps costs $3.50/month, we hear.)

The NWMLS says the apps resulted from feedback from its members. Features include integration with their NWMLS accounts, access to contact information, and other data about clients they’ve previously saved in the system.

It’s easy to see why real estate agents would want this app, and why the NWMLS would make it a members-only feature. It’s a big step up from the current web-based NWMLS system that agents and brokers have to deal with.

But in a world where information is becoming more available, not less, the exclusive nature of this feels like it’s swimming against the tide — embracing a world where the agent is focused on being a gatekeeper for information, rather than adding value in other ways.

Here’s an easy solution: Offer a public version with all of the home-finding and informational features, and an advanced version for members that provides NWMLS account access.

We’ve asked an NWMLS representative why they’re not doing that, and we’ll update this post depending on what we hear back.

Update: Here’s a statement from an NWMLS representative …

Northwest MLS provides services to its member brokers, who in turn serve consumers.  This app was developed in response to members who wanted an app that was comparable and compatible to what many brokerages already have on their own sites, plus the ability to access information on Matrix that is proprietary or intended to protect the privacy of sellers.  Examples include (1) a member’s database of contacts and (2) some “non-public” listing details, including showing information and broker-only remarks  (e.g., home is vacant, occupant works swing shift and sleeps during day, unpublished phone # to call before showing, etc.)

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  • Guest

    As a homebuyer, I expect to have access to all the information about listings. I’ve asked the MLS for access to this app even though I am not a real estate agent.

  • Kevin Lisota

    There is info in the app that
    does not belong in the hands of consumers. Namely showing instructions and
    stuff on how to get in to the house. There is no scenario where that belongs in
    the public domain. It is also one of the primary features that agents need in
    the field. (This is why I’ll use this app. Client wants to see a random house
    that we find. There is a gigantic fine if you don’t follow showing instructions
    and there is a system to police infractions.)


    Also, realize that agents do NOT use consumer sites in their day to day work. They use the
    direct access to the MLS database. It still provides more search capabilities
    and historical data than anything else out there.


    Could they bake a consumer
    version? Yes, but they won’t. The NWMLS is operated by member brokers. It is
    not a for-profit entity unlike some other MLS systems. As such, they have a
    long-standing policy that the MLS will not compete with member websites
    and apps. This is exactly the reason why their consumer search site is horrid
    and unused. The theory here is that the MLS has no business competing for
    eyeballs with their member’s sites, since they only exist because of those member’s willingness to join.


    I could make an argument for the
    MLS to do a kick-ass site and pretty much level the playing field with all
    agents, rendering investments in search websites somewhat useless. This is the
    case in Houston, but that is outside of the norm in the business and not likely to happen here given some of the huge investments that member brokers make in search websites.

  • Forrest

    The biggest issue is likely that the NWMLS infrastructure can’t support more users. It’s fragile as it is. I spoke with them about trying to build some better web services and at first they gave the “only brokers and their agents spiel” but eventually said that even if they did, they can’t handle that amount of traffic.

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