By Riki Markowitz

Across the country, one of the biggest trends for real estate associations right now is merging multiple listing services (MLS) with nearby real estate associations. At the end of last year, nine associations merged in several Mid-Atlantic states, creating a colossally-large marketplace in a region that includes New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the north and Virginia and Washington, D.C. to the south.  Called Bright MLS, it is one of the biggest listing databases in the country. In was inevitable that Central Texas real estate associations will consolidate MLSs here, too. And while one has already launched, another partnership is still in the negotiation stage. Paul Hilgers, Austin Board of REALTORS CEO, says “The industry is being driven in this direction.” It’s been called “the era of consolidation.”

In August 2015, WCREALTORS announced combining MLSs with Temple-Belton Board of REALTORS. Now, with the Central Texas MLS (CTXMLS), brokers and agents north of Travis County are finally able to expand their reach and provide a larger database. The association’s part of this partnership include    Four Rivers and Victoria Area Association, REALTORS.

Early this year ABoR announced that they have been in talks with San Antonio Board of REALTORS (SABoR) to consolidate two of the largest MLSs in Central Texas. Hilgers says that  the conversation is going extremely well.

The precedent for merging large MLSs began in 2010 when the California Region with an agreement to talk about consolidating, then more associations are invited to join in the conversation. Some stay at the table, others walk. Phillips explains, “When you join four or five groups, they don’t all agree on how the new system should look.” There are a lot small details to work out, too. For example, “Not everybody agrees what a pond is or what active status means,” says Phillips. 

Pros

The obvious advantage to combining MLSs is access to a much larger marketplace. But that’s hardly the only benefit. Before the era of MLS consolidation, REALTORS who wanted access to two or more regions had to subscribe separately to each, which could cost anywhere from $300 to $500 per subscription. Hilgers agrees that merging MLSs is beneficial for everyone, but for agents just starting their career, they will have access to more listings without having to pay multiple subscription fees. 

Other beneficiaries are the smaller associations that can’t afford their own MLS. A consolidated system means costs are spread around.

Cons

There just aren’t that many negatives, say Hilgers and Suzanne Gantner, 2017 president of WCREALTORS. Anyone who thinks merging MLSs is bad for their career because it adds unwanted competition may not be thinking it through. Real estate professionals have always had the option to join more than one listing service. 

If there is a legitimate downside, it’s that a new, larger MLS means that subscribers will have to learn how to use the consolidated system, which can take a few training sessions. 

The concern that Hilgers and Gantner hear most often is that dues may go up. Hilgers points out that member dues haven’t been raised since 1974 and ABoR is not planning to increase them any time soon. But it is interesting to note that when adjusted for inflation, in the 70s, agents paid about five times as much in dues, and had access to fewer listings in a city with a population of 300,000. Today, Austin is home to more than 2 million people and an additional 100 people are moving here daily.

Timeline

Agents can use Central Texas Regional MLS (CTSMLS) right now. It is a partnership with 12 counties, including those that are part of associations in Williamson County, Four Rivers, Temple-Belton, and Victoria. As a result, Gantner says her listings are getting more exposure than ever and she’s also saving money on membership fees for multiple MLSs. “But ultimately, it’s a better way for me to take care of my clients,” she says. 

Currently two of the largest MLSs in Central Texas are talking about consolidating, ABoR and San Antonio Board of REALTORS (SABoR). A task force of board members representing both associations is considering how to structure the deal. The next phase is discussing the financial feasibility of different models. According to Hilgers, “We have an agreement to continue moving forward. We want to be deliberate in thinking through a variety of issues and communicate with our members about any concerns they may have.” It’ll be another 12 to 18 months before any deal comes to a vote.

Hilgers reports that as soon as an announcement was made that ABoR is exploring an MLS merger, the reaction was positive. “At least 70 percent of members said we should have done this a long time ago.” Some members say they wanted to expand even more.

Era of Consolidation

In March, Swanepoel T3 Group posted results of their 2017 trend report, indicating that from January 2014 to October 2016, “MLSs are consolidating in the U.S. at an average of three per month.” In that time, the number of listing services went from 825 to 719. Stefan Swanepoel, the group’s CEO, asked, “What if this trend continued and only a handful [of MLSs] remained?” Within an hour of his social media posting, there were numerous responses like these: “It’s past due,” “It’s a super idea!” and “Fewer databases means more opportunity for data parity and accuracy in feed distribution.”

Out of all the tough decisions industry leaders need to make on a daily basis, consolidating MLSs is one that may be time consuming and involve a lot of negotiations, but it’s a direction everyone supports. Gantner says the decision to move in this direction was simple. “It’s a transition for which there is nothing to lose.”  RL