Howard Hanna Real Estate Services generated quite the social media buzz over the weekend after an alert from CoreLogic, issued Wednesday, notified MLS Now participants that the family-owned brokerage had pulled its listings out of the Trestle Internet Data Exchange (IDX) and IDX Plus data feeds in Northeast Ohio, effective immediately.
Instead of an IDX system, Howard Hanna’s brokerage operation in the Cleveland metro area has swapped to a virtual office website (VOW) system to feed its listings to its local MLS and listing aggregator sites, including Redfin, Zillow and Realtor.com.
So, what is the big deal, you ask? With the VOW system, Howard Hanna listings in Northeast Ohio are no longer being shared on other brokerage websites.
“How does an agent at another firm reflect the property to buyers if they have never even seen the property, or if the agent isn’t even in our market, but gets our IDX feed?” Hanna posited. “We were missing out on the ability to best represent the house and best represent the seller. In the last few years, we have looked at this more and more as new brokers pop up, and have tried to look at how we could be more at the center of the transaction.”
MLS Now declined to comment on the issue at this time.
The IDX system, which was introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a way to help real estate agents and brokerages share their listing data online with other agents and firms, was built on the concept of broker reciprocity, or the idea that any broker opting into the IDX grants the right to all other participants to display their listings. In exchange, they receive the right to display the listings of other brokers.
VOW systems, on the other hand, do not have the built-in concept of broker reciprocity.
“Over the years, displaying listings online took on a life of its own,” Hanna said. “It would be a licensing violation for a Howard Hanna agent, for example, to take all the listings from a Coldwell Banker agent and put them in a newspaper ad, saying ‘courtesy of Coldwell Banker,’ but make it look to potential sellers that those listings were the Howard Hanna agent’s listings. Or could you imagine if an agent from one brokerage saw a for sale sign in someone’s yard from another brokerage and told them that they would get more exposure to buyers if they allowed them to post a for sale sign from their firm in the yard?”
Hanna said when the internet and the concept of having individual brokerage websites displaying listings came about over two decades ago, industry players were uncertain about the implications — and feels the regulations and guidelines created for IDX and data sharing reflect that uncertainty.
While many on the internet have questions about the legality and compliance aspect of Howard Hanna’s decision, most MLSs allow brokers to use either VOW or IDX feeds, meaning that broker reciprocity is not necessary to participate.
However, some grey areas remain in terms of Howard Hanna sending a direct feed to listing aggregators such as Zillow, which holds a brokerage license and has recently eschewed the virtues of IDX feeds in legal filings in its antitrust lawsuit with REX Real Estate Exchange.
“At Zillow, we believe in providing transparency and customer choice. Zillow’s listing practices and policies allow listings that are in compliance with all necessary regulations onto our portal, so that consumers who come to Zillow can access the most listings possible in their home search,” a Zillow spokesperson wrote in an email. “Howard Hanna’s listings meet those guidelines.”
According to a Facebook post from Howard Hanna’s CMO Leah Romond Gibbons, the decision to swap to a VOW system was based on the number of sales that fell through with agents from other brokerages representing the buyer.
“Unfortunately, when we reviewed sales that had fallen apart over the last few years within our brokerage, a vast majority of those failed sales (well over 80%) involved agents from other brokerages representing the buyer on homes we listed,” Gibbons wrote in the post.
“The real estate landscape has changed over the last few years,” she wrote. “Many limited service brokers have set up shop and they are just not equipped to provide their agents with the resources necessary to bring today’s complex transactions to the finish line. By us featuring our listings on every competing brokerage website, we lost control of the process, it led to interested buyers being diverted away from our listings and did not always lead to a successful result for our clients.”
Hanna, however, said that the firm has been considering this since IDX first emerged in the early 2000s.
“It is 23 years later, and the horse is out of the barn, but the whole concept of IDX and the National Association of Realtors coming in and creating some rules and regulations around the sharing of data, to me it doesn’t make all the sense in the world,” Hanna said. “Over the years, we have looked and asked if we are participating in the MLS, should everybody have a website that dilutes our marketing? And is it really in the best interest of the seller to have listings exposed everywhere and not knowing when a comment comes through on their property on someone else’s website?”
Hanna also noted that VOW systems allow agents to include more listing information about a property, including its sales history and other off-market data, and the listing agents can see feedback from buyers’ agents about why their clients did or did not like the property.
However, Twitter pundits questioned if this choice is keeping in the spirit of the MLS and free data exchange.
“When you think about IDX, the idea is to completely opt in or completely opt out,” Greg Fischer, an agent at the Colorado-based firm West + Main Homes, said in a Twitter Spaces discussion hosted by Greg Robertson, the general manager of MLS at Lone Wolf Technologies, held on Monday afternoon. “This would be a unique sort of experience where Zillow is now a participant, who would typically receive these listings and display them via IDX, when Howard Hanna opted out, technically those listings would not appear on Zillow, but Zillow — due to their technology capabilities — are able to accept and publish the direct feed.”
Valerie Garcia, RE/MAX’s former director of education and current business education consultant added: “When you get down to it, what are we trying to create as a culture in this industry? Is it cooperation or is it control?”
On the other hand, Hanna believes that participating in the MLS allows his firm to maintain the necessary level of cooperation.
“We still have MLSs and MLSs at their core are a B2B model,” Hanna said. “That is where we share our data. That is where we prescribe to clear cooperation. That is, since the advent of the MLS, as an industry, where all the business gets exchanged between brokers and agents.”
Participants in Robertson’s Twitter Spaces also questioned whether this would help or hurt Howard Hanna’s agents.
“The listing presentation argument of Howard Hanna listings are on four websites and ours are on 400, just seems clear in terms on consumer messaging,” Coleton Boyer, the CEO of Propcard, said.
Garcia believes the success or failure of this change will be measured in how well future recruitment efforts pan out for Howard Hanna.
“I think it is really going to depend on what they are hearing in recruiting conversations,” Garcia said. “To have a recruiting conversation where you say, ‘Look you can’t play in the sandbox unless you join our company,’ – they are going to be talking to people that have sunk significant amounts of money into IDX feeds and their own websites and now they are going to be impacted if they move.”
Despite the naysayers, Hanna is optimistic and believes that this is the best choice for his firm.
“To me, it is a bit of a surprising reaction, as if we are the only company that tries our best to sell our listings,” Hanna said. “We are hoping to see some response between now and the end of the year that is an uptick of traffic to our site, improved user experience engagement. We are going to start tracking this fall [the] buyer agency contracts and see if that increases, because we are able to package the VOW experience with some other things that we will be rolling out in the next couple of months.
“But long term, we are hoping for better customer relationships between buyers and our agents, and at the same time, hoping sellers see that we are still doing everything to market their property while putting the agent back at the center of the transaction,” he said.