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Zenlist offers off-market listings, chat function, data access

Listings are a hot commodity with for-sale inventory levels at historic lows. But finding a buyer for a listing that’s not advertised to the public on a multiple listing service (MLS) can be tough. Zenlist has developed an online platform that founder Tom MacLeod says gathers and publishes off-market listings with active listings, allowing sellers and buyers to compare offerings.  

Several outfits—The PLS, Zoom Listing and Top Agent Network, for example—all have apps that allow agents to share off-market listings before the public sees them. Zenlist’s online platform combines listings that are being held off market to the public with active ones, adds a “community chat platform” and allows users to access and analyze client data.

“The MLS isn’t particularly modern in its look and feel. It’s clunky and not known for being easy to use,” MacLeod said. “We’ve created a pay-to-use platform that allows buyers to compare off-market listings with active ones, with an added value proposition of having agent functionality built right in.”

How It Works

Zenlist works like this: It’s only available to buyers through their contracted agent. Once buyers get access, they’re able to view off-market listings that aren’t yet available to the public on other apps (Zillow, Redfin, Trulia, etc.) alongside current on-market listings. The biggest difference in Zenlist, though, is that it allows buyers and their agents to communicate. Buyers can like, save and share listings, and can send messages to their agent or co-buyer.

“We think there’s an obvious need for a safe digital workspace where agents and their clients can collaborate on a community chat platform,” MacLeod said. “Agents and buyers are increasingly mobile. Zenlist gives buyers peace of mind that they’re seeing everything available before making a decision.”

In addition to the chat function, the features MacLeod says differentiate Zenlist from other listing platforms are its ability to keep track of scheduled showings and previously toured homes; present a property’s floor plan, tax and assessor information; and allow agents to communicate with clients about interesting properties right on the platform instead of separately through email or text. MacLeod also points out that brokerages that partner with Zenlist retain ownership of all their client data.

“We’re in the era of big data and there’s a lot of concern right now around big tech,” MacLeod said. “We offer clients all their data back with their API. It’s their data and they should have access if they want it. They could never get that from an unaffiliated search site”

Those “unaffiliated search site” companies like Zillow and Realtor.com have been mining and cultivating consumer data for years, using it to target consumers, provide personalized property information and analyze market trends, for example. Brokerages that contract with Zenlist gain access to the data Zenlist gathers about their clients. 

Pros and Cons

Proponents of off-market listings say they provide sellers with the ability to gauge the market and generate some hype about their property. They also allow sellers to market their home quietly if they, for example, don’t want the neighbors to know they’re moving. 

On the other hand, off-market listings can be problematic, especially to minorities. Because off-market listings are controversial and create disadvantages for certain demographics, the National Association of Realtors in 2019 enacted a rule, which had to be implemented by May 2020, requiring its member agents to place all listings on the MLS within one business day of being marketed to the public.

While off-market listings may not be considered equitable, they continue to be popular. In Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, nearly 25% of existing single-family homes were sold off market in 2016. As buyer demand continues to outpace supply, platforms like Zenlist that allow agents to offer clients a glimpse at homes before other buyers can see them.

Zenlist launched at the end of 2018, and was revised to its current format in 2019. It’s available only to real estate agents in the Chicago area right now, and has partnerships with more than 50 Chicago-area brokerages as of publication. The company plans to expand into its next markets — Atlanta, Georgia; Washington D.C. and California’s Bay Area — by June of this year. 

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