The Real Deal
November 2003

The move by the Real Estate Board of New York earlier this year requiring its members to share listings with all other members within 72 hours was hailed as a “huge stride forward” and a “quantum leap” in opening up the Manhattan residential marketplace.

The move came after failed attempts over the course of several years to create a multiple listing service for Manhattan brokerages that would gather all listings for consumers and brokers, similar to what is seen in most other communities in the country. While the new system doesn’t go quite the whole way towards such a service, most heads of major firms said they are content with where things stand.

While there have been few political developments – at least overtly – since the beginning of the year, there has been forward movement, quietly, with advances on the technology side helping to create a more open – and efficient – marketplace.

Douglas Elliman and Corcoran – the two giants of New York residential
real estate – recently signed on to a computer system that will enable them
to send their listings electronically to other firms using a single database.
The days of firms e-mailing listings to one another, or in even more archaic fashion, faxing them to one another, are slowly being phased out. Corcoran was hooked up to the system a few months ago; Douglas Elliman went
online last month.

“The difference in terms of promptness and correct dissemination of information is enormous,” said Frederick Peters, president of Warburg Realty Partnership, Ltd. “Now, it’s not all a mad scramble. You don’t have dozens of people in back offices entering in [redundant] information.”

Corcoran and Douglas Elliman joined the R.O.L.E.X. system, which shares data between nearly all of the biggest firms and around 80 companies total. Another system, OLR, serves around 75, mostly smaller companies. The Manhattan Association of Realtors operates an MLS system, in addition to other smaller players.

While listings can be shared between the different systems (via e-mail),
there have been efforts to get everyone on the same page. Heads of larger companies appear to mostly back growing the R.O.L.E.X. system, which has also drawn the support of the Real Estate Board of New York. The Manhattan Association of Realtors (MANAR), a chapter of the National Association of Realtors, meanwhile, is pushing for a citywide multiple listing service similar to those found around the country, which could be accessible both by brokers and consumers. MANAR, which was founded in 2001, is an upstart compared to the powerful trade organization REBNY, with around one-eighth the number of total broker members.

Several company heads said the 72-hour rule had been a giant step forward, and that there isn’t a need to make more major changes right now.

“I think the new system we have and the new agreement we have is a quantum leap forward,” said Diane Ramirez, president of Halstead. “I don’t think we need to do more at this point.”

Ramirez said the system is effectively a multiple listing system, though without the capacity to present listings to the consumer. “It’s in essence what the MLS will do, without the functionality of that,” she said.

Andrew Heiberger, CEO of Citi Habitats, said the 72-hour rule was “a huge stride forward and a great accomplishment.” He said he ultimately believes there should be a full MLS that also involves “promotion to consumers.”

“Some of the older and larger firms feel they have some sort of
advantage the way things are now,” he said. “But the technology
exists for this to happen.”

Heiberger added that he’s not going to rush down that road anytime soon.
“I have a bad taste in my mouth about being a pioneer, because of the last three efforts,” he said.

Elizabeth Stribling, president of Stribling & Associates, said it makes sense to focus on fine-tuning the current system rather than undertaking a new plan.

“I think the majority of people have the view, ‘rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s get the baby in good shape,’ she said. “It’s been many years getting to R.O.L.E.X. Most of us feel we should get the mechanics working, and complete that first.”

“I think what we have now is terrific and it’s working, and we’ll continue to respond to what our members want,” said Stephen Spinola, president of REBNY. “I don’t think we need to jump any steps here. It’s quietly functioning.”

Pam Liebman, chief executive of Corcoran, said her company has its wagon hitched to the industry organization. “The Corcoran Group is very supportive of REBNY, and would not endorse any plan REBNY is not a part of,” she said.

Dottie Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman, declined to be interviewed for the story. A spokesperson at the company said Herman was still getting thoroughly acquainted with the listing system in Manhattan after taking over at the helm of the company late this summer.

David Michonski, Chairman and CEO of Coldwell Banker Hunt Kennedy and MLS President for MANAR, said the 72-hour rule and the current system for exchanging listings doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s still chaos out there,” he said. Michonski added that it is the consumer who is being shortchanged by not having a full MLS system that would expose properties to a greater number of people. “We need an MLS to truly satisfy our responsibility to get the maximum exposure of properties,” he said.

Esther Muller, founder of the Academy for Continuing Education and Secretary of MANAR, said that a full MLS system would mean “not only sharing listings in Manhattan, but with rest of country and the rest of world” because it would be connected to other such MLS systems.

One of the key factors that has played a part in determining what systems companies are using today is cost – both in terms of past investment and current expenses.

The R.O.L.E.X. system, for example, serves as a means to transmit data between companies, but it doesn’t usurp a company’s own listing system, the way a multiple listing service might.

“We have all spent a fair amount of money on company systems that we love,” said Ramirez, adding that companies don’t want to just abandon investments that for some have run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Larger companies are continually developing their systems – Douglas Elliman, for example just unveiled a revamped Web site last month. Top companies also introduce “bells and whistles” – like sending text-messages to prospective buyers on their cell phones about upcoming open houses – in an effort to woo customers. Neil Binder, principal at Bellmarc, said having a multiple listing service might mean companies are more complacent about developing their technology. “Since there is no uniform standard, all the larger firms are continually improving their technology,” he said.

Binder also noted that the multiple listing service was initially set up in communities throughout the country years ago when there was a “lack of technology” in general and costs were prohibitive. Now, that barrier doesn’t remain. “Technology costs are not out of line now,” said Binder.

Still, spending on new technology can be a challenge for smaller companies. “For smaller firms, developing their listing systems can be a daunting task if they don’t have a computer department,” Binder acknowledged.

As a result, many of the smaller firms have turned to systems like OLR, a Web-based system that companies can use partly in lieu of developing their own in-house listing systems.

Heiberger, whose company uses OLR as a backup system for its own in-house proprietary system, said for the bigger firms, “it doesn’t matter which service you are on. For the smaller firms, it is important.”

Eric Gordon, who has been designing listings technology since the 1980s and rolled out the R.O.L.E.X. (RealPlus Online Listings Exchange) system in the beginning of 2002, said there is an effort underway to get more small companies to sign up.

The system serves nearly all the big companies, including Corcoran, Douglas Elliman, Halstead, Bellmarc, William B. May, Stribling, Sotheby’s and others, and also has around 40 to 50 firms with one to five agents, he said.

Gordon said REBNY requested that he introduce technology last year to provide smaller, less advanced companies with a sort of in-house system
that would also allow them to hook up to R.O.L.E.X. Such “shared system” packages run $100 a month, he said.

Meanwhile, Bob Borger, director of information technology for Douglas Elliman, said going online with the new system last month would save considerable manpower in his department, as well as make for more
accurate and timely listings.

Four listings personnel at Douglas Elliman’s offices at 575 Madison Avenue had to manually retype in thousands of listings coming in by fax and e-mail from other companies. Now it can be done at the touch of a button.

“The time change is drastic,” said Borger. “It’s a very good thing.”