Carleigh Pawlikowski is a bit of a control freak. So when it came to the biggest purchase of her life — a first home — she was lucky to find herself in Nova Scotia, one of the only places in Canada where home buyers can get direct access to property information.
The 30-year-old project coordinator and her partner relocated from Ontario and rented for three years before deciding to plunge into home ownership in Dartmouth, N.S. They recruited family back home in Ontario for help with the search, and their relatives were astounded by the amount of information accessible online — down to a home’s sale history, number of days on the market, even scheduled garbage pick-up days.
“If you’re somebody who’s like me, who wants to know all the pieces of information, it definitely alleviates the pressure on your realtor,” Pawlikowski said.
“I don’t think we could have done it without a realtor, but it gave us the independence we were looking for because we definitely wanted more control over this process.”
Pawlikowski’s real estate broker, ViewPoint Realty, is one of the few in the country that has opened up property data in an online database. That’s because the two real estate boards in Nova Scotia voted to allow members to catalogue such information, a business model the vast majority of the country’s 100 real estate boards forbid.
Why do househunters in Nova Scotia have such a distinct advantage over those in Ontario or B.C. or Alberta? Soon the Toronto Real Estate Board, the country’s largest, will be called before Canada’s Competition Tribunal to answer that question.
The push for more real estate boards to embrace the information age isn’t just about consumer convenience — the Canadian economy is shaped by data controlled by these realtor organizations.
Carleigh Pawlikowski (right) and partner Tyler Bell are thankful for Nova Scotia's open policy on real estate data.
The Canadian Real Estate Association is the lobby group representing the interests of the country’s 100,000 realtors. Its monthly sales and prices report is one of the most widely used sources of housing data in Canada. Statistics Canada, the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation and the Bank of Canada use CREA’s data as a basis for their own calculations, reports and policy decisions.
But unlike most data used in government reports, these housing numbers are prepared for and by the industry in question. The data is unregulated and unaudited. CREA aggregates sales totals from the country’s real estate boards and trusts that they are reporting correctly. Researchers’ access to the raw data is limited, making it difficult to verify or to conduct second-level analysis.
The lack of industry data available to analysts, economists and researchers leaves them in the dark about the actual health of Canada’s housing market.
ViewPoint Realty founder Bill McMullin told HuffPost he believes those who head up the industry fear that putting more information into consumers’ hands could leave realtors in the same fix as travel agents, whose importance has diminished because of technology.
“They’re trying to keep the system, the structure, the policies in place … that prevent members from providing services on the web that are more efficient, consumer-friendly, allow people to learn on their own,” McMullin said.
But it’s hard to know exactly what CREA is thinking. The organization’s president, realtor Beth Crosbie, rarely speaks publicly and the association refused requests to interview her for this story.
The real estate industry has been taken to task by Canada’s competition watchdog. The Competition Bureau reached a deal in 2010 with CREA over restrictions that prevented brokers with alternative models from posting home listings on their monopolistic Multiple Listing Service, where 90 per cent of the country’s real estate deals takes place.
That has opened the door for websites specializing in a la carte services for a flat fee for those who opt to sell their home privately rather than pay the typical five per cent commission. “CREA represents Blockbuster, while we’re a Netflix,” is how Walter Melanson at PropertyGuys.com characterizes the divergent business models.
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This time the fight is over access to information that would allow traditional agents to adapt and compete with alternative models.
After a years-long legal battle over technicalities, the Competition Bureau will square off against the Toronto Real Estate Board in December over its prohibition against realtors building online databases like ViewPoint’s to give their clients direct access to more information. Currently, realtors must provide that information by email, fax, phone or in person.
Although the ban on such sites is widespread at boards across the country, the Competition Bureau targeted the Toronto board because it will have the greatest impact on consumers. The outcome of the case could shake up the entire industry, the way a similar case against CREA’s U.S. counterpart opened the information floodgates in that country.
After years of fighting over real estate agents’ right to post in-depth MLS information on their own websites, the U.S. National Association of Realtors and the Department of Justice reached a settlement in 2008.
It paved the way for a new era of buying and selling homes in the United States. Now sites such as Zillow and its recently acquired competitor Trulia allow consumers to do much of the initial searching by themselves.
Although the services benefit buyers most — those who aren’t paying anything for an agent anyway — they also allow homeowners to get an estimate of their home value simply by typing in some key information. Some argue that access to data — such as what neighbours’ homes have sold for — actually helps to stimulate the market because it gets homeowners thinking of selling.
The sites haven’t destroyed the market for realtors, as some feared. In fact, many now advertise their services on Zillow to find new clients.
Canada’s Competition Bureau believes the Toronto Real Estate Board’s current rules prevent realtors from using technology to do their jobs more efficiently and give consumers more choice, said Richard Bilodeau, assistant deputy commissioner at the bureau.
“We continue to have concerns about the restrictions they impose on agents wanting to innovate, and that’s why we’re continuing with this case,” he said.
The Toronto board declined comment for the story, but it maintains that it opposes online databases to protect sellers’ personal information. The board has set up a website, protectyourprivacy.ca, that warns if the bureau wins, sellers’ information will be made “publicly available to anyone on the internet.”
The competition watchdog rejects that assertion, saying it is calling for password-protected sites that would be available to customers working with an agent.
ViewPoint.ca is password-protected but open to anyone who registers for a free acount, not just realtor customers. But it hasn’t changed the dynamic of the real estate industry, said McMullin, who wants to bring his ViewPoint service to Ontario and is a witness for the Competition Bureau.
Nova Scotia has more realtors now than it did in 2009 before the province opened up its data, and ViewPoint’s sales are booming, with its agents just as busy as before.
“It’s totally baffling to me that we’re in the dark,” he said. “If the competition commissioner does not win that case, or something doesn’t happen outside of that case, we’re going to be in the dark in Canada.
“The lights will be on in Nova Scotia, but out everywhere else, because people cannot make a well-informed decision if they don’t have the data.”
There are also questions about the accuracy of the real estate boards’ data. McMullin says he did a comparison of MLS sales data for Nova Scotia and the province’s land registry data. That research has led him to conclude that as much as 20 per cent of the housing stock in Nova Scotia is not sold over the MLS.
“It’s important because most of the decisions related to policy in lending decisions are in some way based around what the MLS data says,” said McMullin.
Not only are some houses potentially left out of the count, but CREA has faced allegations that it may be overcounting the number of sold houses.
Last year, a former real estate agent, Ross Kay, pointed out that some homes sold were being counted as two or three sales in CREA’s monthly numbers because they were listed for sale at several real estate boards, such as Toronto, Burlington and Oakville. When CREA aggregates the monthly numbers from local boards, one sold house listed on three boards is counted as three sales.
CREA acknowledged that this is sometimes the case, but said the effect is insignificant and accounts for only about 0.8 per cent of home sales.
But Kay warns this double-counting could also be distorting CREA’s average national selling price, which informs the CMHC’s reports on the Canadian housing market, which in turn are used by Statistics Canada and other government departments.
Kay owns a real estate consulting firm which has launched its own index of home values in Canada. His index relies on unfiltered data straight from the local boards rather than CREA’s aggregated number and strips out some of the issues with CREA data. He pegs the average year-to-date value for a Canadian home at $350,410 —about 15 per cent lower than CREA’s comparable year-to-date estimate of $406,145.
CREA's home price numbers show a relentless upward climb.
The monthly numbers have also come under scrutiny from analysts because the national organization does not immediately factor in revisions made at the local level. Some boards revise their estimates downwards after passing along data to CREA. Reporting initial numbers without revisions give the impression of a strengthening home market each month, Kay said.
CREA’s figures are also skewed because of when boards take a snapshot of their listings — at the end of the month when inventory is at a peak, Kay said. Generally, the highest volume of listings expire on the last two or first two days of the month. For August 2014, he said, his calculations indicate that that meant more than 18,500 listings, or seven per cent of total listings, on July 31 were included in active listings and months of inventory estimates but were no longer for sale by Aug. 3.
Month after month, CREA reaches the same conclusion in press releases that pronounce the “Canadian housing market remains in balanced territory,” but Kay contends that the public is led to believe there are more houses available than there are, and that the market is not balanced but actually favours sellers.
Many industry watchers are acutely aware of the issues with CREA’s data, especially in an era of inflated activity that continues to defy predictions of a market cooling.
Economists take CREA data with a grain of salt because numbers from an industry group are different from the vast majority of economic indicators analyzed in Canada, BMO economist Doug Porter said.
“The fact that the data are produced by CREA is simply a fact all parties should keep in mind when analyzing the figures, and more importantly, when reading their commentary,” he said, adding that overall he is not worried about the quality of the data.
“There may be some upward bias to the figures due to the double-counting issue, but we are ultimately looking at trends — is the market heating or cooling — and the decimal places don't matter.”
Still, researchers want to crunch the numbers for themselves just as much as some consumers want to conduct the research themselves.
“Economists have accepted data points by MLS as de facto ways of measuring the real estate market, but really they are only half-measures,” Kay said.
“We need more data to analyze because CREA gives the good news only.”