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Canadian Real Estate Business Risks Stagnating In The Data Stone Age

The industry is doing everything it can to prevent sharing and analysis of housing statistics.
Bringing Canadian real estate in the age of Big Data could be slow going.
artisteer via Getty Images
Bringing Canadian real estate in the age of Big Data could be slow going.

The Competition Bureau's recent victory over the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) was supposed to be a seminal moment for Canadian homebuyers.

In deciding not to hear TREB's appeal of a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court in effect sided with the Competition Bureau and its request that TREB release a trove of data about houses that it had kept off listings, including sold prices.

The ruling was expected to have nationwide ramifications. After all, the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case meant the lower court's ruling is the law of the land, and as the Competition Bureau is federal, it's a given it wants to see other real estate boards across the country share more data with the public as well.

But little over a week since the Supreme Court's announcement, it's clear that this opening up of data about home listings will be slow going, if it goes at all. While some websites have popped up offering the enhanced housing data on the Toronto market, real estate boards around the country aren't exactly jumping to follow suit.

According to a report in the Prince George Citizen, realtors in British Columbia are still prohibited from offering this data, and the board heads there have not decided whether they will allow the data to be released at all.

"There has been no public pressure here to release home sale prices," the head of the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board said. (However, as the Citizen noted, some websites are defying the real estate boards and publishing the data anyway.)

But perhaps the most alarming thing about this is that the Canadian real estate industry has made it clear that — unlike virtually every other industry on the planet — it has no intention of joining the 21st century and improving the consumer experience through the use of Big Data.

In its statements since the Supreme Court decision, TREB has made it clear it will comply with the courts — but as narrowly as it can. According to reports, TREB has told its members the data cannot be "scraped, mined, sold, resold, licensed, reorganized or monetized in any way, including through the sale of derivative products or marketing reports."

In other words, the board intends to continue preventing real estate businesses and websites from carrying out any kind of data analysis or aggregation with the numbers.

"In a world awash with data and analytics, TREB has decided to join the ranks of digital-age Luddites."-- Real estate analysts Murtaza Haider and Stephen Moranis, in a recent column

"For decades the real estate boards in Canada have been data rich and insight poor. The wealth of information TREB holds cannot be subject to data mining for the benefit of board members or the consumers," Haider and Moranis wrote.

For TREB and other real estate boards, this is about controlling the narrative. The board releases sales and price statistics every month, which it calculates using MLS data. If anyone else were to crunch those numbers and find different trends, TREB would no longer be the lone authoritative voice letting buyers and sellers know what's happening in the market.

Many homebuyers and owners see home sales and price data as public information — after all, you need this sort of information to make smart decisions about buying a home. But MLS data is, in fact, the property of the real estate boards, and they intend to use it to their advantage, not to the advantage of homebuyers.

It may be some time yet before the Canadian real estate industry is dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the data Stone Age.

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