Friday, June 24, 2011

Toronto Real Estate Board policy takes aim at competition concerns

The Toronto Real Estate Board has developed a new website policy for agents in a bid to satisfy Canada's Competition Commissioner, giving agents the power to create personalized listings sites so clients can browse for houses from their living rooms.

While some of Canada’s 101 real estate boards already allow agents to set up password-protected sites for their clients, the largest board in the country does not. Agents can't rush to open sites today, though - there is a 60-day consultation period planned.

What happens next could set a national precedent for the way in which home buyers research the biggest purchase of their lives, because other boards are expected to adopt the same policy once it’s instituted.

Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken launched a lawsuit against TREB in May, saying it prevents brokers from sharing information online with their customers . It’s the latest move in the protracted fight between the bureau and real estate agents, who have come under increasing scrutiny as commission-based payments have grown along with the price of Canadian homes.

While the Toronto board allows real estate agents to provide information – such as the number of days a house has been on the market and previous selling prices – by hand, telephone or e-mail, they are not allowed to create websites where customers can look up the information on their own.

The new policy would allow the sites to exist as long as they meet certain requirements - the site's must be password protected, only clients can use them, TREB can monitor activity, sellers can opt out of having their home appear on the sites, and the name and contact information for the sellers must never appear on the listings.

The policy is based on one adopted by the National Association of Realtors in the United States to satisfy the Department of Justice several years ago.

TREB said it has been working on the policy since last August, however, the Competition Bureau has maintained the real estate association hasn't been willing to go far enough to satisfy its concerns. Both sides met several times prior to the charges being filed.

“Consistent with the bureau's practice, we shared our concerns with TREB as well as what would be necessary to address them,” a spokesperson said. “Ultimately, it was necessary for us to seek a legally binding order from the Tribunal to ensure greater competition and increased innovation.”

Incoming TREB president Richard Silver said the policy “confirms TREB's strong belief in open competition and in its members competitive spirit, quite independent of the Competition Commissioner's claims and approach.”

The Bureau said it would rather settle the complaint prior to an appearance at the Competition Tribunal, which can issue fines and binding rulings.

Source: Globe and Mail by STEVE LADURANTAYE

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