Agent tools - the MLS, listing, searching, and sharing

Finding homes for clients remains a key responsibility for agents. That said, this has become less important over time. Consumers are often seeing the same inventory as agents via real estate portals. But agents are still trying to solve three problems through the MLS and associated tools as clients search for homes:

  • How do I find relevant properties for my clients?
  • How do I quickly share relevant properties with my clients?
  • How do I schedule showings at relevant properties?

The multiple listing service (MLS)

What is an MLS and how you join one

The multiple listing service, or MLS, is often associated with the technology agents use to search for and schedule tours. That is generally how I’ll refer to the MLS. But an MLS is technically a local organization. Members share properties with offers for cooperation on commissions. Put more simply, every MLS member is sharing each property they list for sale. They promise that if another agent can find a buyer for that property, they will pay for that service.

There are over 800 MLSs across the country. These can cover a region as small as a few neighborhoods or as large as multiple states. Many agents must join multiple MLSs. For example, an agent in San Francisco may be a member of San Francisco MLS (SFAR) for downtown and Bay Area Real Estate Info Services (BAREIS) for wine country.

Joining an MLS usually requires a fee and an application. Sometimes the fee is built into an agent’s membership in the local Realtor association. Frequently, a brokerage must be a member for an agent to join. This is because the MLS  functions best when a brokerage is sharing all of its listings. Otherwise, a brokerage may only share its worst listings while still accessing all competing brokerages' listings.

Oftentimes there are multiple MLSs within small geographic areas. SF-based agents may join 2-3 associations for properties within 30 minutes of each other. Source: SFAR.

Technology and features of the MLS

Most MLSs outsource their technology development. The most popular service provider for MLS technology is CoreLogic. As a result, the 800+ MLSs  often have similar interfaces. However, each may offer different integrations with third-party services. The core features of most MLSs are pretty similar:

  • Search listings: the core functionality of the MLS is the ability to search listings by location, price, property details, and listing information. Some of this is as broad as zip code or as detailed as number of parking spaces. There are also usually map search options.
  • Public records: most MLSs include public record, mortgage, and foreclosure information. This way, agents don’t have to visit county and state websites.
  • Sharing listings and creating alerts: after completing a search, agents can quickly email results to their clients. They can also share essential disclosure documents or set up recurring email alerts.
  • Client activity monitoring: some newer MLSs allow agents to see what activity clients have performed on shared MLS listings. This includes what clients may have looked at from an email alert. Agents use this data to gauge interest levels on properties or decide on a good time to follow up with a client.
  • Hot sheets: hot sheets are a daily update of new properties, price changes, and properties that sold. Agents can get a quick view of what’s happening in their market and flag important changes for clients using hot sheets. Many agents simply save their clients' searches and run them daily instead of using hot sheets.
  • Listings management and syndication: one of the most important listing agent features is the ability to post listings. Agents can enter all the data about their listings that will ultimately be seen by buyer agents. They can then opt-in to syndicating their listings on popular portals such as Realtor.com, Zillow, Homes.com, or Apartments.com.
  • Agent search: agents can use the MLS to search for contact information on agents. This is a basic but a key source of data needed for questions or scheduling.
  • Reverse prospecting: many MLSs allow listing agents to see if their listing has been matched to a buyer's agent’s client search. This way the listing agent can reach out to relevant agents representing interested buyers.

The MLS rarely is as pretty as real estate portals, but it is highly functional. It contains essential original listing information and is usually focused on speed and data display. Because changes to agent listings first appear in the MLS, agents are often hesitant to switch to another platform, which may have slower data access or be less accurate.

The MLS search is not the prettiest but it’s highly functional. More importantly, it is often the initial source of data for agent-represented listings. Source: bright MLS.

MLS data feeds and syndication to real estate portals and brokerage sites

The MLS is essential for sharing listings with real estate portals. MLSs share their data with other sites, using a feed called the IDX or Internet Data Exchange. Sites that wish to access an IDX feed must adhere to rules from the MLS. This is important to ensure that listings are displayed in accordance to the requirements of a listing agent. Most major real estate portals use an IDX feed to populate their listings. But because they are negotiated on an MLS-by-MLS basis, it is very hard to for portals to quickly get national coverage.

There are certain feed types within IDX that are particularly common. RETS or Real Estate Transaction Standard is one of the most prevalent. It provides more granular raw data for real estate portals and brokerages that build complex platforms. Many real estate portals also work with intermediaries such as ListHub which allow listings to be syndicated to any partner real estate portals. This can be helpful for property owners and managers that don't have access to the MLS but want to post their listings on dozens of sites.

Scheduling and showings

Showing management software

The information required to schedule a showing is a critical part of searching on the MLS. Sometimes this is simply an agent’s phone number or email with suggestions on how to contact them. But there is also showing management software that makes scheduling tours easier. The most popular service is ShowingTime. The MLS usually provides a link to the showing software directly from a listing. This helps scheduling and confirmation occur entirely online. On confirmation of a showing, most software also relays important information on how to enter a property such as lockbox codes.

Tools like ShowingTime help agents schedule tours directly within the MLS. Source: ShowingTime.

Lockbox services

Many MLSs and local Realtor associations also partner with smart lockbox companies. Agents listing homes can use special lockboxes that connect with the MLS. Agents can then share access codes for these lockboxes once a showing is confirmed. Two of the more popular systems are Supra and SentriLock. These have become more common as home owners prioritize security from tours scheduled online. And agents prefer them over fumbling around with stubborn manual lockboxes. But smart lockboxes can be quite expensive relative to traditional options. And agents might have to pay a membership fee simply to access a smart lockbox service.

SentriLock is one of the several smart lockbox services that are  used via the MLS to provide key access. Source: SentriLock.

Listing sheets

The MLSs are usually not mobile phone friendly. As a result, agents often print out listing detail pages from the MLS to bring on their showings. The printable version of any listing is usually called a listing sheet. There are often multiple different options for how to print a listing sheet from the MLS. Some fit on one page, others are a “client view” that excludes agent-only information. A brokerage office is usually filled with these printouts. Many search apps try to replicate these in mobile friendly views. But many agents still like the security of having a physical printout to answer nuanced questions, especially if cell reception might be bad.

Listing sheets are simply printouts of property listing detail pages on the MLS. Source: bright MLS.

Technology offerings that supplement the MLS

Mobile friendly search options such as Homesnap and myTheo

Most MLSs are not very mobile friendly. Homesnap works directly with MLSs to supplement core functions, namely on mobile. Many of the features on Homesnap are similar to that of the MLS but have a more modern feel. It also offers some more features on client collaboration and online marketing. Many agents in San Francisco use a tool called myTheo. It also has stronger mobile functionality as well as proprietary tour data unique to the SF market.

Search and collaboration software like Realscout and Remine

Zillow and Redfin have continued to improve speed and user experience on alerts. Many MLSs have not kept up. Search and collaboration software helps fill this gap. Realscout focuses almost entirely on collaborating with clients on their home search. It provides quick listing alerts that are easily shareable. Companies like Realscout help move client behavior from Redfin to a collaborative process with the agent. Remine is another option for an attractive collaborative search. It also has advanced data tools and overlays for agents to support research and prospecting for new clients.

Collaboration and search software like RealScout help agents compete with the speed and aesthetics of Redfin and Zillow. Source: RealScout.

The MLS remains important

Twenty years ago, an agent was a necessity for a buyer or seller to search home listings. Now, most searches by consumers start on a real estate portal. But the MLS is often the source of any listing data. And tour scheduling and detailed research still happens on the MLS. As a result, the MLS remains the most important tool for many agents. Without the MLS, a listing will not get the proper attention, and agents will struggle to support their buyers on scheduling showings and relaying essential data.

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