Secrecy of home sales data reduces competition, tribunal rules

Canada's Competition Tribunal says the real estate board in Canada's largest city stifles competition by limiting access to data on home sales.

The tribunal issued a lengthy ruling late Wednesday in a dispute between the Toronto Real Estate Board and the Competition Bureau of Canada.

The two sides have been fighting for years over who should have access to detailed data about home sales. The bureau argues that the Realtor group limits competition and subsequently keeps costs high by restricting access to data on its proprietary Multiple Listing Service, on which more than 90 per cent of all Canadian home sales get processed. 

TREB "restricts how its member agents provide information to consumers, such as previous listings and previous sale prices, thereby denying agents the ability to introduce new and innovative real estate brokerage services using the Internet," is how the bureau put it in a release Thursday.

The real estate board counters that it owns that data and needs to limit access to it for the privacy of buyers and sellers.

Preventing competition

The tribunal ruled in favour of the competition watchdog late Wednesday. A public version of the 170-page ruling is set to be released in the coming days, but for now the tribunal put out a one-page release explaining that it has come to a decision.

"The tribunal concluded that the … restrictions have had, are having and are likely to have the effect of preventing competition substantially in a market," the release said.

A full version of the judgment has yet to be released, "in order to protect properly confidential evidence" but will be released in the coming days, as soon as lawyers for both sides can agree on what can be made public.

It's not immediately clear what the ruling means for consumers, as the tribunal has yet to explain what penalties may be imposed or whether TREB will be ordered  to open up its data to anyone requesting it at some point.

"The specific terms of the tribunal's order will be determined after the parties have provided written submissions addressing this issue of remedy and have had an opportunity to make oral submissions on that issue," the tribunal said.

But despite being a quasi-judicial body, the tribunal makes binding decisions on issues brought forth by the bureau.

TREB has vied openly with some of its own members in recent months, moving to shut down email or internet-based services that send out information on recent home sales.

Different rules elsewhere

Elsewhere in Canada, local real estate boards haven't cracked down on the practice.

 In Nova Scotia, for example, ViewPoint Realty has turned itself into one of the largest independent brokerages in the province by offering its trove of data on every real estate transaction in the province free of charge to consumers.

"We want to enable consumers to get a fully informed decision," CEO Bill McMullin said Thursday, which is why the company gives away detailed transaction data on its website. It gives the info away for free because ViewPoint has found that consumers are then more likely to work with the home-selling arm of the company because of its expertise and services like its popular mapping and search function.

Since its founding in 2010, the company has grown quickly, and now has 120 million page views a year on its website — all in a province where only 10,000 homes are sold every year, about a tenth of the number in Toronto.

McMullin said his company and many others would love to offer a similar service in Toronto and elsewhere, but can't under the current system.

"This looks like a decisive win for the Competition Bureau and consumers," he said, "but Realtors and brokerages could also benefit by finally having their hands untied from behind their backs."

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