Zoocasa, (https://www.zoocasa.com/) the online real estate brokerage owned by Rogers Communications Inc., has become the latest to bow to renewed pressure to stop publishing highly coveted data on home sales.
The web-based brokerage, which acts as a referral service for roughly 500 agents across the country, announced on Friday that as of March 4 it will stop sending out a popular daily e-mail detailing the price of recently sold homes.
The Toronto Real Estate Board sent a letter to all members this month warning that those who violate strict rules on sharing sales data could lose access to the Multiple Listings Service, the lifeblood of most realtors. The letter also prompted Bosley Real Estate to strip data on sales from a mobile app it offers to prospective home buyers.
The warning by the real estate board is the latest development in a battle that has been raging for years over how much data real estate brokers can make public, particularly online. While Canada's largest local real estate board allows traditional bricks and mortar brokerages to hand out data on recent sale prices to clients, it has been cracking down on the growing number of online-only real estate brokerages, known in the industry as "virtual office websites," that have been offering the same data in bulk to the public.
Under current rules, online brokerages can only provide data to subscribers, not on publicly accessible websites, and only with the permission of the buyer and seller. The real estate board warned that some virtual brokers have recently been pushing the limits.
"TREB has agreements and rules in place," the board said in a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail. "But more importantly, there are laws and regulations, including privacy, contractual and [regulatory] rules that apply with which TREB and realtor members must comply."
Industry players, however, say the recent crackdown is a sign that the real estate board is trying to reaffirm its position on the issue ahead of an upcoming hearing in front of the federal Competition Tribunal in May.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal of the case between the board and Canada's Competition Bureau, setting the stage for yet another round of tribunal hearings. The case is being closely watched across the country and will have major implications for all of Canada's real estate boards and brokers when it's finally settled.
Darryl Mitchell, Zoocasa's broker of record, said the company is confident that its daily newsletter, which had thousands of subscribers, met the TREB guidelines. But it didn't want to risk straining its relationship with the board. "I suppose there's two distinct ways of doing business and that's just waiting until somebody sends you a legal letter and shuts you down, or trying to co-operate with what they're trying to do," he said. "We felt we should try and work with them instead of against them."
A thorny issue for the industry is the fact that sales data is usually posted to TREB's database right after a deal has been finalized, but before the transaction has actually closed, meaning subscribers to sales lists are able to access information on deals that are technically still in progress. That has left the board in the awkward position of trying to comply with privacy laws, while also facing pressure from the Competition Bureau to make information more publicly available.
"They're caught in this middle ground," Mr. Mitchell said. "We said we really don't want to be on the opposite side of the battle with TREB."
Toronto real estate broker Fraser Beach, whose past legal battles with the real estate board helped land the issue on the radar of the Competition Bureau, said he has no plans to shut down his own daily newsletter which links roughly 30,000 subscribers with the real estate board's sales data.
"I'm taking it day by day," said Mr. Beach, who received the same warning letter as all other brokers, but hasn't been sanctioned. "I really don't think that there's any legal or more problem with this," he said. "But that's not to say that, basically with impunity, the Toronto Real Estate Board could sever my access to the MLS information, which would virtually put you out of business."
Online real estate site Zoocasa has relaunched under new ownership, with plans to add in-house services and wider search functionalities.
Previously owned by Rogers Communications Inc., the site was shut down last month, with Rogers citing lack of fit with the company's overall plans.
A group of real estate and technology investors has swooped in to save the site, which will be headed by Lauren Haw, a Toronto-based broker with Keller Williams Referred Realty and sales director at scholarhood.ca, a site that helps families find homes in desirable school districts.
Zoocasa originally launched in 2008 with startup funding from Rogers, aiming to be a site where real estate agents would pay to advertise their services to buyers. It then expanded into its referral service, which vetted real estate agents and let prospective buyers and sellers search for a real estate agent using detailed criteria, such as by language or type of property.
It modelled itself after U.S. websites such as Trulia or Zillow, which attract customers by offering data on house sales and detailed demographic information about neighbourhoods and prices.
Ms. Haw did not disclose the purchase price or the identities of the other investors. However, she said the buyers had been exploring a purchase for some time.
"There's been a lot of industry chatter and we were excited about the traffic the site was getting. This was not a spontaneous decision," she said in an interview Thursday.
While Ms. Haw said the site will retain the same search technology and tools that users are familiar with, there will be several big changes.
"Our mission is to give home buyers access to the best possible real estate tools and information while providing a premium level of in-house customer service," she said.
This will be achieved in part by hiring a group of in-house agents to work with clients and ridding the referral service Zoocasa was known for altogether.
"[Zoocasa] sold leads to agents who registered on the site and collected referrals, but we think it's better for us to have control over the entire experience," said Ms. Haw. "The only agents serving clients who visit the site now will be those on our team who have the training and experience."
This in turn means Zoocasa will no longer offer rebates for buyers and sellers on the commissions they paid to agents they found on the site.
"We won't be offering rebates to clients to work with Zoocasa agents. It's hard to offer a discount on a premium service and nearly impossible to hire great agents at a discounted rate," insisted Ms. Haw.
The site plans to hire the in-house agents on an as-needed-basis, beginning in the Greater Toronto Area. The agents will be "experts within their regions and experienced at serving both buyers and sellers," and earn a negotiated commission on the sales they make, as is the practice in the industry.
Along with maintaining services such as its home appraisal tool Zoopraisal and the exisiting mobile app, the site will also look to add new functionalities such as tighter search parameters, more frequent data updates and a school neighbourhood search ability imported from scholarhood.ca.
"Scholarhood has been very successful and we will be keeping it up while allowing Zoocasa to provide the same information," said Ms. Haw. For now, she sees the two sites as operating in parallel with no plans to fold one into the other.
Keller Williams Realty will be providing the administrative and back-end support for the site. While newly hired agents will come from any number of brokerages, they will be technically considered Keller Williams agents once on the Zoocasa team, Ms. Haw said.