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Realities of Real Estate: Agents via Internet? Check them out first

In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.”

To many, this simple quote is more commonly thought of as a contemporary phrase and perhaps better suited for today’s technologically driven information age. But in the late 16th century, when “witches” were routinely burned at the stake, Bacon was well ahead of his time as an advocate of the scientific method and proponent of verifiable data in the pursuit of expanding man’s knowledge. More than 400 years later, the control of both knowledge and information still reigns supreme in our quest for power and wealth.

Nearly every profession protects the value of its services by limiting and tightly controlling the dissemination of proprietary knowledge. Information can be costly to collect, and putting it in a useful form further enhances the value. For real estate, the primary source of such information has traditionally been the multiple list system.

Funded by agents, there are numerous multiple list systems across the country. One of the largest is right here in the mid-Atlantic region. The service used by local real estate agents is called Metropolitan Regional Information Services. MRIS covers Washington, most of Maryland and suburban Virginia, as well as parts of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. MRIS has approximately 50,000 active listings, and almost 45,000 real estate professionals subscribe to its service. Nearly $100 million worth of real estate is sold through our multiple list system every day.

Not all that long ago, the process agents used in locating listings was fairly primitive. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a real estate office would keep track of listings using 3-by-5 index cards. The information about a house for sale was filed away in a box, much like the card system used to catalogue books in a library. As you might imagine, the records were notoriously inaccurate, and accessing the information was difficult at best.

From 1974 all the way to 1994, most agents relied on books published monthly by local real estate associations. As with the card system, these books were also often out of date, and each association had a different book. When showing homes across various counties, an agent needed to subscribe to books from multiple associations.

But in 1994, the computer age finally rescued agents from these cumbersome and unreliable methods. However, listing information, once proprietary to agents and brokers, has been released to the Internet, making it available to everyone. This has resulted in the birth of a new player in the real estate industry: real estate aggregators.

Internet aggregators specialize in collecting listing information from multiple brokers, agents, public records and multiple list systems. They then repackage this information for public consumption. Consumers looking to buy or sell a house know them as websites such as Zillow, Trulia or Realtor.com.

Until recently, the relationship between brokers and aggregators had been mutually beneficial. The brokers provided the listing data to aggregators for free, who in turn help sell property by distributing this information to a broad Internet audience. Brokers made money though commissions, and the aggregators made money by selling advertising on their web pages.

Recently, though, this marriage has seen some troubled times.

In ever-increasing ways, some aggregators have been misusing and misrepresenting the information given to them by brokers and the multiple list system. For example, if you Google the address of a property for sale, it will come up on hundreds, maybe thousands of websites. Next to a picture of the house, you will usually find the picture of an agent. Most consumers would presume that this is the listing agent. But, in most cases, it won’t be the listing agent; it won’t even be an agent from the company that listed the house. And frequently it won’t be an agent who knows anything about the house or community. Instead, this agent may have done nothing more than pay a fee to the website, for the privilege of associating himself with a particular property.

Many aggregators might also have parts of their websites that will recommend agents. We went to Zillow and asked for a list of Annapolis area agents. In a nanosecond, we had 25 pages of agents to choose from. Since we’ve been agents in Annapolis for more than 18 years, we know just about every agent in the area. But as we looked through Zillow’s list, most of these agents were people we’ve never heard of. We picked out one agent and searched him in our multiple list system. Although he was listed as an Annapolis agent, this guy had never sold a house in Annapolis. In fact, he had never sold a house in Anne Arundel County.

Even more disturbing is a website called Agent-Ratings.com. Here, you can find an overall letter grade rating for agents, as well as grades for knowledge, professionalism, reliability, experience and communication. If you’re looking to buy or sell a house, you would of course want an “A+” agent. But an A+ agent on Agent-Ratings.com might not mean what you think it means. When you go to the “Agents Only” part of this website, you’ll find that any agent can buy what a “Platinum Agent Membership.” For $99, Platinum membership benefits include a “Perfect ‘A’” overall rating for life and removal of all negative ratings.” So, to be an “A” agent on Agent-Ratings.com, you don’t really need to know anything about real estate; all you need is $99.

Countless other websites use similarly sketchy methods of recommending or rating agents, and a number of lawsuits are currently underway to combat what has frequently become nothing more than outright fraud.

The Internet is an indispensable tool for buying and selling real estate. Nevertheless, a number of aggregators and other websites have begun to push the envelope on what is meaningful or accurate data. Beyond basic information about a property, some of these sources try to estimate value, give agent recommendations, and dabble in numerous other topics where they are essentially incapable of providing reliable information. And as with Agent-Ratings.com, what you’re looking at might even be a complete fabrication.

Consequently, always remember that in the wild west of the Internet, there’s often little or no line between fact and fiction. In the end, the only way you can be sure of getting the straight story on real estate is to meet face-to-face with a real, live person, one who can document his or her experience in the business and point to another real live person who will back it up.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is McWilliams@BobDonna.com.