Last September, when Redfin hosted Professor Elizabeth Korver-Glenn at a symposium on race and real estate, we asked her what was the most important change our industry could make to give people of color equal access to housing. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Eliminate pocket listings.”
When a real estate agent pockets a listing, she promotes it exclusively to her network, rather than the whole market. In San Francisco, the share of homes that sold this way increased 68 percent between 2010 and 2018, and the trend is on the rise across the country. In response, the National Association of Realtors proposed in September a “Clear Cooperation Policy,” requiring brokerages to share listings broadly. That policy is undergoing a crucial series of reviews at the Realtors’ conference this weekend, and could be ratified for implementation in January 2020.
Redfin Supports Clear Cooperation
We hope it’s approved. After years of giving Redfin.com visitors early, exclusive access to Redfin listings, we wholeheartedly support this policy. We aren’t doing this because it’s good for Redfin: we still have thousands of listings that we would love to reserve for our own website. But we know that the policy is a crucial protection for consumers, especially members of minority groups who, research shows, are often the last to find out about pocket listings.
Coming-Soon Listings Are Fine. Just Let Everyone See Them.
The opponents of clear cooperation cite good reasons to promote a listing informally before the owner’s ready to publish pictures, host tours or take offers. A coming-soon listing can build excitement about the home while it’s still being repaired and staged; it lets you test a price range. But these are reasons to make sure the whole market, and not just one group of privileged buyers, sees coming-soon listings.
The MLS Can Support Coming-Soon Listings. Many Already Do.
Before enforcing this policy, the Multiple Listing Services used by all brokers to share listing data can support coming-soon listings with different levels of detail about the home, its price range and its availability to be bought. The MLSs can waive requirements that the seller offer a commission to a buyer’s agent. Many MLSs already do this. Home sellers get to market their listings as coming-soon, and homebuyers see those listings on every website, not just the one preferred by the listing agent. In areas where an MLS doesn’t support coming-soon listings, we could easily win over other brokers by deferring enforcement for clear cooperation until it does.
Clear Cooperation is Consumer Friendly
But the campaign against this policy pretends that the only way an agent can market a listing early is by marketing it exclusively, withholding it from a broad range of brokerages and the MLS. This isn’t true. MLSs that have tried to limit pocket listings have been described as a monopoly when one reason a brokerage pockets listings is to create its own monopoly, ungoverned by the rules that require MLSs to share listings equally with brokers large and small.
Equal Access to Listing Data Is Our Foundational Responsibility
Because this whole debate involves data, rules and committees, many folks won’t follow it. But making sure everyone can see all the homes for sale is the foundational responsibility of our industry. In a life of paper-or-plastic decisions of little consequence and varying shades of gray, this is the place for people who love real estate to take our stand.
Brokers Love Exclusivity. But Who’s Being Excluded?
It will be painful for brokers to do so because we love the whiff of exclusivity. Exclusivity has always been the currency of any broker, in any industry: work with me, and I’ll show you merchandise others don’t get to see. But who’s being excluded? Academic research shows that it’s would-be buyers who are disproportionately people of color, immigrants and outsiders. These are the ones who don’t belong to the club, who don’t know the secret handshake, or the obscure website, or the private Facebook group, or the right agent.
Are You Really Sure That Pocket Listings Disproportionately Exclude Buyers of Color? 100%
Professor Korver-Glenn made this case in exhaustive detail, in what is probably the most comprehensive study of U.S. real estate practices in this century. She spent a full year in Houston attending 50 open-houses, following ten real estate agents and observing 125 encounters between agents and their clients.
MLS Listings That Everyone Can See: “That’s the Way We Do Business.”
She cites a Black real estate agent’s dismay that anyone would bypass the above-board marketing of a listing in the MLS:
“I don’t understand why [other real estate agents] would do that. And I’ll tell you why. MLS—everybody can see it. Every agent can see it. That’s like our go-to guide. If there’s a good point of properties listed on MLS, any property you want is there. And that’s the way we do business.”
Discrimination, Even When There’s No Intent to Discriminate
Then she talks about pocket listings’ impact on minority home-buyers:
As this agent implied, pocket listings have the consequence—whether intended or unintended—of excluding most of the general public from access to a for-sale home advertised only through informal, network-based means. For white real estate agents, whose social networks were predominantly white, this meant that minority home buyers often never knew a pocket-listing home was available…
The California Association of Realtors’ legal counsel has cautioned its agents against using pocket listings as a way to sell homes both because it may not have the home sellers’ best economic interests in mind by deflating the pool of potential home buyers and because “it may have an alleged discriminatory effect (i.e. reinforcing segregated housing patterns) even when there is no intent to discriminate.”
If you want more examples, and citations to other research, just read her article. It’s a tour de force.
The Stakes Are High
For now, it’s important to reinforce the last statement in the quoted passage, that up to this point, few if anyone has intentionally discriminated. I’ve never met an openly discriminatory broker. But now that we have reached this point in the debate about clear cooperation, we can no longer pretend we don’t see the consequences. Those consequences aren’t just shoddy service at the jewelry store or a table at the back of the restaurant. The consequences are where your kids go to school, and the ambitions of everyone around them, and whether they feel safe on your street. The consequences are why we all care so much about real estate. It’s why brokers earn more on the sale of a house than we would selling any other consumer good.
We Can’t Do It Alone
Many will say that Redfin should stop posting listings to our website early, even in areas where the MLS won’t let us share coming-soon listings with other brokers, even if other websites eagerly take the pocket listings we reject. But we can’t do it alone. For years after other major sites began soliciting agents for pocket listings, we refused to post any listing that wasn’t in the MLS, even if it was just a day before its MLS debut. Consumers complained that other websites had listings we didn’t, and finally, reluctantly, we relented.
We All Show a Home for Sale, Or None of Us Do
The only way we can build a marketplace that everyone can access, regardless of which agent she hires or which website she uses, is by agreeing industry-wide that we all show a home for sale or none of us do. The clear-cooperation policy aims to do that. There is no other measure the National Association of Realtors is likely to consider over the next decade that will do more to give everyone in America equal access to real estate information.
Let this policy pass.