You probably won’t read about it in the Chronicle, but the scoop according to a plugged-in source is that the San Francisco Examiner is a week away from announcing the free publication of weekend open house ads through a deal with the San Francisco Association of Realtor’s new sfopenhomes.com site.
Look for a test run and official announcement next week (or perhaps now a bit earlier). And expect a quick response from the Chronicle which counts on its weekend real estate section and related advertising for a significant share of its revenue.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Chad

    Yawn. What’s the big deal ?
    If only the stupid MLS exposed an API that developers can harness to generate near real-time feeds to Open House apps on iPhones and such…
    I wonder if they are intentionally not exposing their APIs to everyone. Which would be somewhat short-sighted, because the more sites and apps expose your listing, the more likely the listing are going to be sold !

  2. Posted by Mole Man

    The Examiner is a loss, and only keeps going by selling ads for issues that they dump everywhere. All serious real estate action is moving to the net because superior searches and browsing, more detail about properties, better comparisons, and easier exploitation of context and user data. Print delivers less, gets your hands dirty, and with the Examiner business model blows around as storm drain clogging litter all over the Bay Area.

  3. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    Chad – it sounds like you know enough about data systems to know how easy it would be to expose even a hand picked subset of the MLS information via an API. So, yes, this limitation is intentional.
    That’s too bad as wider exposure to MLS information would benefit people buying and selling SF property. That’s part of what makes SocketSite so valuable. Since SFAR is stingy with their information, it is nice to have a website and forum like this to see what happens under the hood of the SFRE machine.
    Buyers and sellers want to be informed. Some of that information is very basic stuff that should be essentially freely accessible on the web since it can be automatically gathered and processed (and is heading that direction too). Other information is more nuanced like understanding of how political, economic, and demographic trends affect real estate. There you need to talk with real people to understand things.

  4. Posted by anonymous

    Innocent lurker’s question: What information does MLS have that Redfin doesn’t? The open house information is already out there, nicely mapped, easy to navigate. Am I missing something?

  5. Posted by 45yo hipster

    Sweet. Thera still lotsa dummies and lazies out there that the free trash Examiner will reach. The more the merrier.
    As for mls and progress, think record companies 2005 (prior to iTunes.) funny how apple all of a sudden became music distributor número uno. Perhaps cutting a deal with napster waaaay back then would have yielded them better results. I guess Richard brandsen (the virgin guy) was too busy planning his trip in outer space.

  6. Posted by EH

    I worked in an RE office in the mid 90s that had modem-driven MLS stuff. The current sframls website isn’t much beyond that. Such a racket.

  7. Posted by tipster

    The MLS is NOT a tool that’s been developed to sell houses. Instead, it is a tool that was developed to help REALTORS sell houses. There is a difference. They aren’t going to give anyone an API who will disintermediate them.
    They give redfin access, but keep redfin on a very short leash. Wonder why redfin pulls the listing photos as soon as the house sells? Because the Realtors want buyers not to be able to run the comps without your friendly realtor. Redfin can show the sold price because they can get that from the county tax assessor, but they can’t keep the photos up. Guess what? The Realtors have access to those photos after it sells, they just don’t give YOU access – not on the MLS and not via Redfin and they’ll sue anyone who keeps them up.
    Redfin was holding onto the photos and displaying them and the Realtors stopped that in short order. “Those photos belong to US, and you’ll pull them when we say or we won’t give you access to them at all.” It was also being done to control the information flow. Prices down? Nonsense, the medians we release continue to go up: “now is a good time to buy and sell real estate”, as if it was.
    They weren’t going to give anyone ammunition that comps in their area were going down. “But I can plainly see from the photos that this currently listed house is a much nicer house that’s not selling at this price, than one that sold 6 months ago for more” is not a conversation they ever have with anyone. If something sells for less, they’ll tell you the older house was a lot nicer.
    Giving you access to the photos does not enable them to tell such a bald face lie. (I’m sure I’ll get an earfull for that, but think about it: why do they pull the photos immediately and sue anyone who keeps them up). Because then your friendly Realtor with that great big smile and friendly demeanor couldn’t rip you off as easily, that’s why.
    They LOVE the newspapers. They can spend a lot of money at newspapers and then if the stories are being written that interfere with their ability to sell houses, they can threaten to withold their advertising dollars. So, although newspapers report some bad facts, there is a limit: the newspapers do not want to piss off a whole class of advertisers. So the newspapers walk a fine line and keeping the realtors happy without obviously misreporting the facts is the name of the game. Some do it well, some don’t.
    Ever read the San Jose Mercury News? Green shoots at all times: they do not piss off the advertisers or the news sources. “Sure things WERE bad (in spite of what we said) back then, but green shoots are right around the corner. Always.”
    Even as things were melting down: “trust us, keep buying folks! Temporary blip.” “Tis but a flesh wound.”
    Real estate is a business, its a big business, and a LOT of dollars are at stake. Keep buying everyone: “now is a good time to buy and sell real estate, and if it isn’t, the average Joe will never know. Your friendly Realtor will make sure of that.” Complete control over the MLS is one tool they have, and releasing an API might help the sellers sell their home more easily, but that is NOT the objective of the realtors. If it were, they’d do it. But they never do.
    All real estate is theater. You will stay in FRONT of the curtain and see what they want you to see. It’s harder and harder to do, but they still try.

  8. Posted by MoneyMan

    I just wish the right-wing Examiner would just go broke. I think Fox News writes its editorials.

  9. Posted by MoreMoneyMan

    Can’t deal with the truth, MoneyMan?

  10. Posted by Looks familiar

    Hun. Not sure about the scoop portion since SfOpenHomes has been live for a couple months now, and I just read a similar article on another SF real estate blog this morning. But ok.
    [Editor’s Note: The simple existence of the sfopenhomes site is months old news (as you note), the move by the Examiner is not.]

  11. Posted by 45yo hipster

    just chill with the hype tipster; god you’re a one note song droning on and on and on…

  12. Posted by BobN

    Redfin can show the sold price because they can get that from the county tax assessor
    Which, with the slow down in sales, is only how many months behind now???

  13. Posted by ex SF-er

    Although I’m no fan of the RE cartel, I would just like to point out that the MLS is the property of the local realtor associations.
    They compile the data, thus they have a right to that data. No different than the fact that JK Rowling has a right to the distribution of her books. all part of intellectual property rights I’d guess, but I’m not a lawyer. Trip?
    Given that fact, I’m not surprised when the Realtors guard their valuable information. What I dislike is that they manipulate the information. (changing “affordability” formulas, allowing DOM games, etc)
    if they only “leak” a certain amount of info then that info should be accurate.

  14. Posted by tipster

    Bummer hipster, you just blew your cover.

  15. Posted by Trip

    Ex SF-er, that’s generally right. But the thorny issue here is that the association is not just a distinct entity, it is a joint venture of competitors. Thus, its practices raise serious antitrust concerns. I think if someone mounted an antitrust challenge a lot of the MLS practices would be found to be per se illegal as anticompetitive. The difficulty is finding a plaintiff with a concrete injury that one can trace to the anticompetitive rules. There have been some government challenges to various practices around the country that have reined in some MLS rules, and someone like Redfin would have standing to mount further challenges, but that is very expensive.
    In addition, the raw data that realtor associations post and compile generally are not protected under copyright or patent law — unlike JK Rowling’s copyrighted books. You can’t protect raw data, like that in a phone book. So the only way they limit use of “their” data is by contract with association members. I think that if someone set up a mirror site to scrape all publicly available MLS data — photos, listing and sales history, etc. — and make it permanently available it would be perfectly permissible under the IP laws, under “fair use” and other doctrines. But you’d face an expensive effort to shut you down by the RE industry nevertheless. Monopolists tend to fight hard to preserve their monopolies.

  16. Posted by corntrollio

    You know, in CA, lawyers have a good way to get access to MLS. Lawyers are pre-qualified for becoming a broker, so all it requires is taking the easy exam. Good way to save paying a 3/6-percenter — total outlay I’ve heard is less than $1000, and that includes joining the local real estate association, etc.

  17. Posted by Fishchum

    I didn’t know that about lawyers. Interesting. I’ll have to pass that info along to some lawyers I know.
    By the way, Corntrollio – Best. Handle. Ever.

  18. Posted by LMRiM

    Exactly right, corntrollio (excellent handle!). And if you get Minnie Lush’s book on the CA exam, you’ll see that all the questions and answers are available in advance. You literally don’t even have to read the questions on the exam before answering if your sense of visual recall is relatively good. At least that’s what I’m told. Lawyers also get the full broker license, not the sales agent license which obligates most realtors to split the commission with their employing broker.

  19. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    Trip – I thought that fair use laws only applied to use of isolated excerpts of the source work, not a wholesale duplicate. So if someone wrote an automated scraper of the public data on sfarmls.com and built a mirror database, couldn’t SFAR claim that their IP was plagiarized ?
    Ex-SFer – yes, I agree that the data belongs to SFAR. My gripe however is that SFAR is an association of realty agents who in turn are supposed to be representing the interests of buyers and sellers. Obfuscating relevant information is not in the best interest of the end client. A home sale or purchase is a really big deal for most mortals and access to information that would influence that decision is very important.
    I’m sure that SFAR has some autojustification of their stance though : professing that home buyers and sellers prefer to be led down the garden path with their trusted agent doling out select pieces of MLS information rather than being exposed to the horrors of what is contained within the whole dataset.

  20. Posted by Mystery Realtor

    The stupid Chronicle should have done this years ago. The LA Board of Realtors has been doing this with the LA Times for a couple years now, to great success.
    It might have been previously mentioned, but it now costs $84 to run a two line open house ad in the Sunday Chron. $124 for three lines. Multiply by that by the number of weeks a home is on the market and the costs are substantial. These costs are usually borne by the agent and if the property doesn’t sell, you’re out of luck.
    M.R.

  21. Posted by lolcat_94123

    What other info is available on the MLS that isn’t public data, other than pictures as mentioned by tipster? Seems like it would be pretty easy to get sellers to send pictures of their house and any other useful data to free/open websites. The more eyeballs the better if you’re selling right? Why restrict it to just MLS? I mean it’s ultimately the seller’s information; not the realtor’s.

  22. Posted by lefty

    …not to mention that the writing the examiner real estate section completely kicks ass on the chron.

  23. Posted by Trip

    MoD, I doubt the MLS data is protected at all, other than perhaps the little sales commentary and yes, the photos. So there would be no copyright issue as to the rest. My point about “fair use” was that even if some thin copyright protection attached, the fact that it was displayed to the public without limitation and a “scraper” site is just continuing to display it to the public very well may bring it within fair use. That concept is not limited to using excerpts of a larger work but is a broader doctrine that reflects a balance between protecting creative works and ensuring wide public access to information. It embodies broader First Amendment principles. This is a pretty hot topic in internet law these days.
    These are just random thoughts. I’ve not researched this point. But antitrust and intellectual property are my two main practice areas so these issues interest me.

  24. Posted by Mystery Realtor

    Trip;
    Per the MLS user agreement ALL pictures and copy posted in it are copyrighted and belong to the listing brokerage. Other sites may buy a data feed from the MLS to repackage on their websites, but they must the name of the listing agent and brokerage

  25. Posted by Hawk

    The Open Homes guide you are seeing is Rev 1 which is more user friendly and expanded. Still some upgrades to happen.

  26. Posted by Trip

    M.R., yes, that is the contractual limitation on use for member realtors or subscribers I noted above. However, (1) you cannot create copyright protections for something by contract that is otherwise non-copyrightable (e.g. raw data), and (2) members of the public who view the info on the web are not bound by that contractual limitation in any event.
    So while a member or contracting party may be bound and unable to host some mirror database, I don’t see any reason why a member of the public could not do so. Again, all interesting and unsettled legal questions, and I’m sure the realtor associations would spend lots of money to shut folks down and try to avoid a determination of their legal grounds to do so!

  27. Posted by gumby

    …the fact that it was displayed to the public without limitation and a “scraper” site is just continuing to display it to the public very well may bring it within fair use.
    Trip, I’ll write the data scraping website gratis, if you’ll defend it pro bono :)

  28. Posted by Trip

    gumby, deal! Just come to my office, er, my room in my parent’s house because I was grounded for getting a B in my ninth grade algebra class . . .
    Somewhat more seriously, if anyone wanted to jump into this and the RE industry tried to shut the mirror site down, it would implicate California’s anti-SLAPP statute (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), and if I’m right about the legal issues the case would be dismissed post haste and they would have to pay your attorney fees. Lots of attorneys around town who take cases like this on a contingency fee. I’m also pretty sure the EFF (eff.org) would take it on.

  29. Posted by corntrollio

    Note that this sort of monopolistic behavior isn’t only done by realtors. For example, the PACER system allows viewing court dockets and court documents. These are fully free documents available to the public (except when under seal), but somehow PACER gets away with charging 8 cents a page. Over the years, there have been various attempts to create a free version by scraping.
    That said, PACER’s motivation is probably less insidious than the realtors’. Until e-filing started becoming more broadly available, PACER actually spent a lot of time and effort scanning the docs in. The realtors just don’t want anyone to have access to them at any price.

  30. Posted by Money Man

    I can deal with the truth MoreMoneyMan, if the right wing media would just try and use it.
    By the way, are you afraid to let everyone on the board know your political leanings? Is that why you set up a tempoary user Id, just for this response?

  31. Posted by Mystery Realtor

    What the general public doesn’t seem to get is the Multiple Listing Service is a trade database, PAID FOR and maintained by it’s Realtor members. It’s not a public utility.
    In order to belong to the MLS, A Realtor must join their local Board and sign a code of ethics, therefore making the homes and data displayed about them credible.
    That was how it used to be. Now, there are all these fly-by-night and discount brokerages so hungry for money because they are not very good agents to begin with which will do a “limited service” entry for $500.
    When I see these in the MLS, I don’t show them. The potential liability from non-disclosure is just to much.

  32. Posted by kathleen

    I am a Realtor and dues a paying member of multiple real estate boards.
    The money goes in part to pay for the MLS.
    If you want unfettered access to information in the MLS become a broker and pay the fee.

  33. Posted by MBPioneer

    Back to the original story… Hooray.
    Anything not to have to buy that rag this town calls a newspaper just to get a portable Open House directory.
    LA has an open house magazine, free on stands weekly. So does SD, and SEA, and CHI, and so on.
    It galls me to have to shell out money and weed through Muslim Bakery stories in order to circle listings over coffee on Sunday.
    Small town, aren’t we?

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