Toronto real estate data is about to get much easier to find. Here’s why it matters
Information on past home sale prices can be a useful tool for anyone looking to break into the market—that is, if you can get your hands on the data.
That’s not so easy in the GTA, where a great deal of the region’s historical home sales data is controlled by the Toronto Real Estate Board, an industry group that represents licensed realtors. But TREB’s time as a data gatekeeper may be coming to an end. On Friday, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a 2016 ruling that ordered TREB to end its strict controls on some housing data. The decision marked another victory for the Canada’s competition commissioner, who had argued that TREB’s practices were stifling competition and innovation. TREB says it will seek to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s at stake?
TREB operates a database of real estate information called the Multiple Listing Service (or MLS). Some of this data, including the list prices and addresses of homes currently for sale, is already available for anyone to look up online through Realtor.ca, a website operated by the Canadian Real Estate Association. Real estate agents, meanwhile, can access the full version of MLS, which contains a lot of additional information about properties that isn’t freely available to the public—in particular information about the past and present sale prices of homes, as well as information on withdrawn or expired listings.
TREB has always forbidden agents from giving consumers wholesale access to all that sale information. Until now, agents have only been able to share it privately, in old-school formats like faxes and emails. This means that most people, when they’re considering bidding on a home, have no way of finding out what similar homes have sold for, unless they get an agent’s help. The competition commissioner has argued that these restrictions hobble agents who want to develop new business models built around offering sale information directly to consumers. Last year, the the federal Competition Tribunal agreed. In a legal order, the tribunal said that TREB can’t prevent agents from sharing sale data on their own websites.
Why might more data benefit homebuyers?
The tribunal’s 2016 decision gives an idea of what kinds of products and services companies might offer with unrestricted access to housing data. Real estate industry insiders told the tribunal that greater access to data would allow them to alert clients when prices dropped in particular neighbourhoods, track how many homes were selling above their listing prices, and provide quick property valuations. Savvy consumers could use information on previous home sales to estimate the present-day value of a home they intended to buy, without needing to ask a realtor directly for help.
Why is TREB fighting to keep all this information under wraps?
TREB has argued that allowing free access to home sales information would violate privacy and copyright legislation. Ultimately, though, the tribunal found—and the Court of Appeal now agrees—that TREB’s data restrictions were intended mainly “to insulate its Members from disruptive competition.” In other words, the courts believe that TREB is just trying to maintain a competitive advantage for its realtor members, by creating a market where they’re the best source of up-to-date, reliable home sales information.
What happens next?
TREB is using a last-ditch legal option: appealing to the Supreme Court. First, they’ll need the court to grant them leave to appeal, which is far from a certainty: the Supreme Court only grants a tiny fraction of the leave applications it receives. In the meantime, TREB has said it will seek to block the release of any data. The process will likely drag out for a while: it takes an average of three months for the Supreme Court to consider a leave application, and appeal judgments take an average of six months from the date of a hearing.
If the most recent decision holds, it will be a strong legal precedent for increased access to housing sales data: the Canadian Real Estate Association’s role as intervenor in the dispute is a clear sign the decision could have national ramifications. But don’t expect new online real estate services just yet. John Pasalis, president of the real estate brokerage Realosophy, told the Canadian Press that his company won’t be publishing any new information online until the Supreme Court case has concluded; real estate firm Zoocasa likewise said it would await instructions from TREB before posting sales information online.