BUSINESS

Closure of online brokerage Zoocasa sparks debate about real estate data

06/10/2015 12:11 EDT | Updated 06/10/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - An online real estate brokerage that publicized the selling prices of homes will be shuttered, several months after bowing to pressure from the Toronto Real Estate Board to stop publishing the contentious data.

Rogers announced Tuesday that it is shutting down its brokerage Zoocasa, which served as a referral service for some real estate agents, effective June 22.

The online brokerage used to send out a popular daily newsletter via email that provided the prices of recently sold homes in a bid to attract more traffic to its website.

But the company stopped sending the emails earlier this year after the Toronto Real Estate Board warned all of its members that those who break the rules about sharing sold data could lose their access to the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS.

Some industry observers say the closure demonstrates the extent of the monopoly that MLS has over Canada's real estate market.

"Zoocasa was trying to open up the Canadian market, much like it is in the U.S. where you can go online and get a lot of info on any home," Steve Pipkey, co-founder of Spin Mortgage, said in an email.

Sold data has been a topic of contention in Canada lately. Although realtors provide such information to their clients, Canada's largest real estate board arguing that publishing the data on publicly accessible websites breaches the privacy of consumers. The board has made some allowances for companies that provide the data to digital subscribers.

The Toronto Real Estate Board is embroiled in a court battle with the Competition Bureau over this topic. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for September, and many of the country's real estate boards will be watching the proceedings closely.

Some brokers, including Ara Mamourian, argue that agents striving to keep sold data private are doing so in a desperate attempt to maintain their relevance in a fast-evolving industry.

"A lot of realtors right now are trying to protect this data because they're so useless that their only value is standing in front of this data and releasing the information when you need it," said Mamourian, the broker of record at Spring Realty Inc.

The value of a realtor now is no longer in protecting highly coveted data but in helping home sellers interpret the information, Mamourian said.

"I can give you all the sold information you want, but you're still not going to be able to price your home properly unless you are deeply embedded in your neighbourhood and you see exactly what's happening day-to-day with that type of home."

Mamourian said Zoocasa's closure likely had nothing to do with the fact that it was pressured into canning its newsletters.

"They simply didn't get the volume they had hoped for because they really didn't offer anything unique and truly disruptive," Mamourian said.

Rokham Fard, co-founder of online realtor TheRedPin.Com, attributes Zoocasa's failure to the fact the brokerage didn't employ realtors, but merely handed off business to a group of agents from other brokerages. That left them unable to control the quality of service provided.

"They were advocating the right message, which is to bring more transparency and innovation to the business," said Fard.

"Unfortunately, one thing they didn't get right is the fact that real estate is actually an online and an offline business, and they didn't focus on the offline piece. ... People buy properties by interacting with other humans."

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