Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.
The RETS Stuff
February 1, 2004
Christopher Hodge has little interest in the technical underpinnings that make it possible for him to use his MLS as a tool for serving customers. The senior sales associate at Coldwell Banker Green-Mills & Associates in Bastrop, Texas, is content to know only two things about the technology: One, he can easily generate detailed and up-to-date information on listings. And two, the system now makes it a whole lot easier for him to access prospecting, marketing, and transaction management tools, among other programs.
These benefits are possible because in October, his MLS, the Austin Central Texas Real Estate Information Service, switched from proprietary technology to a system that’s compliant with the real estate transaction standards (RETS) protocol. The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and other industry groups launched RETS in 1999.
RETS standardizes the method that MLSs use to transport data to brokers and their Web sites, software, and databases. Standardization makes it more cost-effective for technology companies to develop applications for MLSs—and ultimately for brokers as well.
One such application, SOAR e-MLS, developed by Soar Solutions Inc. in Naperville, Ill., automatically queries an MLS database on the most recent listings that fit a participating buyer’s profile and sends the updated information to the buyer, says Charles Willits, chief information officer at the Naples (Fla.) Area Board of REALTORS®, which also recently switched to a RETS-based system. The Naples board shares MLS services with several area REALTOR® boards.
Unlike typical file transfer protocol systems that update data once a day, SOAR is continually updated, because it’s accessed via a RETS system. The product, which is marketed as a salesperson enhancement tool, also enables MLS data to be converted into a format that can be imported into desktop applications, such as for posting at a Web site or creating a marketing brochure.
SOAR’s functionality isn’t just owed to RETS. Indeed, non-RETS-based systems may very well have similar functionality, but they may be less adaptable at transporting data in a increasingly RETS-compliant industry.
Although firm numbers are still being compiled, most major MLS vendors now offer a RETS-compliant solution, says Kevin McQueen, president of Focus Forward Consulting in Novi, Mich., which is working on RETS for NAR.
What makes it RETS?
RETS-compliant systems aren’t limited to Internet-based MLSs; RETS can also be adapted to so-called legacy systems, those systems using proprietary software installed on a PC.
What’s different about RETS-based systems is what technologists call their open architecture. Because RETS systems adhere to agreed-upon standards developed by a broad swath of the real estate industry, including many large MLSs and technology vendors, the products speak the same data-transfer language. That common language has given technology companies an incentive to develop increasingly innovative systems and tools specifically for the industry.
As those tools come online, brokers and MLSs can add them without the major disruptions that typically characterize system changes and add-ons.
Technology companies with some RETS-compliant products include Showing Time, Tarasoft, Top Producer, Interealty, Software Tree Inc., Rappattoni Corp., and Wyldfyre.
For RETS to work, it must be enabled on the MLS server and on the client side, such as on broker computers that initiate a data request and receive data from a RETS MLS.
With RETS in place, you can export MLS data for use in a variety of ways without having to standardize it especially for your purpose, says Willits. As a result, “MLS vendors can add other technologies that retrieve that data without having to make custom exports,” he says.
Obtaining data from MLSs without custom exports saves the vendor time and money and thus reduces costs to the MLS and, ultimately, to the broker.
Perhaps most important, widespread use of RETS will make it easier for brokers to make the transition when their MLS decides to change technology vendors.
The challenges that come with such a change are well known to Robert (Bob) McMillan, CRB, CRS®, broker-owner of Coldwell Banker McMillan & Associates in Decatur, Ala.
Two years ago, his local board, the Morgan County Association of REALTORS®, merged its MLS system with the North Alabama Regional Information System, in Huntsville, requiring members to move from one proprietary MLS system to another. The new MLS vendor had to customize a file transfer protocol to convert the listing data from the old system to the new one.
The MLS needed an entire year to migrate the data over and check for duplication, McMillan says, and during that year had to operate dual systems. Service disruption was a major problem.
“Had the systems been RETS-compliant, it would’ve been so much easier,” says McMillan, a past president of the local board.
That’s not all. At the time of the conversion, the local MLS had 600 active listings and 1,000 archived listings of sold properties. The archived listings never made it into the new system. “It was too time-consuming to input the archives into the new system,” says McMillan. As a result, the MLS has no record of those sold listings—they’re now inaccessible on the former system, which has been shut down.
Attracting the big players
The benefits to brokers and associates of belonging to a RETS-compliant MLS system will become more clear in time, says Mark Lesswing, vice president of NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology, which offers technology guidance and advocacy. That’s because the universe of RETS-compliant systems is now reaching the critical mass needed to attract major technology companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, to the real estate market. HP, for instance, is interested in developing a RETS-compliant printer targeted to MLSs and brokers, according to CRT.
“The major technology vendors never would’ve touched this industry before,” says Lesswing. “It just wasn’t cost-effective for them.”
That left the field to the smaller players and made system development expensive, because vendors had to customize export mechanisms for every system they built.
“Without standards, you might need 500 different formats to support the more than 800 MLS operations,” says Lesswing. “So vendors have to build one application per market. Now companies can take that same research-and-development expense and build one format that can be used throughout the RETS-compliant universe.”
Even non-technology-oriented brokers and associates will eventually feel the impact of RETS.
“When brokers and associates start seeing the products that are being marketed, they’ll want them,” says McMillan. “When they call the vendor, they’ll learn that the MLS must have RETS for them to take full advantage of the product. They won’t necessarily know what RETS is, but they’ll find out. When we get a critical mass of people wanting RETS-based products, they’ll push for it at their MLS.”
Brokers gain no benefit from real estate transaction standards unless their MLS participates in a RETS-based server. That’s because RETS-compliant solutions work in pairs. Both the broker and the MLS must use the open-source data transport system. Here are the advantages to you if your MLS participates:
- Quick, reliable data access. Data is retrievable on an as-needed basis, as opposed to once a day in a typical file export or file transfer protocol (FTP) system.
- Increasing product choices. As more technology providers find it cost-effective to develop real estate–specific products, brokers gain access to faster, more functional applications.
- Easier cross-use of data. Because MLS data can be dropped into any format, photos, virtual tours, and other media can be easily appropriated for advertising, in-house broker systems, and Web sites, including for marketing under NAR’s Internet Data Exchange (IDX) rules.
- Cost-effective access to multiple MLSs. Brokers don’t need to operate different systems to access data from the different MLSs in which they participate. That reduces costs, including by streamlining changes and upgrades.
- Easier MLS system conversion. Broker systems face less disruption than with proprietary systems should their MLS convert from one RETS-based system to another.
Adapted from “RETS: What You Need to Know,” by Focus Forward Consulting, for NAR, November 2002.
RETS doesn’t add to costs
Brokers who participate in decisions regarding their MLS may wonder what they’d pay to retrofit, or replace, their system with one that’s RETS-compliant.
RETS-compliant features themselves don’t necessarily add to the costs of an MLS system or the MLS applications that interact with the systems, says Kevin McQueen, president of Focus Forward Consulting in Novi, Mich., which is working on RETS for NAR.
The cost of replacing a system with one that’s RETS-compliant is typically based on the new system’s functionality. RETS compliance is just one function of that and is included in the system’s price. “Contact your MLS vendor, or if you’re considering a new vendor, ask if a RETS-compliant server is available with the new system,” says McQueen.
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