It took a a seven-year court battle between the Competition Bureau and the Toronto Real Estate Board for realtor Daniel Steinfeld and other realtors to have the right to to post home sales data. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Housing data decision opens door to real estate innovation, say realtors

TORONTO — Realtor Daniel Steinfeld has wanted to post home sales data on his business’ password-protected website for as long as he can remember, but it took a seven-year court battle between the Competition Bureau and the Toronto Real Estate Board for him and other realtors to land the right to publish the numbers.

Steinfeld, the owner of On the Block Realty and an online real estate auction platform that prevents blind bidding, is still working to get the information posted on his website, but he and other realtors think the right to publish the numbers could open the door to increased innovation in the Canadian real estate market.

“The more the barriers come down and access improves, it reduces people’s tentativeness in trying to do more,” said Steinfeld.

“Real estate is one of those weird industries that hasn’t seen a considerable amount of change in years and years and years. Releasing sales data isn’t really an innovation, but access to information and how you can use it is really what people are looking for and more and more people are going to find ways to do that.”

TREB, which began releasing the data through a feed on Tuesday, has restricted realtors from scraping, mining, selling, reselling, licensing, reorganizing or monetizing the data, but Steinfeld envisions a future where real estate companies will be able to increase their craftiness.

Already he’s imagined realtors using the data to build tools that create timelines of housing sales at a specific address or offer side-by-side comparisons of neighbourhoods or properties.

But those would pale in comparison to some of the innovations the American and British markets have seen. San Francisco-based Opendoor, for example, allows users to request an offer for their home from the company through an app. If the seller agrees to the offer and a commission fee, Opendoor buys the property and then flips it to another buyer, allowing the original seller to move on to their next home without the hassle of waiting for their place to sell.

Then there’s No Agent, a U.K. company that lives up to its name by allowing customers to sell their homes without a broker, and Reali, which allows buyers and sellers to complete their entire transaction through an app.

While none of the companies have announced plans to head to Toronto, the ability to publish the TREB data could empower international companies to set their sights on Canada, said Steinfeld.

Purplebricks, a commission-free real estate company, and Zillow, a prominent U.S. listings service, were both preparing for their entry into Canada in the months prior to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision not to hear the home sales data case, effectively forcing TREB to allow realtors to publish the numbers.

TREB had fought the release at three judicial bodies for seven years by arguing that allowing the numbers to be released on password-protected websites would infringe on privacy and copyright. The Competition Bureau insisted keeping the data under wraps was anti-competitive.

As the fight dragged on, real estate companies watched anxiously and probably realized, said Steinfeld, that they would be “remiss” if they didn’t enter the Canadian market.

“Anywhere there is business to be had or a problem to be solved, innovation should be welcomed,” he said. “Toronto being as big a market as it is, alongside Vancouver, is probably the most logical starting point for new innovations in real estate.”

Phil Soper, chief executive officer at Royal LePage, doesn’t think the TREB decision will be enough to push American innovators into Canada because many of them still have plenty more room to grow and markets to conquer in the U.S., but he still expects some novel ideas to come from Canadian companies.

His company, for example, will focus on trends by crunching the data to show what neighbourhoods have markets that are rising and falling, how price projections differ from what properties actually sold for and how investments, zoning and new schools are affecting the market.

“But it’s not like these things haven’t been occurring anyways,” he said, noting that Canadian real estate companies have toyed with artificial intelligence and maps to lure in customers.

“Perhaps this will excite consumers to be more open to using those kinds of tools rather than always using people.”

On top of innovations, Queen’s University real estate professor John Andrew said he expects TREB’s decision to spur the liberalization of data across the country.

Real estate boards in Calgary, Greater Moncton and B.C.’s Fraser Valley told The Canadian Press they were all looking at how to release their sales data following TREB’s move.

“Who knows what could be done with it,” he said. “We are only limited by our imaginations.”

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