The federal Competition Tribunal plans to go ahead with a September 10 hearing into allegations of anti-competitive practices by the Toronto Real Estate Board despite an 11th hour constitutional challenge.
“This last-minute legal filing by TREB, just two weeks prior to the hearing, seeks to distract from TREB’s anti-competitive conduct,” said Competition Bureau spokesperson Bryan Parker in an email Tuesday.
In an 81-page document filed with Ottawa’s watchdog Friday, TREB claims the federal competition commission has no jurisdiction over provincially-regulated industries such as real estate.
TREB declined to comment on the filing Tuesday “out of respect for the courts and the Tribunal.”
It’s just the latest in the escalating war of words — and lawsuits — between TREB and departing Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken in a complex case that goes back more than five years and is aimed at ultimately forcing real estate boards right across the country to provide more open, online access to MLS data.
The pressure is coming from brokers like Lawrence Dale, president and CEO of Realtysellers Real Estate Inc., who want to set up virtual office websites (VOWs) — far more extensive online sites than Realtor.ca — that allow consumers to access sales history of homes. Opening the system up would also cut real estate costs by allowing buyers to do much of their own research from the comfort of their home computers.
While TREB maintains it’s concerned about privacy, this latest legal salvo is seen by opponents largely as a last-ditch attempt to protect traditional realtors from the threat of open online access as long as possible, with a legal challenge that has the potential to divert the competition case all the way to the Supreme Court.
“This isn’t some little, last-minute procedural thing. This is like a major bomb and I think (TREB) would like it to explode because it gets them a delay,” says Dale.
Realtors, and TREB, argue they spent millions in annual fees to get the MLS system up and running in the first place; that it’s a valuable proprietary tool for realtors which the Competition Commission is now simply trying to expropriate without compensation of any kind.
Nova Scotia realtor Bill McMullin has been running a virtual office website in that province since January, 2010 and is anxious to expand into Ontario. He’s frustrated by TREB’s “stubbornness” in opening up online access to MLS data, especially around the sale price of homes, as Nova Scotia’s biggest real estate board did years ago.
“It’s an irrational fear on the part of real estate boards that making that kind of information accessible directly to the consumer would reduce the need for a professional realtor,” said McMullin.
Although his site, ViewPoint.ca, offers a flat fee of just $950 to list a house on MLS, he finds most consumers opt for the more traditional realty offerings, at 3.5 per cent commission, because they are overwhelmed by all the work involved in selling their own home.
While ViewPoint.ca has had more than three million visitors the last 32 months, and racked up over 100 million page views (in a province of fewer than 1 million people where just 15,000 properties change hands every year), McMullin says there are now more licensed realtors in Nova Scotia than when he started his virtual office website.
“We compete on the basis of being fully transparent and efficient.”