Zillow: We Don’t Want to Become an MLS. Really. Honestly. Swear to God!

Zillow-logoGood stuff last week at Inman Real estate Connect in San Francisco when Brad Inman got Greg Schwartz, Chief Revenue Officer at Zillow, up on stage for a Brad-style grilling.

What’s the deal with these Coming Soon listings, asked Brad. Is Zillow trying to replace the MLS?

“We are a media company that helps people find homes,” he told Brad. He stated, probably 300 in the room as witnesses and “unequivocally”, that Zillow doesn’t want to be an MLS, or, for that matter, a broker.

“It is not our intention to be something that we’re not,” he said.

What Zillow is, now, is a company valued at $5 billion. And to think I knew them back when in 2007, two years after they launched.

Greg Schwartz

Greg Schwartz

But ever since Zillow’s Jabba the Hut-style aggressive marketing and gulpings of companies — StreetEasy last year, HotPads in 2012, Mortech in 2012, BuyFolio and RentJuice for the rental market — plus this month’s acquisition of Retsly, “a safe and transparent platform for creating beautiful real estate software” , many in the industry worry that Zillow is out to undermine the MLS. Maybe even replace it. The debate has heated up since Zillow’s introduction of “Coming Soon,” a feature that allows agents, brokers and MLS’s to market homes on Zillow for up to 30 days before listing them on the MLS.

Conpanies, hell, how about the talent siphoned out of Realtor.com, like Errol Samuelson.

Zillow, Schwartz said, created “Coming Soon” listings to clear up confusion for users who would spot properties on Zillow only to discover that they weren’t listed on the MLS.

And then Schwartz said: “because it’s happening we had to acknowledge it.”

It is happening. I’m hearing that 15 to 20% of the sales in the Dallas market are off market listings. We know the story, and I will soon be posting a personal anecdote as an example: the problem with hip pocket listings is that not putting a property in MLS doesn’t give it maximum exposure, which could lead sellers to accept an offer that’s less than what they might have received if they gave their homes the maximum exposure possible in an MLS. In my case, it was time.

Then there is also the fear that the main beneficiary is the listing agent or broker, who just nets a higher commission if they can represent both sides of the deal.

Well, when you are exposing a pocket listing to Zillow’s 82 million monthly unique visitors (that’s how many they have, wow!), Schwartz said in effect, hey that’s not your traditional little pocket listing.

Aha, said Brad Inman: then you are in effect creating an MLS , or undercutting the ones that exist.

Most agents I spoke with who were in the audience felt Schwartz was speaking out of both sides of his mouth. One audience member said Schwartz previously said he envisions providing real estate startups with data from hundreds of MLSs. The audience member said,

“You’re not wanting to be an MLS,” the attendee said. “But you bought a company that’s going to round up MLSs (Retsly) and put them on one platform?”

“Sort of,” answered Schwartz, (clearly squirming),but the acquisition “is so really interesting startups don’t have to hire industry relations” professionals to access MLS data.

Zillow apparently doesn’t plan to use the Retsly data, he said.

The national portal has two obsessions, Schwartz said: to delight consumers, “even if it’s controversial” and to live “in the big tent of organized real estate.”

Well, if they buy Trulia, they are not going to just be in the tent. They will damn well own it.