Introduction to MLS

Technology makes everything better. Right?

introduction to MLSRemember life before the Internet? Before the introduction of MLS? Probably not. But try to imagine not being able to just type a couple of words into a machine and have everything ever mentioned on the subject come flowing back to you in nanoseconds like nectar from Olympus.

Let us help you qualify for a low-rate mortgage.

Quote, please!

Sounds pretty terrible, right? Well, you don’t have to worry about it, because everything, including most homes for sale in your area, can be found online. You just need to know where to look for it. Fortunately, like most things Internet-related, it’s not that hard to find.

Your new friend, MLS

Back in the day, when you wanted to buy a home, you would have to ride your horse up and down every street in every neighborhood you might be willing to live in, until you saw a For Sale sign. Then you would have to knock on the front door to ask the price, the square footage, how many bedrooms and bathrooms it had, what year it was built, and whether those counter tops were real granite or just laminate. Most likely, the scullery maid who answered the door wouldn’t know all that stuff, and you would have to wait until the master got home, and ask him. Which could take a long time, because remember, you’re all riding horses, and the master could be several towns over. Needless to say, finding the right house took a lot of work, so most people just remained nomads.*

Eventually, they invented real estate agents, who made it their job to know all the houses in town that were up for sale and how much the owners were asking. If someone wanted to buy a house, they could ask an agent for help. The agent might know of a lot of nice places to go look at that met the buyer’s criteria. But no agent could know every house for sale across a booming metropolis; keeping up all the homes as they’re built, bought, and sold can take a ton of effort, even in a small town.

So the agents formed alliances, and started sending each other their listings. That way, if one agent was helping a client sell a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom bungalow near the university, and another agent was helping a client buy the very same thing, they could easily connect and make a deal.

Home shopping? There’s an app for that.

Introduction to MLS

One innovation led to another, and eventually we wound up with MLS, or Multiple Listing Service. MLS isn’t any one company or system, but a general term to describe an online database of all the properties for sale within a given market. Numerous agents contribute their own listings to MLS, and get access to each others’ listings in return. Better systems publish a host of useful information, including tax, survey, and municipal information, in addition to all the obvious things a buyer would want to know about a property. A good MLS will also allow for a variety of search methods, enabling users to quickly find properties that closely match their criteria.

Like most things, MLS systems started small; typically agents within a town, or even within a single brokerage, shared a computerized system to make their jobs easier. But they quickly merged together to give their members joint access to entire metropolitan areas, regions, and states.

Not all MLS’s are created equal

In the early days, only dues-paying agents could access MLS to search for homes. Many brokers and MLS administrators hesitated to give access to the public because they feared it would encourage people to bypass the agents who were paying them the dues that kept them in business. Many markets still maintain a private MLS for this reason. But plenty of associations, and even for-profit MLS companies, now have a public-facing system and have grown immensely as a result. Home buyers are able to conduct their own searches at their leisure, and spare their agent the fairly mundane task of checking boxes and emailing lists. But agents are still needed–in most cases–to go and visit the properties, as well as to list properties for sale. And very few people would be brave/silly enough to engage in a financial transaction totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars without expert help, so agents will remain necessary for a long time to come, even as many aspects of their traditional workload become automated. While some would disagree, the general consensus says that opening MLS to the public has benefited the real estate industry immensely.

Where to find listing services

There’s a good chance the area where you live has an association for real estate agents, and that this association either has an MLS, or belongs to a larger association that has an MLS. If you’re searching for a home in an area you’re just moving to, however, it may be tricky to track down the local MLS, and there’s a small chance it may be one of those hold-outs that won’t let you see the listings, anyway.

Fortunately for the home buyer, there are a number of enormous, successful companies whose primary service is to provide open MLS access to people like you, so you can shop for a house on your own time. Some of these systems have many–if not most–of the active listings across the entire United States, and many home buyers begin their search on these sites.


Trulia (this one was recently acquired by Zillow, but their websites are still different)

To get an appreciation for how much a good, solid MLS helps you with your home search, click on a link above and browse around the listings. Imagine how hard it would be to find all that information on your own!

And remember that MLS is also your friend if you’re trying to sell your home. In the old days, your options were basically:

  1. Put a sign in your yard
  2. Put an ad in the paper
  3. Walk around town telling everyone you see that you had a house for sale

But with MLS, you can get your listing in front of an immense number of people who are using the same technology to find exactly what you’re trying to sell. Welcome to the twenty-first century. Be grateful.

*This description of home buying in ancient times is not necessarily indicative of any one culture or point in time, but it certainly illustrates the point, no?