What is the MLS?
The Multiple Listing Service (MLS) is a list or database of all homes for sale in an area. The MLS is used by Realtors to list properties for sale and find properties for buyers. In most markets, the MLS is used by agents at all large, medium, and most small real estate companies.
As you know, real estate agents seek out both buyers and sellers to work with. An agent helping a seller is referred to as the listing or seller agent, whereas an agent helping a buyer is called a buyer agent, or selling agent (although that is an out of date and confusing term).
When a listing agent finds a seller who wants to work with them, the listing agent has the seller sign a listing agreement detailing the terms (price of the property, length of the listing, what commission the seller will pay, etc.) of the listing. The agent (or administrative staff at their company) enters the listing information into the MLS and within seconds it is available to every other member. For every listing, the listing agent collects 150 to 600 detailed pieces of information about the property, everything from number of bedrooms, type of heating/cooling, and lots and lots of detail about the property. The agent also uploads one or more photo to attach to the listing, many MLSs accept and display 20 or more photos for a single listing, along with virtual tours, videos, pdf attachments and more.
When a buyer agent finds a buyer who wants to work with them, they find out what kind of property the buyer wants (price range, neighborhood, number of bedrooms, etc.). The buyer agent enters that information into an MLS search and the MLS tells them which listings fit their buyers criteria, along with all the details and photos entered by the listing agent. Most MLSs now allow the buyer agent to save that information and be alerted whenever a new listing is entered that meets the criteria, along with having an email automatically sent to their buyer. The buyer agent can also see the buyer agent commission being offered if they procure the buyer who successfully closes on the property.
The MLS is the only tool used by 99% of buyer agents -- only a handful of agents troll newspapers, drive streets, or visit websites looking for properties, and those agents are really looking for sellers, not a home for a buyer. Those agents work unlisted sellers in hopes of getting them to sign a listing agreement. As a seller, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than having your unlisted home sold by an agent finding your property and bringing their buyer.
The MLS used to be in book form, like a printed newsprint with all listing details and status (active, canceled, expired, sold, etc) as of the printing date. They looked like phone books, and were called the MLS books, Listing Book, Multi-list book and many other iterations. Most areas stopped printing the books in the late 1990s, in favor of using password protected databases that update within seconds. If there is still an MLS that prints the books then I am curious if they are delivered by horse and buggy. When I started in real estate in 1989, we mostly used books but I liked the huge desk sized computer that required us to push the telephone into suction cups, manually dial in with the modem, and print out everything because there was no screen. It was enormous, it looked like a desk-sized typewriter but that was real estate high tech in the late eighties.
Unlike the term Realtor, the National Association of Realtors was rejected in its attempt to trademark the term MLS. As a result, there are some websites that have MLS in the name that are not connected with the MLS people use and refer to, the Realtors MLS. Some of the websites with MLS in the name are real estate broker websites (who are members of one or more MLSs). Some are companies that have no affiliation with a Realtors MLS. I always recommend using a Better Business Bureau for just this reason, to avoid confusion.
Thank you for asking all the questions about the MLS, it is a deep, detailed subject and I enjoy exploring with you. I do hope to one day explore the history of the MLS, as I find it fascinating.
What is the MLS? Part 2
What is the MLS?